CENTRAL ASIA PLUS
Apr 10, 2023
NOTE: During the second half of March, Caspian Policy Center colleagues and I teamed up with a Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies graduate practicum to travel for two weeks in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. My own specific interest was to learn on the ground what is happening in Central Asia as a result of Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine and China’s steadily growing influence in the region. This article draws from many excellent meetings and conversations, including at the U.S. Embassies in Tashkent and Astana.
Each of the five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – keenly values its sovereignty. From nearly the beginning of their independence three decades ago, each in its own way has practiced what Kazakhstan first described as multi-vector foreign policy, working to balance the influences of Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The United States has long sponsored the C5+1 format for ministerial and other meetings. Japan and South Korea, and more recently China, India, and the European Union, also use the same format. But the five countries themselves seldom, if ever, met together during the early years of their independence.
However, starting in 2017, the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries began meeting in the C5 format without a plus one. The change in presidential leadership in Uzbekistan seems to have triggered this willingness to work together to explore options for cooperation and connectivity, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have now taken the lead in this process. As a result of the first C5 summit in 2017, the five began to study the examples of specifically the Nordic Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Both of those groupings focus their member-countries on economic and other forms of mutually beneficial cooperation without giving up their individual political sovereignties.
It’s worth noting that both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are realistic about their partner, Turkmenistan. We repeatedly heard that Ashgabat’s “permanent neutrality,” as well as a number of its other policies, has long kept that potentially important nation self-isolated to the extent that some Western commentators have called Turkmenistan the North Korea of Central Asia. Of course that’s a flippant and gross exaggeration. But it was intriguing to hear repeatedly that Ashgabat is currently taking small steps to be more open to its regional neighbors. These interlocutors expressed faith that these hesitant first steps toward regional cooperation will certainly grow over time, although steady and enduring patience will be required.
During our current visit, one of our foreign-minister interlocutors repeatedly used the term, Central Asia Plus, to echo how important it is for the region, as a whole, not only to work together but also to look outward and beyond the region’s traditional competing powers. He, like others, noted it’s becoming increasingly clear that no one single country can solve the current problems of the region. He emphasized the view that it’s essential for the five not only to work more closely together but to join hands to build broader and stronger external relationships.
For Uzbekistan that has a common border with Afghanistan, that means especially finding realistic ways to work with the Taliban leadership and to try to help them see beyond their own narrowly circumscribed world. For example, Tashkent is working with the current leadership in Afghanistan on coordinating, with the assistance of Azerbaijan, their industrial cooperation and discussing the possibility of mutually constructing cascade hydropower stations. Furthermore, Uzbekistan has established a professional training center in Termez for 600 young Afghan men and women.
For Kazakhstan, the outward vision increasingly means looking across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan as an essential partner for the region, especially because of Astana’s and Baku’s common interest in transiting the Caspian region’s oil and natural gas onward to Europe without relying solely on existing Russian pipelines. And, as more than a few in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan pointed out, it means working more closely with the Gulf nations and with Türkiye via the Organization of Turkic States.
The elephant (growling bear?) in the Central Asian room has always been Russia. From early on, Moscow more or less tolerated Beijing’s growing influence in the region but did everything it could to try to limit the influence of Brussels and Washington. However, Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its second year, seems to have shifted how Central Asia sees and – more importantly – deals with Moscow. Not one of the five countries has supported the war, and several have sent significant humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine. One of our senior interlocutors described what he called a subtle but important shift in the region. In the past, Russia provided Central Asia export access to the world. Now, however, that has become reversed with Central Asia providing Russia export access to the world, at least within the limits required by international sanctions against Russia.
If Moscow is the elephant in the Central Asian room, Beijing has become the metaphorical Daddy Warbucks flashing around money for China’s Belt and Road Initiative that in the region is increasingly known as the Middle Corridor, providing transit from China to Europe without going through Russia. All of our interlocutors expressed cautious approval of China’s current role in the region. One specifically noted that Beijing, unlike Moscow, does not put ideological pressure on the Central Asian governments. He explained that even if China sides with Russia in public, it’s highly unlikely that Beijing approves of Moscow’s war in Ukraine and certainly does not suggest, even behind closed doors, that the Central Asian leaders should accept Putin’s war. He added he was pleased that Chinese diplomats consistently emphasize, both in public statements and in private conversations, the importance of territorial integrity. He emphasized that sends a welcome message to the governments in Central Asia.
In all of our meetings, we asked, “What do you want from the United States?” The replies were not much different from what has commonly been heard in the past: more U.S. business investment in the national economies, stability in Afghanistan, and help with the vexing regional problem of water scarcity that is increasingly exacerbated by climate change.
However, one reply did indeed stand out. “Please tell your government to involve Azerbaijan in your C5+1. We very much need Washington to see our Caspian region as a whole.”