WASHINGTON — U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.
Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.
He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.
“I’ve always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies,” he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.
In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.
Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.
“Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest,” Ashikbayev said.
The Kazakh diplomat described a “synergy” of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. “As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it’s in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers.”
During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.
That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan’s longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.
Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with “long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years.”
“The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1,” he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region’s five governments.
“This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration,” said Sidiqov. “We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism.”
Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia’s development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.
‘Possibility of positive change’
Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.
In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, “even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours.”
This is the only region that doesn’t have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. “We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it’s not going to. It’s not against anyone.”
“Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome,” he added, also underscoring that “there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security.”
“Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia,” he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, “Are we so insignificant that they can’t take the time to visit?”
Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. “This would not be a big drain on the president’s time, but it would be symbolically extremely important,” he said. “All of them want this to happen.”
Starr’s findings indicate that the governments need U.S. help to institutionalize Central Asia as a political-economic-social entity.
“We have underused our convening power. This is what the Central Asians are telling us. They’re saying, ‘No, it’s not just a pile of money we’re after. We’re after you taking an active role in using your convening power.’ “
Pointing to Central Asian leaders’ frequent meetings and consultations with the Russian and Chinese presidents, Starr is challenging the White House to take an unprecedented step. He views the U.S. as “AWOL” (absent without leave).
“The U.S. and Central Asia are in the position of living in a room with a very low ceiling. We’ve got to raise the ceiling. This is not some prejudice of mine. This is exactly what we’re hearing at the top level all over the region,” Starr said.
Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer and associate professor at the University of Southern California, just back from Central Asia, agrees that Washington should be more active there.
“But to be effective, that engagement should be principled and prioritize American values such as democracy and the rule of law, which are on a steep decline across Central Asia,” he said.
“Even if the focus is purely on economic goals or jockeying for alliances against Russia and China,” he said, “the U.S. cannot reap real dividends or establish a climate conducive to investment without systems that allow journalists and bloggers to ask tough questions, or where courts do not act independently of the executive branch.”
Swerdlow said principled diplomacy means advocating consistently in the open for human rights and working “with civil society activists as much if not more than the governments of Central Asia.”
Source: Voice of America