As President Donald Trump is traveling through Asia, China's Belt and Road Initiative, which envisages a $2 trillion investment in the Eastern Hemisphere’s infrastructure, and which is championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, is going to be front and center in U.S.-China talks.
However, a nearby strategic region is still awaiting the first visit by a U.S. president since it gained independence from the Soviet Union almost 26 years ago. The five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not often mentioned in the news and seem distant and irrelevant to most Americans.
Looking closely at the map, the region is vital for the success of the U.S. strategy in war-torn Afghanistan and its economic reintegration into South Central Asia.
While President Trump is committed to succeed in Afghanistan, his administration must recognize the importance of Central Asia for the lasting peace and stability in that critical part of the world.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., American security interests in the heart of Eurasia have revolved around three questions: the security of Afghanistan, stability in the wider region hosting supply lines to Afghanistan, and European energy security. After NATO troops started withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2015, the Obama administration promoted the New Silk Road vision. But funding and political commitment remained lacking.
Subsequently, China eclipsed that idea with not one Silk Road, but two — its Belt and Road Initiative includes roads and railways throughout the landmass of Central Asia, and ports along the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
China is gradually superseding Russian influence in the region. While Moscow has perceived the region as its imperial backyard and a bulwark against invasion from the south, Beijing sees it as a gateway to Europe, having current trade with the EU worth more than €1 billion a day.
However, unlike the U.S., Beijing’s goal is not linking Afghanistan with the rest of the region through a network of roads and railways, therefore, it will not contribute much to improving economic conditions in Afghanistan, curtailing narcotics trafficking and cutting terrorist groups funding, as Washington plans. In fact, China’s Central Asian strategy aims to offset both Russian and American influence in the region and, thus, secure Beijing’s geopolitical advantage vis-à-vis Moscow and Washington.
While the Central Asian republics will benefit from the vast China-led infrastructure projects, they are understandably also worried about becoming heavily indebted and losing sovereignty to the great Eastern power. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently warned of the danger of predatory economics, stressing the U.S. “will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order, and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.”
Finding sources of financing for these states is key, but the more important one is finding a way for the U.S. to stay consistently and continuously engaged with countries that are critical to U.S. foreign policy and security, while facing clashing geopolitical currents.
One country stands out in the region as a bulwark of stability. U.S.-Kazakhstan relations — robust and consistent for more than 25 years — can serve as a model for the Central Asian region. This former Soviet republic, which is four times the size of Texas, has maintained a successful multivector foreign policy — precisely because good relations with the U.S. have been its centerpiece.
The two countries have maintained a Strategic Partnership Dialogue since 2012, which includes nuclear nonproliferation (Kazakhstan gave up its strategic nuclear weapons stockpile inherited from the Soviet Union with U.S. assistance), counterterrorism, trade, energy, science and technology, rule of law, and democracy.
The United States is one of the top foreign investors in Kazakhstan, with many American companies investing more than $26 billion in Kazakhstan, mainly in natural resources, manufacturing, and services. The trade turnover between the two nations totaled $1.4 billion in 2016, and more than 400 U.S.-Kazakh joint ventures have contributed to both countries’ economies. Importation of 8,000 American cows and bulls to improve local stock — flown by planes from farms in North Dakota — is a fun fact.
Kazakhstan has put significant efforts to carve its place in the international arena by seeking leadership positions in organizations with Western participation. Kazakhstan currently holds a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for two years (2017-2018); it chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010; and has been an active member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. As a reliable security and economic actor, despite its struggles with the rule of law and democratic transition, Kazakhstan has gained trust among Western partners.
But one country’s example alone will not bring the much needed stability and prosperity in the region that borders Afghanistan. The model of successful U.S.-Kazakhstan relations must expand to all Central Asian countries. U.S. companies, including General Motors, have already invested in Uzbekistan, the most populous of the five former Soviet republics. Washington has also renewed military cooperation with Uzbekistan since 2010, including the transfer of 308 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (known as MRAPs) and 20 armored recovery vehicles to Uzbekistan in 2015. With economic growth rates surpassing those in Europe, significant natural resources and large young populations (median age of 26 years), the Central Asian countries could offer immense economic opportunities to U.S. companies.
And for the first time in 25 years, Central Asia seems to be on a path of promising regional cooperation, after Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new president of Uzbekistan, made it his priority. For decades, Uzbekistan resisted the efforts to achieve regional unity, but this is now remarkably changing.
The United States has a chance now to expand its engagement with Central Asia as a region — to secure stability around Afghanistan, help counter narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan and cut terrorism funding, and balance the two major regional powers, Russia and China. This may not take the tens of billions of dollars China is investing, but it will take political will, focus and consistency in U.S. policy — an important policy plank for Mr. Trump en route to Asia.