BACKGROUND: Kerry managed to participate in a remarkable number of events despite being in the region for less than a week. Kerry initially went to Kyrgyzstan, where he addressed the American University of Central Asia, visited the new embassy in Bishkek, and held consultations with Kyrgyz political leaders. Kerry then went to Samarkand for bilateral talks with Uzbek officials and, on November 1, held the first session of the new C5+1 multilateral dialogue format with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states in Central Asia. This Samarkand session followed the inaugural meeting in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. From there, Kerry travelled to Astana and visited the Kazakh Chamber of Commerce, Nazarbayev University, a General Electric plant, and a mosque. He then held consultations with the presidents and other senior officials of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Throughout these meetings, Kerry joined with these leaders in acknowledging the threat from the new terrorist groups in the region – less as a direct danger, at least for now, than because of the recruitment of Central Asians by extremist movements. U.S. officials pledged to help these governments strengthen their borders and counter violent extremism. The recent announcement that more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016 helped make these pledges more credible to local elites, who have been alarmed by the Taliban’s occupation of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz and bombarded with messages in their Russian-controlled media with the narrative of U.S. retrenchment from Eurasia. Kerry’s team praised past Central Asian assistance to Afghanistan and requested further military and economic support.
U.S. officials tried to sell the promotion of human rights and good governance as counterterrorism tools and warned that a “heavy-handed approach” against religious believers or democracy advocates could prove counterproductive. Security and other considerations have led these governments to tighten controls on media freedoms and civil liberties. Kerry pointedly observed that, “We have to understand that the terrorist presence doesn’t give authorities a license to use violence indiscriminately.” He also publicly congratulated Kyrgyzstan for recently holding relatively free and fair elections while simultaneously urging more progress on voting procedures. However, the human rights message was not accompanied by threats of U.S. punishment for poor performance.
A major economic theme of Kerry’s trip was the need for the local countries to make their policies more attractive to U.S. and other foreign investors through legal and regulatory reforms and anti-corruption measures. The U.S. government has considerably fewer levers than China and Russia to direct national companies to foreign markets. U.S. firms will only invest in a country where they can operate profitably and without much corruption or harassment by the local authorities. The U.S. government and private U.S. corporations are considerably more reluctant than their Chinese and Russian counterparts to fund the kinds of large-scale, high-profile infrastructure projects so beloved by Central Asian regimes.
IMPLICATIONS: Kerry’s high-profile visit to the region was the most extensive by a U.S. Secretary of State since James Baker’s post-Soviet diplomatic tour in 1992. Another novelty was the Secretary’s meeting with all five Central Asian foreign ministers together in Central Asia in the new “C5+1” dialogue format launched this fall (see the 11/13/15 Issue of the CACI Analyst). U.S. officials said the new mechanism would prove useful for addressing multilateral projects that required region-wide cooperation to succeed. For example, countering regional terrorism, building economic integration, and managing transboundary water resources depend on such joint support. Kerry paired this collective meeting with a series of bilateral sessions with the separate Central Asian governments that allowed the U.S. to address the specific concerns of each individual country.
Kerry’s main goal was reassuring Central Asia’s beleaguered leaders that the U.S. would sustain a major supporting presence in their region despite the U.S. military drawdown in the region and declining U.S. economic and security assistance programs. Central Asians are facing serious challenges in the transformation of regional terrorist threats, newly assertive Russian policies, and the collateral damage that the weakening Russian economy is inflicting on Central Asian markets and living standards.
The unprecedented nature of the trip by the most senior U.S. diplomat to all five states did attract their attention. Kerry’s trip was also helpful for gaining access to the national leaders who could shed light on the activities of China, Russia, and transnational terrorist movements in Central Asia as well as on other issues of interest to Washington. But Kerry, while a prominent political figure in the region due to his influence on U.S. foreign policy during his years as a senator, had to compete with higher-status foreign visitors to the region. In recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have all visited several Central Asian countries. Unlike Kerry’s meetings, these visits typically coincided with billions of dollars’ worth of new deals between foreign and Central Asian partners.
In addition, Kerry had to navigate several delicate balances among competing U.S. priorities, such as addressing Central Asians’ Afghan-related security concerns while emphasizing that Washington does not only consider Central Asia through an Afghan prism. Another balance the secretary confronted was reassuring local leaders that the U.S. would contribute to their regional security while communicating the message that they had to make greater exertions of their own regarding Afghanistan. Kerry also had to encourage these countries to pursue polices independent of Beijing and Moscow while denying that Washington was engaged in a competitive great game with Moscow or Beijing. History, geography, and an aggressive Kremlin leadership fuel Russian engagement, while China’s massive economic assets sustain its presence. Kerry’s limited remarks regarding the previously high-profile U.S. New Silk Road policy in Central Asia reflect the reality that Washington will not devote the enormous resources that Beijing and Moscow have been putting behind their own regional integration plans.
With China the main regional economic powerhouse, and Russia the main security enforcer, the U.S. mainly has niche advantages in comparison. The U.S. team that designed Kerry’s trip accordingly composed a package of economic and social initiatives that built on U.S. strengths in education, renewable energy, management training, and other areas, despite the limited financial resources the U.S government can devote to supporting them. The State Department’s assistance package during Kerry’s trip focused on brokering economic agreements between Central Asian states, Afghanistan and Pakistan, improving the competitiveness of regional exports, mitigating the adverse effects of climate change through regional cooperation and improved resilience, launching a Smart Waters initiative to train the next generation of Central Asian water managers and support regional collaboration, expanding professional and educational exchanges between Central Asian and U.S. institutions and experts, promoting English language learning, and raising the U.S. presence at regional trade forums.
CONCLUSIONS: The Central Asian governments all pursue variants of a multi-vector foreign policy based on flexible partnerships with multiple external countries, including the United States. Kerry’s visit could impart new momentum and influence to U.S. policies in Central Asia, but only if high-level U.S. leadership attention is sustained in coming years – not automatically discarded by the next presidential team – and augmented by more resources. A good first step would be ensuring that the working groups associated with the C5+1 mechanism receive adequate attention in order to keep the new dialogue format productive between the annual ministerial-level meetings. The U.S. should also consider how it can more effectively align its regional projects with those of India, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union. Coordinating Western policies enhances their collective leverage and helps Central Asian states fearful of Chinese and Russian domination.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
Image Attribution: www.slidesharecdn.com, accessed on Dec 22, 2015