BACKGROUND: The U.S. engagement with Central Asia began immediately after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In 1992, the U.S. Congress adopted the Freedom Support Act, which in 1999 was supplemented with the Silk Road Strategy Act. With these legislative acts, Washington displayed its view of Central Asia as a crucial region located between America’s permanent geopolitical rivals – Russia and China – as well as unstable South Asia. Washington’s strategy towards Central Asia has always had distinctly geopolitical overtones. Even if U.S. officials and experts have been inclined to reject any intention on the part of the U.S. to challenge Russian and/or Chinese interests in Central Asia, representatives of the latter two powers have always been quick to ascribe such ambitions to their American competitors.
When the U.S. designed the new concept “Greater Central Asia,” which embedded Afghanistan in the understanding of this region, many in Russia perceived this as a strategic thrust on Washington’s part aiming to pull Central Asia southwards, away from Russia’s sphere of influence. The U.S.-led Operation “Enduring Freedom” and the NATO-led ISAF operation in Afghanistan, which had lasted from October 2001 until December 2014 and focused exclusively on the overall Afghan issue, in the Russian perspective provided another reason to believe that Washington, through this campaign, pursued long-term geopolitical goals targeting Russia’s and/or China’s positions in the region.
The geopolitically charged rhetoric on all sides was exacerbated in the aftermath of the ISAF operation and the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan through the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which even further raised Central Asia’s profile in the U.S. global strategy. In this context, U.S. policymakers invented the “New Silk Road Strategy” concept, whereas Russia proposed the creation of a Eurasian Union and China offered its strategy for a Silk Road Economic Belt.
Yet in December 2012, the then State Secretary Hillary Clinton warned that the U.S. would not allow the restoration of the Soviet Union in a new form and would take measures to prevent such a course of events.
Therefore, numerous controversies exist regarding how Washington has up to now declared and promoted its Central Asian policy, how Moscow has interpreted this policy, and vice versa. In this perspective, will C5+1 reveal a new and stronger dimension in U.S. Central Asian strategy or fall short of coherence and power projection in this part of the world?
IMPLICATIONS: The new six-party format of cooperation between the U.S. and five Central Asian states was set up amid signs of a return from the ad-hoc post-Cold War world order to a new Cold War-type of relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Russia’s sudden launch of airstrikes on the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups in Syria in October, and the subsequent disagreement between Washington and Moscow over who is doing what in Syria, has increased geopolitical tensions in the Middle East that paradoxically brought about two parallel coalitions against the same enemy – respectively led by the U.S. and Russia.
Earlier this year, Washington appealed to Central Asian governments to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS but met little enthusiasm on the part of Central Asian counterparts regarding this proposal. At the same time, during the last SCO summit in Ufa, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan individually called for the initiatives against terrorism: the establishment of a special UN commission on Karimov’s initative, and on Nazarbayev’s, an international network for fighting terrorism (see the 05/08/2015 Issue of the CACI Analyst)
After Russia launched its operation in Syria; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan explicitly supported it, Turkmenistan kept its neutrality, while Uzbekistan refrained from expressing explicit support. It was in this controversial context that C5+1 was conceived. Until recently, the U.S. presence in Central Asia has challenged Russian interests in the region. Although this geopolitical game between great powers has not been exclusively zero-sum, it has hardly been a win-win process either. Instead, it has been an interaction with varying degrees of success for one side or the other.
During the C5+1 meeting, Kerry reminded that aid from the U.S. to Central Asian countries since their independence has amounted to US$8 billion. He pointed out that “For our part, we want to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationships through the region. We need to be clear that friendship with one country does not – at least it should not – diminish the possibilities of friendship with another country. This is not a zero-sum game. Every country has the right to manage its relationships with whichever country it chooses, or not; to be free from external pressure and from intimidation. And that is a fundamental principle which brings us to the table”.
The declaration of the C5+1 meeting indicated cooperation and partnership in development fields such as economic competitiveness and jobs; regional trade; climate change and alleviation of the consequences of the Aral Sea drying up; water management; the American University in Central Asia; professional and education exchanges; English language teaching; and preservation of cultural heritage. Yet it did not explicitly address questions such as counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, regional security, the situation in Afghanistan, and democratic reforms and human rights.
The first C5+1 meeting hardly constituted a breakthrough in the U.S.-Central Asia relationship, in light of the challenge that large and ambitious projects like China’s Silk Road Economic Belt or Russia’s Eurasian Union poses to the status quo in the region. For the U.S., the meeting in Samarkand can be evaluated based on its geopolitical, as well as its developmental implications. In geopolitical terms, the meeting took place in the turbulent context of the wars in Syria and Ukraine and built on the established pattern of great powers seeking to secure a sphere of influence in this part of the world while deterring their geopolitical rivals. In developmental terms, the meeting related to normative and philanthropic objectives of helping other nations pursue political development and economic growth.
In the first instance, the U.S. appears to seek to regain a modicum of strategic initiative in Central Asia. In the second, the U.S. can find much common ground with like-minded actors such as the EU, Japan, and India, which are eager to promote similar regional strategies in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the five Central Asian states have until now largely ignored what external great powers see as the region’s main strength and importance, namely that Central Asia is a single region and that integration among these countries is strategically important in the emerging world order.
CONCLUSIONS: In May 2002, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a Joint Statement in Moscow in which they underlined that they have a “common interest in promoting the stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all the nations of [Central Asia]. The United States and Russia reject the failed model of ‘Great Power’ rivalry that can only increase the potential for conflict ….” In Samarkand, Kerry repeated this statement almost word by word. But while the 2002 Joint Statement was formulated in the context of U.S.-Russian cooperation after 9/11, Kerry made his statement as these great powers are returning to a relationship resembling that during the Cold War.
The C5+1 format is therefore laden with both benefits and liabilities. On the positive side, it reinforces the message that the U.S. favors a region-centric approach and cooperative responsiveness in its relations with Central Asia. However, the meeting was also secretive and non-transparent. Its output was largely symbolic and declarative and no democracy or human rights issues were explicitly addressed.
If the C5+1 format is designed only as an ad hoc means for retaliating against Russia in response to the latter’s blow to U.S. supremacy and prestige in the Middle East, it will hardly fulfill this purpose without convincing U.S. capabilities for projecting hard power in the region. Yet if the format is designed as a long-term plan for cooperation and partnership, slightly reminiscent of the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe, then the U.S. must demonstrate its unique capability for projecting soft power and inevitably act as an agent for democracy and human rights, for which Central Asian regimes are hardly ready.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Image Attribution: www.astanatimes.com, accessed on Nov 9, 2015