Should We Trust Washington’s “More Peaceful” Approach to Central Asia?

P 20.02.2020 U Vladimir Odintsov


In spite of promises made by US President Donald Trump during his previous election campaign about focusing on the internal problems of the United States, in a situation where spheres of influence are being redistributed across the globe, Washington is going to spend ever increasing time and resources improving its foothold in Central Asia, where both international and regional players have their own interests too. This notion has recently been confirmed by a policy paper released by the US State Department titled “United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity”.

In previous editions of this policy paper, revised every five to six years, attempts were made to introduce such artificially created concepts as the “Greater Middle East” and “Greater Central Asia” to somehow connect the post-Soviet space with the neighboring Muslim world, or try to persuade us that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan somehow belong as part of South Asia, this latest version clearly highlights the region’s value in itself. At the same time, the document emphasizes that the governing principle of Washington’s new approach lies in the recognition of the extreme value of Central Asia as a region, regardless of the level of US military involvement in Afghanistan.

Yet, it’s clear that the US is fully aware of the difficulties associated with its goal of entrenching itself deeper in this region, as most of its players recognize themselves as traditional partners of Russia and China. That is precisely why Washington is prepared to develop bilateral ties with local elites in these nations where it still has a competitive advantage. In the 1990s, the United States believed that it would be highly beneficial for its interests to support independence movements in the Central Asian Republics, which had just escaped Moscow’s direct control. To facilitate this goal it invested considerable efforts into creating alternative energy and transportation infrastructure that would allow the United States to establish control over the primary asset of this region – hydrocarbon deposits and the routes that transport them. In the early 2000s, the region became a major transit hub for US military cargo delivered in and out of Afghanistan.

Today, the top priority of American policymakers in their approach to Central Asia is the geopolitical re-modeling of the region for it to suit Washington’s interests through an active participation in such areas as joint security, economics, democracy and human rights discussions.

However, the primary focus will be establishing control over the flow of natural resources, as it was their abundance that allowed the post-Soviet states of the region to venture into the world of independent politics they’ve been trying to master over the past three decades. The US is particularly interested in establishing control over major regional pipelines that transit oil and gas from the energy-rich nations of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, to Washington’s primary adversary – China. American policymakers are also aware of rich uranium deposits that can be found all across the region. That is why the updated strategy paper emphasizes Washington’s interest in financing new infrastructure, energy, and logistics projects in the region, while hoping that they will lead to the acceleration of liberal reforms in such countries as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In particular, the strategy states:

Successful US engagement in Central Asia will also advance our own national security interests and contribute to the defense of our homeland, citizens, and interests abroad. Close relations and cooperation with all five countries will promote US values and provide a counterbalance to the influence of regional neighbors.

This counterbalance lies in the joint construction of transport corridors and power lines heading south, through the territory of Afghanistan. As early as in 2011, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was already pedaling such ideas. That is why some of the key points of such a project were highlighted in the updated paper, among which there’s the notion of brining CASA-1000 into existence, implying the construction of massive power lines that would transport the excess electricity produced in Central Asia to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Another project that the Americans are willing to invest in, in a desperate bid to compete with China’s OBOR, is the construction of the Lapis Lazuli corridor – a project that Washington has been promoting since 2012, which involves the construction of a railway line stretching from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan up to the Caspian Sea, linking the region with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

As for the other economic endeavours that are no less important for Central Asia – including the export of cotton and other agricultural products, so far its has been limited to deliveries to the markets of neighboring countries of the CIS and China. As for the industrial production, its levels have so far been negligible within the overall GDP of most of these nations. That is why these avenues haven’t been reflected in Washington’s strategic plans yet.

However, even though the revised strategy emphasizes the unprecedented value of the region in and of itself, we’re witnessing an ever increasing number of remarks demanding local players to take on the burden of restoring Afghanistan to normality. It turns out that the importance of the region for the United States is still determined by the Afghan factor. Hence, in line with the omnipresent Afghan matter, the revised strategy pays a lot of attention to the security of Central Asia, as it states that the spread of terrorist and extremist threats in the region must be stopped. Hence, the US is now trying to demonstrate its readiness to provide all the necessary assistance to achieve this end. At the same time, it is noteworthy that there’s no criticism voiced over the security structures that are already operating in the region, whether we look at the pro-Russian CSTO or the purely regional SCO. From this fact we can draw the conclusion that ensuring security in addressing the Afghan matter is a top priority for the US at this juncture, and it does not matter who – the Russians or the Chinese – share the responsibility for ensuring it.

As for the US attempts to further undermine the positions of Russia and China in this region, we’re seeing the same old notion about the necessity of countering the influence of neighboring countries in the region. At the same time, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan showed before the unveiling of the revised strategy, Washington is not going to put the main emphasis on a confrontation with Russia, focusing instead on combating China. This becomes evident from Pomeo’s call for the need for a reduction in dependence of these two key regional players on Beijing, as he promised US investments and assistance in return. How interested are American businesses going to be in the Central Asian market, which is still miles away from being a purely capitalistic venture, is a rhetorical question …

These days, the United States is entering an increasingly complex and multilateral phase of relations with the outside world, where influential leaders in the field of national security can no longer hide their fears of decreasing American influence. As of now, the US, whether you like it or not, is an empire in its decline, and, as we know all to well from history that such countries are not inclined to behave themselves on the international stage. Therefore, Washington’s attempt to publish a revised strategy for Central Asia with a prominent emphasis on the supposedly peaceful desire of the United States to participate in the development and strengthening of this region cannot overshadow the growing anti-American sentiment in the region and the world. These trends may well change when the United States ceases its military expansionist policies and put an end to the armed conflicts it created in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.

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