Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could help the U.S. combat Beijing and advance human rights.
The brewing competition between the U.S. and China is the defining conflict of the 21st century. The White House’s recent Interim National Security Strategic Guidance Document, crafted to convey President Biden’s vision for how America will engage with the world, is all about the U.S. vs. China. Yet it fails to mention the region where America has its lightest footprint on the planet: Central Asia.
China is building a land bridge to Europe and the Middle East that runs through Central Asia. The new administration will have to account for the region in its strategic thinking if it hopes to re-engage the world after four years of President Trump’s “America First” policy.
The low priority that Mr. Biden’s team assigns to Central Asia is a legacy of successive administrations dating to the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union. The U.S. has since engaged Central Asia, but only in a tactical or transactional manner. Take the 2015 establishment of the C5+1. This U.S.-run diplomatic forum has continued to be the channel through which Washington distributes aid to and organizes meetings between the five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But it hasn’t brought Washington anywhere close to being able to compete with Beijing and Moscow in the region.
Thirty years since the U.S. gained access to Central Asia, long tucked away in the Kremlin’s shadow, it is time to develop a broader strategy for the region—one that takes into consideration the rapidly evolving geopolitics in Eurasia, as Beijing seeks to fill the vacuum created by Russia’s receding influence.
Three of the region’s five nations have demonstrated significant progress in their transition from post-Soviet statehood. Kyrgyzstan has seen three waves of public unrest in its struggle for a more representative government, starting with the 2005 Tulip revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the country’s Soviet-era leader. Five years after, Kyrgyzstan experienced a second uprising, which led to the establishment of a parliamentary system. Its most recent bout of mass agitation, which broke out last year, resulted in a fresh election in which voters overwhelmingly opted for a presidential form of government.
Uzbekistan is also on an impressive path to reform. Since the current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to power following Soviet-era strongman Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, the once-isolated country is opening its borders to foreign investment and Western ideas.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan show much less promise, having been locked into authoritarian regimes since 1991. Natural-gas heavyweight Turkmenistan seems content with limiting its relations to Russia, Iran and China, the last of which purchases upward of 30 billion cubic feet of piped gas a year—roughly one-third of its total gas imports.
But the biggest opportunity for the U.S. may lie in Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily stepped down in 2019 after nearly 29 years as part of a planned political transition.
As Central Asia’s largest state by landmass and economic output, Kazakhstan is the natural leader of the region. Under its new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, it has the potential to be a real strategic partner to America. Already pushing back against both Moscow and Beijing—on issues such as Russian attempts to retain regional influence and aggressive Chinese investments—Kazakhstan can benefit immensely from enhanced engagement with the U.S. A strong Kazakhstan making progress on political reform and economic development can be a model to the region. It may also be a poster child in America’s campaign to encourage secular governance in majority-Muslim countries, to include the rights of women and minorities, as well as best environmental practices.
Kazakhstan may welcome the U.S. support on its path toward democratic reform. It is therefore all the more important that Washington work toward a robust engagement on multiple levels beyond resisting China. The Kazakhs have demonstrated leadership on international diplomacy by hosting several rounds of Syrian peace talks and playing host to talks on Afghanistan and Iran. Kazakhstan can help Washington in shaping a post-U.S. Afghanistan, countering Iran’s nuclear ambition, and containing Turkey as it eyes the trans-Caspian region—where the Caucuses meet Central Asia.
To accomplish this, the Biden administration will have to devote real attention to Central Asia. For starters, the Biden-Harris team should appoint a special envoy to the region. The White House can and should use Kazakhstan’s tradition of hosting multilateral diplomacy and Uzbekistan’s newly opened economy, to pursue diplomatic and economic interests across Eurasia. America’s foreign policy is at a historic moment as Beijing looms. Central Asia could be the key to help revive U.S. leadership in the world.
Mr. Bokhari is director of analytical development at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and a national-security and foreign-policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.
The Wall Street Journal
By Kamran Bokhari