ASTANA – The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), Washington-based non-profit organizations, hosted a panel discussion on Jan. 31 delving deep into Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy, the increasing agency of Central Asia as a region, energy diversification and the development of transport corridors. The panel featured several prominent speakers, including Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko.
Kazakhstan’s strategic approach
With its multi-vector foreign policy, Kazakhstan has balanced delicately in navigating the current geopolitical realities. According to Vassilenko, there is no other alternative for Kazakhstan but to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy.
“Considering our history and geographical location, it becomes evident that this approach is deeply rooted in our national identity. Indeed, the multi-ethnic and diverse composition of our nation has played a major role in shaping our multivector foreign policy,” said Vassilenko.
He noted Kazakhstan has “always been right in the middle,” connecting cultures, regions, religions and civilizations.
“Probably, this is the very answer to the nature of our multi-vector approach. It is about being in peace with oneself, with our neighbors and helping to find the middle ground for all who need it,” he said.
Over the past few years, Kazakhstan’s diplomatic engagements have captured a lot of attention both at home and overseas.
“Given the global tensions, some experts wonder at our ability to maintain a positive dialogue with any country in the world, be it in Asia, Europe, America, or Africa. But isn’t that what diplomacy is for? I should say that we are lucky to have a leadership that knows what diplomacy truly means,” said the diplomat.
He highlighted the evolution of the multi-vector approach in response to changes in geopolitical reality.
“The model of multilateral diplomacy today is different from the initial one that was designed for a simpler, mostly bipolar world. It has now become a multi-layered and multi-dimensional system that helps us navigate the complexities of the contemporary, multipolar system. This policy is clearly laid out in our Foreign Policy Concept, listing our top priorities in developing relations with the countries of Central Asia, Russia, China, the United States, the European Union, and other states,” he explained.
Such an approach helped the nation spearhead many international initiatives to promote peace and security – from chairing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010 and hosting its summit, so far the only OSCE summit this century, to launching new institutions, such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).
Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, he noted, is a “successful model with strategic balancing, economic diversification, commitment to peace and a pragmatic approach.”
“We will be happy if it can serve as an inspiration for other friendly nations navigating complex geopolitical challenges, embracing diversity, cooperation and sustainable development,” he said.
Role of middle powers
In today’s international relations system, the influence is not exclusive to global powers. The role of so-called middle powers should not be overlooked, according to the diplomat.
“Middle powers, such as Kazakhstan, are helping shape regional and global agendas while contributing to problem-solving. For our part, we are ready to cooperate in the spirit of inclusiveness and goodwill. This aligns with our vision for regional growth in Eurasia, fostering win-win relationships where domestic and external ambitions intertwine,” he said.
Growing attention to Central Asia, from within and outside
Speaking about Central Asia during the panel discussion, Vassilenko noted the growing dynamics of positive cooperation within Central Asia:
“In Central Asia, over the past five to six years, there is a growing recognition of the fact that we are stronger together. We have more agency. (…) For one thing, we have common challenges, and that is, first and foremost, managing dwindling water resources against the backdrop of rapidly growing populations. We also have a common challenge in dealing with Afghanistan, which is also an ascendant economic power in the region,” he said.
According to Edward Lemon, the president of the Oxus Society and research assistant professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Central Asia has always been a multipolar region.
“When many other parts of the world were experiencing the unipolar moment, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was grappling with its newly independent status and having to develop foreign policies, independent of the Soviet Union for the first time,” he said.
Kazakhstan was the first to coin the term ‘multivectorism’ to “find a way to navigate this newly found independent status in this multi-polar world.”
“The idea is that a country within the international system can have positive relations with multiple centers of power within the international system. You can be partners with Russia, Iran, China, and the United States, all at the same time, without that being problematic. The goal is to be able to use the agency that these individual states have to balance relations between different centers of power without having to choose one side,” said Lemon.
But much of that balancing act, he noted, has been under strain in an era of heightening power competition, specifically between China, Russia and the United States.
Lemon sees these geopolitical circumstances as increasing the agency of the Central Asian states, considering the presence of critical minerals in Central Asia, the region’s position and Europe’s ambition to transition away from gas and oil.
“The region is growing more important. We saw the evidence of that in 2023,” said Lemon, referring to several summits in the C5+1 format, including with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Dr. Ariel Cohen, the managing director of the Energy, Growth and Security program at ITIC and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said he sees the development of diplomatic power in the region.
“This means that the region becomes an agent of international relations,” said Cohen, who has been researching Central Asia for decades.
The challenges that the region had to and continues to address are nuclear disarmament and consequences of nuclear testing under the Soviet Union, the fate of the Aral Sea, and the situation in Afghanistan, which Cohen described as a “problematic child.”
“But the paramount concern is how, in this turbulent environment, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the three other Central Asian countries are preserving the sovereignty and enhancing and increasing their agency, how they are dealing with the same rare earth investment regimes, carbon emissions, or the Middle Corridor. These are the confluence of economic, trade and investment topics, as well as hard security topics,” he said.
