David Cameron’s Diplomatic Tour to Central Asia Ushers ‘New Era’ in UK Relations with Region

ASTANA—This week, the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary David Cameron embarked on a diplomatic tour across the five Central Asian republics, which Cameron himself said opens a “new era” in the relations between Central Asia and the United Kingdom. Starting in Tajikistan, Cameron visited the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Cameron and Tokayev. Photo credit: Akorda.kz

Speaking about the broader purpose of his visit to the Central Asian region, Cameron emphasized the desire for partnership with the region.

“I want to make a broader point about this visit that I’m making to the Central Asian republics this week and that is that we are not saying to Kazakhstan or any other country that you have to make a choice, or we’re asking you not to choose your partnership and trade with Russia or China, or with anyone else. We’re here because we believe you should be able to make a choice to partner with us in a way that is good for both our security and our prosperity,” said Cameron after his meeting with Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister – Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu on April 24.

Historic visit

It has been 11 years since David Cameron’s last visit to Kazakhstan. In 2013, Cameron became the first U.K. Prime Minister to pay a state visit to Kazakhstan. The visit this week comes a bit more of a year since the visit of James Cleverly to Kazakhstan, whom Cameron replaced as Foreign Secretary in November 2023.

Cameron and Nurtleu shake hands after signing the agreement. Photo credit: X account of British Embassy in Astana

Cameron’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013 concluded deals worth more than £700 million and resulted in the signing of a joint statement on strategic partnership. 

This week’s visit was no less groundbreaking, as Cameron and Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister – Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu inked a historic Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The agreement is designed to strengthen bilateral relations in key sectors, ranging from foreign policy and security, trade and investment, to banking and financial services, employment and social policy, science and education.

“When I visited Kazakhstan as PM 11 years ago, we agreed on our first strategic partnership.  Today, we’ve agreed to do even more with a new Cooperation Agreement across education, trade and climate action,” wrote Cameron in his X account. 

Besides the milestone agreement, Cameron also announced £50 million (US$62.6 million) of new funding aimed at promoting regional growth and economic resilience and fostering trade and cooperation between the U.K. and Central Asia. 

The number of Chevening scholarships for Kazakhstan will also double following Cameron’s visit. 

While in Astana, he met with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, visited the Astana International Financial Centre and chatted with students of Astana IT University. 

Commercial deals

According to the Bureau of National Statistics, trade between Kazakhstan and the U.K. reached $1.2 billion in 2023, down slightly from $1.8 billion in 2022. Between January and February this year, trade was $99.3 million. Nearly 600 companies with British capital operate in Kazakhstan.

Cameron with a student of Astana IT University. Photo credit: X account of British Embassy in Astana

The U.K. is among the top 10 foreign investors in Kazakhstan. British investments made $794.5 million in 2023, up from $661.8 million in 2022. Since 2005, cumulative investments have surpassed $17 billion.

As part of Cameron’s visit, Kazakhstan and the U.K. signed two commercial documents. One is between the Kazakh Ministry of Healthcare, the Almaty city administration, Kazakh Invest National Company, and British AstraZeneca. It is a plan to implement an investment project for contract manufacturing of biotechnological products on Kazakhstan’s territory. 

“The signing of the production localization plan is a progressive step towards fulfilling the instructions of the head of state Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to increase the share of domestically produced medicines in the domestic market to 50%, contributing to the improvement of the investment climate and the development of bilateral strategic relations,” said Kazakh Invest in a press statement published on the company’s official website. 

AstraZeneca and the Kazakh ministry signed a memorandum of cooperation back in 2021. 

“From our side, we have had a long-standing partnership and projects that are supported by both the British Embassy and Kazakh Invest, as well as partnerships with the Ministry of Healthcare. We signed a memorandum in 2021 in London for cooperation in what is called healthcare, specifically within the territory of Kazakhstan, as an Anglo-Swedish company represented here,” said Maria Shipuleva, head of the British company’s representative office in Kazakhstan.

Cameron meets students in Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Cameron’s X account

She noted AstraZeneca invested heavily in education. 

“From this year, according to the memorandum signed in 2021 in London, we are now starting clinical trials in Kazakhstan. The plan signed today is specifically for the implementation of a project to localize our production here,” she added. 

She reiterated the document signed during Cameron’s visit is “aimed directly at producing Kazakhstan’s product, but with technologies that correspond to those of AstraZeneca.”

While she didn’t disclose the specific types of products to be produced at the plant, she confirmed they are aimed at addressing conditions such as diabetes, chronic heart failure, chronic kidney disease, and oncology. 

Document on roadside service facilities

As part of the visit of Cameron, the Committee for Highways of the Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Car Park Transformer, a British company specializing in the design and manufacture of innovative solutions for car parks, signed an agreement.  

The document envisions the construction of roadside service facilities on the country’s national and international highways. At least 250 service stations will be built to offer a comfortable multi-service environment for all road users. 

“These agreements underscore the importance and potential of cooperation between Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom in various sectors of the economy and reflect the commitment of both countries to developing long-term and mutually beneficial partnership relations,” said Kazakh Invest. 

U.K. engagement with the region of Central Asia

The visit of David Cameron to Central Asia reflects the growing importance of the region, said Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the U.K. Parliament. 

“The Foreign Secretary’s visit to Central Asia and Mongolia demonstrates the increasing importance of this geopolitical region, as identified by our report [referring to the committee’s report on U.K. engagement in Central Asia] in November. In order to show the UK’s commitment to the region, we called for engagement with Central Asia at the top of government, including visits from the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State. I am pleased to see that the government has listened to Parliament,” said Kearns. 

The committee’s report, called Countries at Crossroads: UK engagement in Central Asia, called for high-level ministerial engagement. 

In fact, several key visits have occurred in the past two years. In February 2023, the U.K. Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Kazakhstan, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, visited the Central Asian nation. 

In June 2023, U.K. Minister for Europe Leo Docherty visited Kazakhstan. In September 2023, James Cleverly met with Murat Nurtleu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. 

In October 2023, Astana hosted the seventh U.K.-Kazakhstan Strategic Dialogue, chaired by Minister Leo Docherty and Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko.

“The deepening of U.K. engagement in Central Asia not only has the potential to be mutually beneficial but also should be seen as a geopolitical imperative,” reads the U.K. Parliament report. 

According to Kearns, the visit was also meant to ensure Western sanctions against Russia are not circumvented. 

“The Foreign Affairs Committee called for the U.K. to do more to clampdown on illicit finance in the City of London and sanctions evasion via third countries,” she added. 

She stressed the need for a separate strategy for trade and investment. 

“Increasing the U.K.’s cultural ties with Central Asian countries is crucial. In our report we called for an increase in Chevening scholars and adequate resources for the British Council. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has announced a doubling of funding for Chevening scholars and a push to bolster English language skills and increase access to British Council resources,” said Kearns. 

Get The Astana Times stories sent directly to you! Sign up via the website or subscribe to our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube and Tiktok!