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The West must prioritise ties with Central Asia

Emil Avdaliani
April 16, 2024

Though it’s 5,928 miles away from Washington and 3,500 miles from London, the United States and the United Kingdom need to pay attention to Central Asia, a region flanked by Russia and China.

Last month, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Murat Nurtleu, in Washington, D.C., to discuss enhancing the relations between the U.S. and Kazakhstan in political, trade, economic, and humanitarian spheres. This is in line with Washington’s recent policy of developing closer ties with Central Asia, a region that has become, yet again, geopolitically important to the United States since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With an eye on the Ukrainian conflict, Central Asian countries are employing a balanced approach, sustaining economic relations with Moscow while simultaneously strengthening their ties with Western nations.

Last September, U.S. President Joe Biden held an inaugural summit with the leaders of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, signalling Washington’s growing interest in the region amid this window of geopolitical opportunity.

The Biden Administration rightly views Central Asia as important for trans-Eurasian trade routes that could connect China and Europe without transiting through the Russian hinterland. In this context, Washington and its allies in the West, including the United Kingdom, should support the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, which links China to the EU via Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Türkiye.

Secondly, Western governments need to work with Central Asian states on alleged sanctions evasion. This is a challenge, considering Kazakhstan’s 7,644-kilometer border with Russia and its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. Nevertheless, since 2022, Kazakhstan has effectively enforced Western sanctions against Russia, as acknowledged by the European Union. With the ongoing Ukraine conflict, it’s vital for Washington to keep Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations aligned with the West in preventing sanctioned goods from reaching Russia.

Central Asian countries are key in controlling extremist ideologies and acting as buffers against regional instability. Quote

Another priority for Western countries is border security and counterterrorism in Central Asia, given the region’s proximity to Afghanistan. Central Asian countries are key in controlling extremist ideologies and acting as buffers against regional instability. The recent ISIS-Khorasan attack in Moscow has highlighted the ongoing terrorism threat and the importance of regional cooperation in combatting it.

Boosting trade and investment is an additional area of interest between the countries in the West, including Britain, and Central Asian countries. For instance, America’s top economic partner in the region, with bilateral trade of $4 billion in 2023. Meanwhile, the UK is among the 15 largest trading partners for Kazakhstan. Direct investments from the U.S. in Kazakhstan reached $5 billion in 2023, with the total figure since independence reaching more than $62 billion. Central Asia is full of abundant resources, notably oil, uranium, and rare earth elements. Kazakhstan, a major global oil producer with large fields like Tengiz and Kashagan, also possesses significant reserves of metals and minerals essential for high-tech industries.

To utilise these opportunities, the United States and Britain need to ensure that Central Asian nations maintain a balanced political stance amidst pressure from larger neighbouring countries. At his meeting with the Kazakh foreign minister, Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. This was an indirect but significant signal of support in the context of Ukraine’s war.

Kazakhstan employs a multi-vector foreign policy, aimed at maintaining good relations with all major global players. Astana also plans to apply for membership in the OECD in 2025, which serves as a platform for coordinating domestic and international economic policies among its member countries, including Britain and the U.S.

Kazakhstan has been promoting cooperation and dialogue among nations and regions. For instance, the Astana International Forum, inaugurated in 2023, has become a major venue for global discourse, attracting over 2,000 leaders from various sectors to discuss a range of issues, including geopolitical and economic topics. The forum, scheduled for next year, presents an opportunity for Western representatives to deepen their involvement in Central Asia.

The growing importance of Central Asia in global geopolitics has prompted a strategic shift in Western foreign policy. This investment in stronger, mutually beneficial relations with the region can yield significant dividends in economic and geopolitical areas.

Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani is Silk Roads scholar and a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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