Thursday, 21 December 2017 16:40

America Needs Clear Strategy for China's Presence in Central Asia

 Read at The Hill

 By Mamuka Tsereteli

Since the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century, the United States has been involved in protecting trade routes while advancing a policy of open trade and shared access to resources. Free access to global commodities like oil, grains and metals remains an important goal of the U.S. national interest, guaranteeing global economic and political stability.

On the surface, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, formerly known as One Road One Belt, is designed to promote unimpeded trade and infrastructure connectivity, a win-win project for China and all the partners involved. But many countries in Asia already see this project as a threat to their sovereignty, as China is pushing territorial claims against its neighbors, and in some cases affecting territorial disputes for its own benefit.


This development has triggered a renewed quadrilateral diplomatic effort from Japan, Australia, India and the United States, promoting a “free and open Indo Pacific” initiative. The four-party working level meeting took place in Manila on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian nations meeting in November. Among other things, it focused on the international law-based order in Asia, which guarantees security and freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons, as well as enhancing connectivity.


While the United States is showing signs of interest in balancing China’s proactive strategy in Southeast Asia, so far the picture is different in the Eurasian heartland. The United States has no clear strategy towards China’s growing presence in Central Asian countries, expanding it to countries of the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe. China has already become the major trading partner for the Central Asian region, outpacing Russia in this role.

China is offering countries of the region significant financial resources, essential for the growth of their economies, as well as for the political viability of the existing governments. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan welcome growing infrastructure connectivity with China, which allows them to sell more of their resources to China. These countries are also enthusiastic to serve as transit for China’s exports to other states. China is clearly serving as a balancing factor for the region vis-à-vis Russia.

The question is, where is the United States in this picture? Should the United States be concerned if the infrastructure connectivity of Central Asia shifts the strategic dependency of the region from Russia to China? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has invested significant political and economic capital in supporting the development of Caspian resources, as well as the development of pipelines and other elements of infrastructure to allow access of those resources to global markets.

The pro-active U.S. policy in the late 90s and early 2000s helped countries to strengthen the economic basis for their statehood and political and economic sovereignty. The focus at that time was on the infrastructure that promoted East-West energy connectivity from the Caspian region to the Black Sea and Mediterranean, in partnership with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, the latter playing a pivotal role in the process due to geographic, economic, historic, cultural and linguistic reasons.

But proactive strategies and policies of the U.S. government in the Caspian region and Central Asia waned down during the last decade, and currently the United States has a very limited regional role. The United States can no longer offer the economic support that can match China’s investments in the region, and there is no clarity on how deep the United States will be interested in strategic engagement with the region going forward. Meanwhile, China is advancing its Belt and Road Initiative and has emerged as a main beneficiary of the previous U.S. investments in the region.

The United States needs a clear strategy towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia. The principles that apply to the Indo Pacific region should apply to the heartland of Eurasia as well. These are rules-based order, free access to transportation infrastructure, enhanced connectivity to benefit not one, but all the actors, preventing proliferation of nuclear materials and technology, and fighting terrorism. The Central Asian states and their partners in the South Caucasus are committed to these principles and are making significant investments of their own resources to advance them.

The United States now needs to clearly communicate to China that principles of openness and shared access to resources and infrastructure are a priority and will determine the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative in the region. In a parallel effort, the United States should revamp its support to Trans-Caspian and Caspian-Black Sea infrastructure connectivity, which would lead to advancing trade between Asia and Eurasia and to opening access to markets for Central and South Asian states.


Mamuka Tsereteli, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Svante Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy
Read 10009 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 January 2018 20:49





  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    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.

    Key issues

    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."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...

  • CACI director Svante Cornell's interviewed on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election
    Friday, 19 May 2023 00:00

    Listen to CACI director Svante Cornell's recent interview on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election. Click here!

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53