Energy diversification as part of multi-vector diplomacy
According to U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy Laura Lochman, energy diversification has been a part of Central Asia’s multi-vector diplomacy. In her remarks, she echoed Lemon’s point in terms of the centrality of this region, emphasizing its increasing role as a regional and global energy producer.
“Across the Caspian and throughout Central Asia, energy diversification is integral to the region meeting its domestic as well as its global energy demands,” said Lochman. “Globally, the imperative of climate action is forcing nations to re-examine their dependence on fossil fuels, as well as decarbonize their industrial sectors, as we face more and more extreme weather events. This past year has shown us many examples of this.”
The war in Ukraine has also “led to a drastic reshuffling of global energy markets.” She stressed the critical importance of energy security for the national security of any country.
“For a multi-vector approach to energy security to continue, Central Asia must look to improve gas connectivity, so as not to rely solely on Russia for any shortfalls in the region’s winter supply, as we’re seeing now,” she added.
Lochman highlighted that significant work remains to be done to improve the efficiency of existing assets, optimize the use of current supplies, and make the overall infrastructure more attractive for investment.
“Another area for regional cooperation is addressing the aging fossil fuel extraction infrastructure and poor emissions controls. These vulnerabilities lead to disproportionately high methane emissions, which is really a source of significant wasted energy resources as well as major climate impacts,” she said.
Around 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas, she noted, is wasted every year in Central Asia due to vented leaked and flared methane, which is roughly the same amount of gas exported from the Caspian region to Europe last year.
Ultimately, she underscored the most effective way to increase the energy security of Central Asia and the world is through the transition to clean energy. In doing so, cooperation in the development of critical minerals, which are needed for clean energy technologies, is of paramount importance.
“Central Asia, in particular, has sizeable potential for critical minerals development. With sound governance and experienced private sector partners, the region could become a very important contributor to advancing the global clean energy transition,” she said.
She mentioned a Critical Minerals Dialogue, which will start its work in February. The dialogue is a direct outcome of the C5+1 presidential summit between the leaders of the United States and Central Asia last September in New York.
“Shoring up the supply chains is the priority for us and for many others. We do not want to relive the story, where we have great dependence on just one or a handful of suppliers of critical materials. We are very interested in working with Central Asia and other regions as well,” she said.
The diversification of transport corridors has been a top priority for Kazakhstan, said Roman Vassilenko, as the nation had to adapt to a “new reality in international transit from Asia to Europe,” the implication of the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia.
In this new reality, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) has been under growing attention. The route, also known as the Middle Corridor, runs from China and passes through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, the South Caucasus and further on to Europe. It is a multi-modal route, offering an efficient alternative to traditional routes for a diverse range of goods, including oil.
Since last year, Kazakhstan has been shipping oil to Baku, further pumping it into the Baku-Tbilici-Ceyhan pipeline under the agreement between KazMunayGas and Azerbaijan’s SOCAR oil and gas company. According to Vassilenko, around one million tons of Kazakh oil have been shipped by that route, contributing to the doubling of transportation across the TITR last year.
The current transit capacity across the Middle Corridor is six million tons, and Kazakhstan’s strategic goal is to elevate it to 10 million tons by 2030. The country has undertaken efforts to develop and enhance the Middle Corridor, including building a container hub in the port of Aktau, and enhancing the ports of Aktau and Kuryk.
“We also support efforts to expand transport routes between Central and South Asia and develop the north-south and east-west trans-Eurasian corridors. We look forward to creating new and modernizing existing multimodal transport corridors and logistics centers,” said Vassilenko.
The recent Global Gateway Investors Forum for EU-Central Asia Transport Connectivity in Brussels saw the signing of major agreements under which European and international financial institutions committed to investing nearly 10 billion euros (US$10.8 billion) in the transport corridor in the region.
“Whatever is going to be done now will have an impact on how close Europe and the West will be to Central Asia and vice versa in the years and decades to come,” said Vassilenko.
Cooperation with the United States
Kazakhstan’s ties with the United States have been growing as well.
“Cooperation with the United States is one of the pillars of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy. Last year, Astana and Washington celebrated the fifth anniversary of the enhanced strategic partnership (ESP) between our two countries. In fact, Kazakhstan is the only country in the region with the ESP status,” said Vassilenko.
Cooperation is notable in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, and it continues on a “very good footing,” he added.
When asked to sum up the discussion by the moderator with a message to the U.S. leadership regarding its policies vis-à-vis Central Asia, both Lemon and Cohen stressed the importance of organizing the first-ever visit to the region by a sitting U.S. President, as well as granting countries such as Kazakhstan a permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.
“Overall, I think we should view this relationship as a two-way street. There are things that Kazakhstan and the region can give to the United States. Rare earth metals are one such thing. Access to Central Asia, help with Afghanistan [are others]. I think it would be a huge mistake if the United States again loses sight of Afghanistan, as it did in the early 1990s. We know all what happened on 9/11. I think the hand is outstretched from the region to the United States, to the West, and this hand needs to be shaken in return,” said Vassilenko.