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America Seeks Inroads Into Central Asia

America is desperate to make inroads into Central Asia. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the region for greater US engagement. The Ukraine war has rattled former Soviet republics who seek reassurance. Russia’s historic clout had so far limited American initiatives in the region. 

Four days after the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, Blinken held talks on February 28 in Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan. He also met jointly with foreign ministers of all five ex-Soviet Central Asian states in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. 

America’s realistic assessment reveals that the five nations are not going to end their relationships with Russia or their other giant neighbor China. China has been rather boosting its own presence. Blinken took pains to show that the United States is a “reliable partner” and different from Moscow and Beijing. America shows keenness that it has something to offer in terms of engagement economically, and also the values that it brings to the table. 

Blinken has been trotting the globe for a year to curry support for Ukraine. His current mission is too sensitive as Central Asian leaders would require lots of tightrope walking. After all they have formal security agreements with Moscow and wilt under Russia’s overwhelming security and economic influence. Labour force of the region flock to Russia for employment. That explains why all five abstained or did not vote when the UN General Assembly on February 23 demanded Russian forces leave Ukraine. For the United States, “the sky is the limit in Central Asia right now.” American assessment says leaders of Central Asia desire to move away from Russia and perceive Russia as a threat, but given geographical and economic compulsions there’s very little they can do about it. Evolving situations don’t offer them many options. That gives America a real opportunity to be creative, to engage with the leaders of these countries.  

Kazakhstan shares its longest land border with Russia and has the most complex relationships with Moscow. It hosts a sizable ethnic Russian minority. After President Putin took Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers as an alibi to justify his invasion, Kazakhstan has been ever more mindful of Russians’ rights. Kazakh President Tokayev had travelled in 2022 to see Putin and reaffirm partnership with Russia. In recent talks with Ukrainian President Zelensky Tokayev urged a negotiated end to the conflict based on international law. Kazakhstan has sheltered thousands of Russians fleeing conscription. Just before the Ukraine invasion, Tokayev had called in Russian-led forces to help regain control after riots but quickly sent them back following public opposition. 

Tajikistan’s President Rahmon in an October video had given Putin a rare public scolding at a regional meeting, accusing Russia of ignoring the interests of the Central Asian countries. The United States has seen glimmers of hope for human rights, a longstanding concern in a region historically run by authoritarians. 

Kazakhstan’s recent conviction of police officers accused of torture during 2022 unrest, and Uzbekistan’s rapid abolition of forced and child labour in cotton harvests are really quite remarkable. That sort of speedy progress is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. 

The Ukraine war is not the first time that an international crisis has thrown a greater spotlight on Central Asia. Uzbekistan took a leading role in supporting the US military in its war in Afghanistan which President Biden ended in 2021. In 2020 Pompeo pushed Central Asians to curb ties with Beijing for human rights violations in adjacent Xinjiang region. America has mistakenly seen Central Asia as a “backwater” linked to other policies. America should better value regional leaders’ autonomy as these countries are actually in a really interesting position to balance Russia and China off against one another. And many of them have done this pretty skillfully.  

Central Asian Cooperation: The United States, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in a video conference meet at Washington on May 29, 2020 formed a trilateral forum. The group mulled construction of railways linking Uzbekistan with ports in Pakistan and beyond to link South Asia with Central Asia.   

Year next, the international conference on “Central and South Asia Regional Connectivity: Challenges and Opportunities” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in July 2021, saw the representatives of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the US and Pakistan establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform for enhancing regional connectivity and long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan. They sought to open flourishing international trade routes, expanding trade, building transit links and strengthening business-to-business ties. The US termed it a “cornerstone to a sustained peace”. 

Pakistan’s presence in the forum without China raised eyebrows but Pakistanis were excited that finally there was a Quad for Pakistan! They exulted that America had left the loser quad and came to the winner quad! Moreover, India was not there! Really speaking, Pakistan’s role was to comply in Afghanistan. Regional connectivity required all three countries to allow US airbases! 

Pakistan’s PM had taunted the US as the defeated power in the region but continued as US ally. The alliance of Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan had triggered Afghan militancy when they attacked and removed the socialist government in Kabul. Adding new partner Uzbekistan into this triad won’t make much difference. Just throwing aid money at Afghanistan didn’t work. Afghanistan needs to kick start its economic engine to provide employment to the youth. 

America’s initiatives in 2023 raise questions. It is a rank outlier, not part of the region and has got nothing to do with regional partnerships. Its presence makes no sense. Pakistan—the habitual beggar state—has nothing to contribute. It brings nothing to the table. Including Türkiye, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Iran and India would have ensured a lasting alliance. India has invested 3 billion on roads, parliament, hospitals and dams in Afghanistan!  

Russian expansion has been checkmated in Ukraine. America now wants to hem Russia, especially after invasion of Ukraine, to contain its imperialist ambitions. As Pakistan refused airbases after Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, America seeks airbases in Uzbekistan for monitoring and tracking its enemies from close quarters. 

Source: New Delhi Times