Central Asia has never been a priority for U.S. foreign policy. Neither will it displace Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East in importance to Washington anytime soon. But there are mounting signs in both word and deed that the region is likely to figure more prominently than before in American foreign policy calculations. This could be a positive change, especially if President Donald Trump’s administration rejects the Obama administration’s idea that Central Asia is important only because of its proximity to Russia, China, and Afghanistan rather than for any intrinsic considerations of strategy or foreign policy. It wasn’t until 2015 that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry instituted a regular 5+1 process among Central Asian foreign ministers and himself — and although that was constructive, it hardly denoted a real policy shift regarding the region. The current administration would do well to pay attention to some major changes currently taking place in Central Asia.
Stirrings of U.S. Interest
Four specific recent developments could be harbingers of an impending change in U.S. policy. First, Washington’s recent suspension of military aid to Pakistan for its failure to restrain terrorists whom it has organized and supported has given rise to warnings that Islamabad might retaliate by striking at or banning the utilization of its territory for the logistical trail for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. If the Pakistani government does retaliate in this manner, then Washington will have to reconsider the Northern Distribution Network’s previous route through the Caucasus and Central Asia. (Obviously Russia is quite unlikely to facilitate this as it did in 2009-2010). Inevitably, that will raise the issue of sustained U.S. economic assistance and development projects with local governments and potentially the question of direct military assistance as occurred when the Northern Distribution Network was in effect. But those enhanced military and economic ties could lead policymakers to see the region as an entity in its own right, not as an appendage defined by its proximity to some other major issue.
Of course, this perspective would not ignore Russian and Chinese involvement in Central Asia. But here, too, there are some signs of enhanced U.S. interest in Central Asia. During President Trump’s visit to Japan in November 2017, he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a plan to counter China’s Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia. This statement was built on blunt critiques of the Chinese BRI by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and was prefigured by in the communiqué of Trump’s meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At his joint press conference with Trump, Abe personally stated his commitment: “I am determined to see to it so that both Japan and U.S. strongly lead the regional and, eventually, the global economic growth by our cumulative efforts in creating fair and effective economic order in this region.”
The U.S. and Japanese governments announced programs to implement their vision. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) agreed with Japanese partners “to offer high-quality United States-Japan infrastructure investment alternatives in the Indo-Pacific region.” OPIC’s own read-out stated that it and the Japanese banks involved had a shared “commitment to tackling development challenges and bolstering investment in infrastructure, energy and other critical sectors throughout Asia and the Indo Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa.” Both sides announced a shared initiative to provide universal access to affordable and reliable energy across all of Asia, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency will now work with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and industry to support public and best practices in infrastructure projects in third countries and emerging markets.
All these initiatives explicitly target the BRI for its defects regarding transparency and monopolistic practices to advance Chinese interests above all others. They also reflect the Trump administration’s commitment to private markets over governmental deals. Thus, rhetorically, Washington and Tokyo have both labeled Chinese policy as objectionable and in some sense a threat to Central Asian states, and they have announced concrete programs to counter the BRI in Central Asia. While Central Asia is an area of growing interest to Japan, this announcement marked a new attitude from the United States; under the last two administrations, few thought of Central Asia as a venue for major investment and trade programs, especially in concert with U.S. allies. And this does not appear to have been an isolated incident for the Trump administration.
The third indicator of greater U.S. interest in Central Asia came in Trump’s conversations with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Trump not only noted his counterpart’s reform efforts — which Trump said could set the stage for more trade and investment — but also discussed with him opportunities for enhanced bilateral cooperation regarding Afghanistan. Since Mirziyoyev is doing everything in his and his embassies’ power to increase foreign trade and investment in Uzbekistan beyond Russia and China, it is very likely that these conversations touched on specific projects and programs that would allow the two countries to increase their economic cooperation and enhance the U.S. profile in Uzbekistan and Central Asia.
The fourth example of enhanced U.S. interest in Central Asia gives further confirmation that the administration is emphasizing trade and investment in the region. Trump’s National Security Strategy of December 2017 explicitly referred to Central Asia — something unprecedented, though most observers overlooked it. Not surprisingly, this section of the strategy explicitly referred to the threat of terrorism. But it also openly struck at the Russo-Chinese effort to limit the de facto independence of Central Asian states in foreign policy. The strategy stated, “And we seek Central Asian states that are resilient against domination by rival powers, are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms.“ Thus, the themes of Trump’s meeting with Abe — preventing Russian and/or Chinese domination and enhanced use of economic tools — are here as well as the obvious priority of terrorism. Indeed, the security strategy openly advocates support for the economic integration of Central Asia with South Asia, not Russia or China.
A Coherent Strategy Emerges
These are clearly not coincidental or accidental statements. Rather they appear to indicate a consistent approach over several venues, like the meetings with Abe and Modi and the conversations with Mirziyoyev. The security strategy, when it speaks more generally about the developing world, again emphasizes economics. In discussing Africa, Asia, and Latin America the document forthrightly proclaims the belief that U.S. investments remain the “most sustainable and responsible approach to development” and starkly contrast with authoritarian governments’ development offers (e.g. Russia and China). In this context, the security strategy also states that Washington will modernize its investment and trade tools for these countries so that it is not left behind as other states use project finance and investment opportunities to advance their interests.
Thus, we see a coherent strategy that includes the war on terrorism but gives prominence to — and creates mechanisms for — the use of U.S. instruments of economic power and policy, in concert with Japan and India. It remains to be seen if there will be any actual allocation of the sizable resources needed to implement these programs successfully, but the current signs are encouraging. It is clear that the themes of this strategy for Central Asia — fighting terrorism, blocking Chinese and/or Russian domination, and using economic instruments to integrate Central Asia — are being linked and articulated in formal speeches, documents, and governmental consultations. And it seems that outsiders are regarding Central Asia as more of a region in its own right, worthy of sustained high-level attention — something that has not always been the case in the last 25 years.
For these reasons, we may be confident in postulating that a genuinely new strategy, although based on earlier themes, is beginning to come into focus regarding Central Asia. The heavy lifting lies ahead, however; the real question with any such strategy is the willingness and ability of its shapers to allocate the resources needed to make significant changes in the face of multiple global challenges and emergencies. If the reality can match the rhetoric, we will be able to say that the Trump administration has indeed made a meaningful advance and contribution to U.S. interests in a region that we have unduly neglected. And as the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan clearly shows, we pay a high price for that neglect.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image courtesy of The Astana Times