CPC COMMENTARY: THE TIME HAS COME FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN TO ANNOUNCE A C8+1
Sep 14, 2023
During the third week of September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. President Joseph Biden will conduct the first-ever C5+1 Summit with the leaders of the five post-Soviet Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the recent past, the Central Asian leaders have met often with the leaders of Russia and China, and in January 2022 President Narendra Modi met, in a virtual format, with the five for the first time. The Central Asian states also have a long-established history of meeting in this format with Japan and South Korea. But the United States has never raised the meeting to the presidential level until now.
The original U.S. C5+1 format with the United States was established in 2015 during the Obama administration. The purpose then, as it is now, was to discuss issues of common concern among the Central Asian states and to strengthen the U.S. relationship with them in which Washington takes a whole-of-government approach, meaning that any possible issue of mutual concern is potentially on the table. The United States also consistently encouraged the Central Asian leaders to work more closely together. To their credit, they met for the first time in 2017 in the C5 format without a plus-one, and they began to explore the possibility of forming some sort of regional association where the “stronger together” catch phrase would become a reality.
The Central Asian states themselves generally follow a foreign policy that Kazakhstan first described as “multi-vector,” meaning that their goal is to balance their relationships among Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. In the past, observers have sometimes called this a New Great Game, but Washington has always strongly rejected that term, explaining that it is in the region’s interest for Washington to offer an alternative to Moscow and Beijing but not to compete with them.
In fact, such competition would be difficult. President Putin has long declared Central Asia as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and at times he has upped the ante by calling it part of Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. For the past decade, China has played an ever increasing role in Central Asia since it announced in September 2013 at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, its massive international investment scheme, including in Central Asia, that has since come to be called the Belt and Road Initiative.
The balance of international relations in Central Asia chugged along relatively smoothly until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal military invasion of Ukraine early in 2022. The shock of that event in Central Asia caused those countries to think, “If it happened there, it could happen here!” And that was an historic turning point. Likewise, the subsequent international sanctions against Russia, by far Central Asia’s biggest trading partner, as well as the emergence of the concept of a Middle Corridor through Central Asia for trade between China and Europe, has led to the need for the Central Asian leaders to recalibrate their international relations and build connectivity where they never before really needed it.
Because the international relations of the past three decades in the region have reached a turning point, there is one significant step that Washington could take, other than strongly encouraging the five to form their own regional organization, and that would be to enlarge its existing C5+1 to become the C8+1 that would include the trans-Caspian independent states of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The emerging concept of the Middle Corridor has already done this to an extent, and it would make great sense for Washington to catch up with history and move in this direction.
Inevitably, some in Washington would push back that Armenia and Georgia are essentially European and that only Azerbaijan, predominantly Islamic, would maybe fit into this idea. But that’s creating a false dichotomy. All eight are already strongly bound together by their shared history and politics over the last 200 years. They are much more similar than they are different.
If Washington has chosen to up its image and further cement its relations in the post-Soviet region, as it has chosen to do with the upcoming C5+1 Summit, then it would make eminent sense for President Biden to propose a C8+1 when he soon meets with the Central Asian leaders in New York.