The United States of America seems to be getting ready for a fresh round of battling Russia and China’s influence over the strategically significant region of Central Asia. Uncle Sam, however, has never hidden willingness to serve as a counterbalance and a “constructive” alternative to Central Asia’s economic and political relations with two neighboring superpowers. At the same time, now, in the emerging multipolar world, such aspirations are gaining momentum and intensity.
On 14 September 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation (Committee on Foreign Affairs) hosted a hearing entitled “Strengthening U.S. Engagement in Central Asia.” USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Änjali Kaur and Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, presented their testimonies.
Here are the theses from both speeches describing the prerequisites for the US incentives to strengthen its position with the region and the future priorities of activity in Central Asia:
- S. engagement in Central Asia has never been more critical in light of Putin’s unprovoked and unjust invasion of Ukraine.
- The Central Asian region is facing a soaring inflation and a shortage in commodities; the food security of the region is under threat.
- The region is experiencing increased vulnerability to Kremlin disinformation, claims on territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty; the region is subject to growing foreign debt to the PRC.
- As a result, the United States and likeminded countries have the opportunity to demonstrate that they are reliable partners.
- The top priority of the United States is to support the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Central Asian states.
- The USA remains focused on countering the PRC in the region.
- The United States will continue to encourage pathways that reduce the region’s economic dependence on Russia and China.
- The United States is working with Central Asian partners on counterterrorism and security issues.
- As Russia and China restrict trade with the region, the United States is working to support the search for alternative trade routes through the Caspian Sea. The United States is working with the leaders of the region to ensure that anti-Russian sanctions will not lead to further isolation of Central Asia.
- Over the past three decades, the United States has provided more than US $9 billion in direct assistance to Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
- The United States is currently engaged in strengthening connectivity in the Central Asian region, stimulating economic growth, and cooperating in the fight against climate change – all these priorities are crucial to eventually decouple the economies of Central Asia from Russia – and this should be the goal of the United States.
Kaur reported that the Fiscal Year 2023 USAID Budget Request includes US $198.3 million for Central Asia—a 34 % increase over the FY 2022 Request.
These funds, in particular, will be used to help vulnerable families in Central Asian countries; to increase the connectivity of the region and diversify the economy, since increased regional cohesion and robust cooperation with the United States, Europe, and other global partners is critical in reducing the region’s reliance on Russia and the People’s Republic of China.
To put it gently, such statements coming from American officials, particularly those directly in charge of dealing with the Central Asian region, seem disconnected from the geopolitical reality. And this is how reality appears.
Both China and Russia enjoy strategic partnership with all Central Asian countries. In 2010-2021 alone, the volume of accumulated Russian investments amounted to about US $30.5 billion.
There are more than 10,000 Russian and joint ventures operating in Central Asian countries, providing 900,000 jobs.
The total value of Chinese investments in Central Asia by the end of 2020 approached US $40 billion. As of the end of 2021, 7,700 Chinese firms were operating in Central Asia. By 2030, Beijing intends to increase trade turnover with the region to US $ 70 billion.
Chinese and Russian investments have created dozens of transport, industrial, and energy infrastructure facilities in the region.
The degree of ties—political, economic, and humanitarian—with China and Russia, suggests that Central Asian nations deliberately chose to form strategic partnership with these superpowers, guided by their own goals and prospects.
After all, within three decades of independent development, these states have constructed and tested their foreign engagement agendas, and they have gained good skills in navigating the geopolitical and geoeconomic fields.
Consequently, the words of State Department officials that it is necessary to reduce the reliance of Central Asia on Russia and China, or to offer the United States as an alternative to “Russian bullying and Chinese debt” (quote from Donald Lu), unwittingly raise doubts and questions — Is this misunderstanding (or maybe persistent rejection) by the Biden administration of the true interests of Central Asia? Does Washington consider Central Asia a weak-willed puppet, questioning the political viability and self-sufficiency of the top leaders of these countries?
The regional focus of American foreign policy will not be enhanced by a mistaken perception of Central Asia, that much is clear.
Furthermore, the actual weight of the region’s relations with China and Russia, underestimated by Washington, can easily catapult any ideas to undermine those strategic comprehensive ties to nowhere. ///nCa, 15 September 2022