March 20, 2023

IntelBrief: Is The United States a Viable Partner for Central Asia in a Strategic Competition?

Olivier Douliery/Pool Photo via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Central Asia reflects Washington’s desire to engage countries on its adversaries’ peripheries; Kazakhstan is especially cognizant of being sandwiched between two increasingly assertive neighbors, with the U.S. seen as a viable counterbalance.
  • Since the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, rumors have swirled about Washington’s intentions to establish a joint base in Central Asia to support “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations.
  • China’s growing predominance in Central Asia threatens Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and may produce geopolitical fissures in the future as both countries seek to consolidate their power and China adopts a more “proactive” posture at home and abroad.
  • The history and geopolitics of Central Asia will always make the countries reliant on Russia and China, but establishing the United States as a foreign policy alternative when balancing is needed could be an attractive option in the region.

In early March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before traveling onwards to the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in India. Blinken meeting with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan was the first ministerial-level engagement of the C5+1 Diplomatic Platform since it was founded in 2015. The visit and accompanying meetings also occurred at a critical time, just following the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Moscow. Russia considers the former USSR countries of Central Asia its traditional sphere of influence, while China has in the last decade made significant economic inroads in the region through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, Blinken's visit illustrates on the one hand a desire for Washington to engage countries on its adversaries' peripheries and on the other hand that Kazakhstan, especially, is cognizant of being caught between two increasingly assertive neighbors, with Washington representing a viable option of balancing.

Whether American policymakers are willing to admit it or not, Central Asia is a region that has never been treated as important in and of its own right. Instead, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has almost exclusively focused on the security threats emanating from the region. In the early 1990s, Washington worked to safeguard Soviet nuclear and biological weapons left in the region. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. interests in Central Asia have largely been framed through a zero-sum lens of logistics and counterterrorism. Central Asia served as an important supply route for NATO and U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan, through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). In 2014, an estimated 75 percent of all ground sustainment cargo was shipped through the NDN. Until its closure in 2014, the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan served as the theater gateway for coalition forces entering and exiting Afghanistan. With the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, rumors have swirled about Washington’s intentions to establish a joint base in Central Asia to support “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations.

In the 21st Century, China has become an increasingly important economic and – to a lesser extent – security player in the region. China’s formation of inroads and influence in Central Asia has been swift and shaped by its BRI, where Beijing has rapidly become the money guarantor of a region in desperate need of investment opportunities. Although Russia and China are united in their opposition to U.S. hegemony and preference for a multipolar world, the two neighbors have a series of divergent security interests. China’s growing presence in Central Asia is a direct threat to Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and may trigger a geopolitical rift between the two in the future. China’s military diplomacy, as well as bi-and multilateral military exercises focused on counterterrorism and border security, will inevitably infringe upon Moscow’s security interests, and may undermine the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Following on the recent 24-character “strategy” released by President Xi, it is likely China will continue to adopt a more proactive posture at home and abroad, a departure from the earlier defensive posture prioritizing a low profile.

Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine has also made Central Asian countries wary of Moscow’s intentions. Kazakhstan is especially concerned, even though it benefited from a swift Russian military intervention in 2022, which helped put down popular protests. Despite these concerns, no Central Asian country has taken a strong position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; as the UN General Assembly marked the one year anniversary of the invasion in February, not a single Central Asian state voted in favor of the resolution demanding that Russia leave Ukraine. At the same time, the threat of an assertive neighbor seeking to potentially establish old USSR borders likely prompted Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to voice support for the sovereignty of Ukraine. The positive reception accorded Xi Jinping – compared to that given Vladimir Putin – during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan last year was illustrative of which partner some Central Asian countries may find more reliable.

At the same time, Blinken’s visit has raised the possibility of the U.S. serving as alternative partner for Central Asian states caught between two overbearing neighbors. The history and geopolitics of Central Asia will always make the region reliant on Russia and China but establishing the United States as a foreign policy alternative could provide Central Asian leaders newfound diplomatic room for maneuver. It is important that U.S. policy vis-à-vis Central Asia does not fall into old habits of only seeing the region through a security lens. Instead, it would serve Washington well to implement policy that reflects geopolitical realities and advances policy objectives that aim to allow Central Asian countries to adequately balance between Russian and Chinese interests, fostering progress on regional development, governance, and protections of human rights for their citizens.

The United States should use its unique position as a regional outsider to act as a mediator and host for dialogue within Central Asia. The U.S. should avoid forcing Central Asian states to pick sides in the strategic competition between the U.S. and China. The U.S. must also be wary of antagonizing Russia and China by assuming an outsized leadership role in the region. The UN regional office in Central Asia, which serves as a much-needed platform for regional dialogue and engagement, is yet another instrument the United States could leverage in fostering a more dynamic and cooperative relationship with states in the region, while simultaneously boosting multilateralism. In addition, offering U.S. economic assistance to Central Asian states would help them recover from the ripple effects of the sanctions placed on Russia. Both initiatives can also be undertaken in a collaborative approach with the European Union. Multilateralism in Central Asia will not be easily or quickly achieved. But it is more likely that a multilateral approach crafted by liberal democracies will produce sustainable progress aimed at promoting Central Asian autonomy and independence.