Last week, a US State Department delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Donald Lu visited four Central Asian countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
He was accompanied by the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia Eric Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Rebecca Zimmerman, U.S. Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia Anjali Kaur, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Naz El-Khatib.
The tour set off from Kyrgyzstan, which is well known to Donald Lu. He served as US diplomat in Bishkek twice – for the first time as a deputy chief of mission from 2003 to 2006, when the tulip revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan and for the second time as an ambassador from 2018 to 2021. That time (namely, in 2020), the political horizon in the Kyrgyz Republic was again illuminated by the flame of riots.
There is a need to take an aside and recall that the reputation of the State Department diplomat in charge of South and Central Asia has been somewhat tarnished by recent statements by former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. A prominent politician accused him of involvement in the recent coup in Pakistan. As Imran Khan said in an interview with CNN, Donald Lu “should be sacked for bad manners and sheer arrogance.” Earlier D.Lu threated then Pakistani ambassador in Washington, that Pakistan would face implications if Imran Khan survived no-confidence vote in parliament.
In Bishkek, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Donald Lu met with foreign minister Jeenbek Kulubayev.
Among the routine issues of such meetings, the parties discussed the possibilities of increasing investment cooperation and mitigating the negative impact of international sanctions on the economy of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the need to intensify assistance in improving border security.
However, one item on the agenda of Lu’s visit to Kyrgyzstan remained behind the scenes. The American high-ranking guest was received by the country’s President Sadyr Zhaparov. This was not reported by either the official media or the presidential press service, which usually provides press release coverage promptly. Some details from the meeting were unveiled by Donald Lu in an interview with the local branch of Radio Liberty (Azattyk).
In Tashkent, Lu was received by acting foreign minister of Uzbekistan Vladimir Norov.
The parties discussed preparations for the next session of the Strategic Partnership Dialogue in Washington, talked about the readiness of the United States to help Uzbekistan in advancing the reform process.
He also met with the minister of investment and foreign trade of Uzbekistan Sardor Umurzakov.
The possibilities of attracting American business to the implementation of projects in Uzbekistan and the realization of joint programs and initiatives to support Uzbek exporters and promote women’s entrepreneurship were discussed. The prospects of expanding cooperation with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are considered, with a view to attracting the Agency’s technical and advisory assistance for the development of green energy, agriculture, youth entrepreneurship, increasing the export potential of the textile industry and other areas. The issue of intensifying cooperation with the US Financial Corporation for International Development on the implementation of private sector projects in promising industries has been agreed. The American side expressed its intention to continue to support Uzbekistan in matters of WTO accession. (mift.uz, 23 May)
Besides the official part, Donald Lu, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the USAID Asian Bureau Anjali Kaur and US Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum, met with women entrepreneurs at the Toshkent Gullari floristry school and collected flower arrangements.
During his visit to Tajikistan, D.Lu and foreign minister Sirodjiddin Muhriddin held a round of political consultations. Security issues became a key topic of the talks in Dushanbe. According to the American diplomat, issues of protection of state borders were discussed, and with the help of the United States, construction of a new border post in Chaldovar will start soon on the Afghan-Tajik border.
He also visited the US-supported center for Afghan refugees in Wahdat.
In Kazakhstan, Donald Lu had separate meetings with foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi and his first deputy Akan Rakhmetullin. “Emphasizing the progressive development of civil society and the positive dynamics in the socio-economic development of Kazakhstan, D.Lu outlined the support of the US Administration for the political reforms initiated by the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,” the Kazakh foreign ministry said in a statement.
The regional and Russian experts have voiced various points of view regarding the background of the US delegation visit to Central Asia. It is likely that the true outcomes in the practical field of cooperation will emerge later.
There are several assumptions about what objective the State Department set for its team touring Central Asia.
First, it is probing the prospects of forging the American base (both physical and remote) in the Central Asian region under the noble guise of helping to protect the region from the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan.
D.Lu, in an interview with the Tajik branch of Radio Liberty, said: “We know that new terrorist groups are appearing in Afghanistan. They have already organized several terrorist acts. The Pakistani Taliban also have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan. I think all these are threats to the security of Central Asia. During the current working trip, our delegation discussed with representatives of Central Asian countries the situation in Afghanistan and border security issues”. He cited Joe Biden as saying that the United States will never allow terrorists to harm America and its partners.
Secondly, the tour may be related to the escalating tensions in Beijing-Washington relations. The strong investment, economic, and political ties of the Central Asian region with China have become an axiom. At the same time, the United States see China as the most serious long-term challenge to the international order. “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said recently. (State.gov, 26 May 2022). In other words, the United States consider China to be the very force capable of throwing the American world hegemony into non-being.
Thirdly, the visit may also be aimed at causing irritation in Moscow. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, in recent interviews and meetings with his Central Asian colleagues, has repeatedly emphasized that Russia would not admit the appearance of any US/NATO/or their allies’ bases in the Central Asian region for the purpose of conducting anti-terrorist operations. “When the Americans gather Central Asian countries at scientific levels, they directly say that they should not dare to continue cooperation with Russia, they say, Russia is a destroyed country, and it is necessary to rely on them [US]. They say the same thing about China,” Larov said. (mid.ru, 13 May 2022)
Whatever the specific goals of the US negotiations with the countries of Central Asia would be, Richard Hoagland, the former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, was very precise on US engagement in Central Asia. He said: “While Washington speaks publicly about democracy and economic development, it is more quietly focused on countering Russian and Chinese influence in the region.”
These words came just three weeks before the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, which, in fact, triggered the destruction of the US-designed rules-based world. And now, when this process is in full swing, Washington’s pursuit in Central Asia becomes relevant as never before. ///nCa, 29 May 2022