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uk upgrades its relations with central asia

UK Upgrades Its Relations with Central Asia

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Apr 29, 2024

Image source: proreforms.uz

Central Asia played host to a surprisingly high-profile visitor this April, the United Kingdom (UK) Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron, who has already had an active role as the UK’s foreign minister in the Middle East and Ukraine, arrived on April 22 in Tajikistan, making him the first British Foreign Minister ever to do so. His trip included all five Central Asian states, as well as Mongolia. Cameron appears to be attempting to pull Central Asia westward and building relations in light of Central Asia’s increasing role in world trade. 

The UK Foreign Secretary’s official statements in relation to the trip outlined a focus on boosting economic relations and readiness to tackle climate change. His statement also emphasized educational opportunities for Central Asian students, announcing new programs for English language education in the region, and increasing the number of scholarships for foreign nationals to study in British universities. He likewise announced a £50 million investment in the region over three years, aimed at boosting growth and trade. His visits to the five Central Asian republics entailed discussions reportedly focusing on these issues.

While goals such as economic and education cooperation are all likely genuine, they should be read within the context of Central Asia’s increasingly important geopolitical role. Officials throughout the Trans-Atlantic block have made it clear that they want to connect formerly Russian-aligned or -influenced states with the West, something that at times has played out in terms of economic or infrastructure projects. While speaking with local media in Kyrgyzstan, Cameron outlined opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine, framing it as an issue of sovereignty relevant to all countries. In a video released by Cameron about his trip, the Foreign Secretary explained his view that “in a more competitive and contested world, if you want to protect and promote British interests, you have to go out there and compete.”

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed that Cameron also sought to “advance discussions on sanctions circumvention,” something touched upon in his Uzbek op-ed and a more potentially fraught issue given the problem of dual-use goods transiting Central Asia to Russia and cases of sanctions evasion. While often less explicitly identified, newfound British attention to Central Asia might also relate to China, whose influence Western countries have increasingly criticized.

Even beyond questions of geopolitical influence, however, Central Asia is fast becoming a zone of interest across the wider world. The buildup of the Middle Corridor, an alternative route for goods transversing to Europe from China without going through Russia, alongside the growing critical minerals and natural gas sectors, all point to greater relevance for Central Asia for European capitals. Cameron’s trip therefore seems to fit into a pattern of Western leaders and institutions recognizing this and acting accordingly. Other instances include President Biden’s September meeting with the Central Asian heads of state, the U.S. establishment of the Critical Mineral Dialogue, and the EU’s €10 billion Central Asia infrastructure investment in January.

For the UK specifically, the fact that Britain is no longer part of the European Union could require a more proactive foreign policy, no longer being able to take part in the benefits of European initiatives. London might be looking to the growing ambitions of U.S. and EU approaches in the region and wonder if they are missing out. Interest goes beyond Cameron himself, with the UK’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee publishing a report in November 2023 that recommended heightened engagement with Central Asia.

Cameron’s visit led to a flurry of developments. He signed new memorandums of understanding and agreements with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, expanding economic cooperation and beginning direct flights from the UK to Tajikistan. Alongside high-level meetings, Cameron made sure to have a heavy public-facing aspect to the trip. He spoke with locally based media in Kyrgyzstan and published an op-ed in Uzbekistan's Gazeta.uz, expressing his desire to push Uzbek-British relations further and pursue shared goals of respect for territorial integrity (a likely reference to Russia’s war on Ukraine), economic growth, and education cooperation.

Cameron has stated that he hopes his trip to the region will inaugurate a “new era” of diplomacy between Britain and Central Asia. While since the collapse of the Soviet Union Britain has not been significantly involved in Central Asia, April’s visit does seem to signal an ambition on the part of London to change that and make Britain an active participant in the region.

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