Events in Washington Address Renewed U.S. Policy on Central Asia, Geopolitics in Region

ASTANA – Over two days last week, three events – academic and political – in Washington D.C. addressed geopolitics and strategy in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, following the news that the United States had recently completed an interagency review of its policy for the region.

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Both Richard Hoagland, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, speaking at Georgetown University on March 30, and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, addressing the Brookings Institution on March 31, reassured listeners of their country’s plans to remain engaged in the region as international troops leave Afghanistan and stressed that increasing Chinese investment in the region complements U.S. goals.

Also on March 31, three academics from Almaty’s Al-Farabi University spoke at a Johns Hopkins University Central Asia-Caucasus Institute panel about their nation’s security in a complex geopolitical context.

In his remarks, Blinken dismissed fears that Central Asia would be less important to the U.S. after the troop withdrawal, and said instead that the U.S. “wants to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationships with each of the states in Central Asia.” American Central Asian policy today is based on two ideas, he said: that a stable, secure Central Asia engaged in battling extremism enhances America’s security, and that the region will achieve stability through the development of individual strong, sovereign, connected, accountable states.

“Today, we have three important objectives for our engagement with each of the Central Asian states: strengthening partnerships to advance mutual security; forging closer economic ties; and advancing and advocating for improved governance and human rights,” Blinken said.

The U.S. is supporting efforts around the region to enhance border security and anti-trafficking efforts, Blinken said. He highlighted the new Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty the U.S. signed with Kazakhstan in February as a security milestone, and praised the country for its nonproliferation efforts, as well as for funding the Afghan National Security Forces and police and providing scholarships for 1,000 Afghans to study at Kazakh universities.

Economically, he said, the U.S. supports Kazakhstan’s efforts to join the World Trade Organisation, along with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are already WTO members, a goal he said he expected to be realised this year. He also noted that Kazakhstan would host an investment forum for U.S. companies in the summer.

The region still has a long way to go toward creating “open, cooperative and connected” markets, Blinken said. The U.S. is helping this process along through its New Silk Road initiative, which has so far supported business contact programmes, streamlining border procedures, building or rehabilitating roads, developing energy infrastructure connecting Central and South Asia and other efforts, according to the State Department website.

Hoagland described American-Central Asian engagement similarly, referencing “four critical areas of cooperation and concentration in Central Asia – security cooperation, economic ties, promotion of human rights and good governance, and efforts to bolster each country’s sovereignty and independence.” He also noted that the U.S. does not see Central Asia as a monolith, a viewpoint Kazakhstan has repeatedly challenged in global strategies dealing with its neighbourhood, most recently advising a more country-specific EU Strategy for Central Asia.

Both speakers addressed Chinese, Iranian and Russian involvement in the region. Iran was noted as a country with significant cultural connections to the region and also with an interest in cooperating on trade, water and other issues. Both officials said China’s involvement was not viewed “in zero-sum terms,” but on the contrary, as complementary to U.S. efforts. Hoagland commented that the U.S. was consulting with China on ways to collaborate in the region.

“We see an important role for China in supporting the transition in Afghanistan and advancing its own integration into the broader Asia region,” said Blinken.

The U.S. is “committed to leveraging our own economic tools to help Central Asia diversify their economies and interlink their markets,” to help offset the impact of Russian and Western sanctions, he said.

“We do not ask any country to choose ties with the U.S. to the exclusion of anyone else. We reject the false choices imposed by anyone else. We fully support the aspirations of Central Asian states to pursue a multi-vector foreign and economic policy,” Blinken said. Hoagland also went out of his way to state that American soft diplomacy does not have as its goal so called “colour revolutions.”

Both U.S. officials said that they would not tell countries not to join the new Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, simply that the union should be open and non-politicised.

At the Johns Hopkins CACI forum, speakers Karimzhan Shakirov, dean of International Relations at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, and professors Fatima Kukeyeva and Kuralai Baizakova of the same school, addressed security issues, primarily events in Ukraine, the development of Afghanistan and the impact of the new EAEU.

“[A]nti-Russian sentiment in Kazakhstan has spread very little, despite the negative assessment of the public opinion of the civil war in Ukraine,” Kukeyeva noted, saying, “Kazakhstan is an example of peaceful coexistence and cooperation of Muslim and the Slavic population in its northern regions of Akmola, Pavlodar, Kostanai and Northern Kazakhstan … .” Government support for ethnic and linguistic diversity supports this coexistence, she said. The main problem Ukraine presents for Central Asian nations is economic, she pointed out, with Russia’s troubled economy affecting its neighbours.

What is perceived as a more serious threat is the possible emergence of a new wave of radicalism as a result of refugee and migration flows, Baizakova noted, as well as the possibility of Central Asian extremist religious movements finding fertile ground in an unstable Afghanistan.

Solutions to Afghanistan’s problems must be historically and culturally rooted, she said, and the rest of the world should show restraint and not intervene directly in internal Afghan affairs. Instead, socio-economic cooperation programmes supported by the U.S., the EU, Japan and China as well as countries with fewer resources, are needed. “Central Asian countries should develop friendly bilateral relations not only with the central government, but also with local authorities,” she said, and develop a regional dialogue on Afghanistan with China, Pakistan, India, and Iran.

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