Editorial: Washington Cannot Sway Central Asia. Here is Why

Photo: White House

President Joe Biden met yesterday with leaders of five Central Asian countries at the C5+1 presidential summit in New York. No American president has ever visited the region or engaged it at such a high level, making the Tuesday summit unprecedented in many ways. However, it is hard to expect anything more tangible in the near term beyond a renewal of short-lived American interest in the region. The Central Asian countries will use the American engagement as bargaining chips against Russia and China. But they will not be tilted westward anytime soon. Here is why:

First, Central Asian states realize that the American enthusiasm is heavily motivated by its interest elsewhere. In particular, given the prolonging of the war in Ukraine and rising tensions with China over Taiwan and AI technological developments, the United States is trying to build a larger alliance against Russia in the region and curtail China’s advancement. The White House readout of the meeting shows the relatively heavier focus on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asian countries, which seems to be messaging to Moscow. Otherwise, the rhetoric of sovereignty is one often used by Russia, China and their allies against international calls for upholding democratic principles and respecting human rights. In fact, the C5+1 platform was launched in 2015 but has received little substantial traction in Washington so far. The regional governments do understand this dynamic and realize that should the dynamics change in Ukraine, the American approach to Central Asia would too.

They also have learned this from their history of cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan. In the early 2000s, the American military campaign in Afghanistan relied on Russian-encouraged Central Asian cooperation. Uzbekistan, for example, allowed the use of Karshi-Khanabad airport by American forces. Later, after the NATO supply route through Pakistan became less reliable in the midst of tensions caused by the raid that killed Bin Laden, Central Asia offered the Northern Supply Route as a critical alternative. However, this strategic cooperation failed to facilitate any long-term partnership.

Second, the United States cannot compete with Russia and China in the region. To begin with, Central Asia is not easily accessible to the United States. Not only is it landlocked, it is surrounded by American adversaries almost all around. The region’s leaders do register the difficulty of American heavy engagement in their countries. When it comes to cooperation in energy and extraction of the region’s rich mineral resources, China has an upper hand given its proximity and more streamlined investment processes. Moreover, Chinese investment often comes with either fewer strings attached or with conditions more favourable to the region’s less democratic governments. American engagement, on the other hand, is tied to democracy promotion and human rights agendas. Even in cases where the US administration ignores those principles in its foreign policy, domestic pressure and legislatures could limit what Washington could offer to the regional governments that could steer them away from Chinese grips.

These limitations are not lost on the regional leaders, some of whom have ruled their countries for decades. The increased level of regional unity and cooperation in recent years makes it further difficult for the U.S. to make an opening. Regional leaders, however, will use the American interest to bolster their negotiating position against China, something that has become an attractive course of action for many countries. With the rise of Chinese power and a weaker, less credible, and more entangled U.S., developing countries try to secure the maximum for themselves by playing one global power against the other. We see that in Turkey, Saudi, and even India and elsewhere. Central Asia would be no different.