Pompeo Embarks on Visit to Central Asia
On January 30, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out on a diplomatic tour through Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. In Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, Pompeo met with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev; the previous President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; and Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi. The purpose of this meeting, according to a Senior State Department Official’s statement, was to “reaffirm our enhanced strategic partnership and discuss avenues to increase bilateral trade and investment.” The official also confirmed that the United States is eager to continue to extend its economic involvement with Kazakhstan. While in Nur-Sultan, Pompeo praised Kazakhstan’s great strides in enacting reforms ever since Tokayev’s election.
Pompeo also traveled to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, to meet with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. There he reaffirmed the United States’ support for Mirziyoyev’s reforms, as well as U.S. support of Uzbekistan’s strengthened sovereignty and independence. While speaking with Kamilov, Pompeo stated that Uzbekistan “deserves praise for its progress on human rights issues,” which signals a strengthened bond between the two nations. While in Tashkent, Pompeo convened with foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan during a C5+1 ministerial to discuss plans for increasing regional cooperation in trade, infrastructure, and strategy for combatting security threats. They also discussed plans for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
There has been confirmation that Pompeo discussed the human-rights issues currently occurring in Xinjiang, China, against Muslim citizens during his time in Kazakhstan. He urged Kazakhstan to take a stand by not extraditing those that escaped China to seek asylum. Pompeo even went as far as to meet with some of the ethnic Kazakhs that escaped China to discuss their plight. China has voiced its opposition to U.S. intervention in the region. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang recently stated: “On the real situation in Xinjiang, the five Central Asian countries have an even better understanding than the United States and greater right to speak about it.” This indicates that increased U.S. comments about Xinjiang’s internal affairs could inflate U.S.-China tensions.
Pompeo was previously scheduled to embark on this trip on January 3, 2020, however, tensions in Iraq precipitated his delay because his presence was needed to monitor the growing situation in Iraq. Pompeo’s travels to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan foreshadow a possible strengthening of relations between the United States and Central Asia. During a time when the United States has experienced growing tensions with Russia and China, it is reasonable for the United States to make clear its own interest in Central Asia. A visible, high-level U.S. presence in the region, like the visit of Secretary of State Pompeo, makes clear that that United States remains a significant partner for the Central Asian states.
The Caspian Policy Center’s (CPC) Security and Politics Program Chair, Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland, commented about the visit: “While visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and meeting with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian nations in the C5+1 format, Secretary of State Pompeo stressed ‘the need for stronger regional coordination and accelerated progress … to advance stability and prosperity in the region.’ His visit also made clear that the United States remains a reliable friend and responsible investor in this strategic region dealing with persistent pressure from Russia and the ever-growing influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”
Indeed, the United States’ increased involvement in Central Asia bodes well for the region. Since strengthening the self-sufficiency of Central Asian countries is currently in the best interests of the United States, Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would benefit from increased U.S. backing. Pompeo’s visit can supply these countries with both economic and political support to increase and reaffirm their own levels of independence. The United States is geographically on the other side of the world, but it remains an important partner for the Central Asian states.