To America’s advantage, the Central Asian region stirs

It long has been an adage of international relations that a country is either “at the table” or “on the menu.” This never has been truer than regarding the nations of Central Asia, a region that all too often has been on the menu of other voracious powers, rather than an entity with its own sovereign agency. In line with good realist thinking, it stands to reason that middle-ranking powers in the region itself ought to band together to balance against the great outside powers, preserving their precarious autonomy.

Helpfully, this is just what is happening in Central Asia. With Uzbekistan, the country with the largest population, in the lead, Central Asia recently and dramatically has shown itself increasingly capable of holding its own with the three great outside powers invested in the region: China, Russia and the United States.

Following the debacle of its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, America’s new strategic objectives in the region dovetail almost perfectly with this development, which the U.S. should nurture. Central Asia is looking for freedom from any form of great-power domination, whether it be strategic dependence on Moscow or economic tutelage under the wing of Beijing. It is precisely because America’s interests so reflect those of the region itself — its primary goal is that no other great power dominates the vast Eurasian hinterlands — that the Biden administration must do what it can to encourage this Central Asian renaissance. 

If the region as a whole is coming together, it is Uzbekistan that provides much of the impetus for this, serving as a regional integration catalyst and a pioneer of cooperation, connectivity, stability and sustainable development. This is no accident, starting with the new overall strategic direction that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has set, which revolves around a “neighbors first” policy. 

In line with this approach, Tashkent has worked to resolve decades-old disputes over territorial claims and state borders with the other Central Asian countries, while also settling prickly water and energy resource disputes. The Uzbek government has lifted bans on intra-regional trade, while enhancing increased regional transport, as a practical way to bind Central Asia organically together. In 2020 alone, the country’s trade turnover with Central Asia increased by threefold, despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Geostrategically, and entirely in line with U.S. interests, there are now regular summits of the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — without any outside great-power involvement, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

President Mirziyoyev inaugurated a foreign policy initiative to hold regular regional meetings, and the first Central Asian presidents’ meeting took place March 15, 2018. The initial thrust of the summits has been economic in nature, focusing on eliminating trade barriers, encouraging closer industrial cooperation, and modernizing the region’s overall energy infrastructure, in order to increase overall trade and facilitate regional connectivity. But beneath it all, there has been a clear strategic rationale for the entire project. As Mirziyoyev put it: “We would like Central Asia to be perceived as a world region with its own interests and objectives.”

At the country level, the key fulcrum of regional success — much as the Franco-German link drives the European Union — is strong, increasing ties between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two largest, most populous and strategically and economically important states in Central Asia. In just the past few weeks, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have declared the upgrade of their strategic partnership to an alliance relationship, with a focus on economic matters. 

Strikingly, this is the first alliance of former Soviet states not involving Russia. Taken together, all of this signifies Uzbekistan’s strategic shift to place itself and the region equidistant from the three outside great powers — a state of play that can only benefit the U.S.

That this change is real is beyond doubt. On Dec. 13, Uzbekistan and the U.S. held their first Strategic Partnership Dialogue meeting. The two sides agreed to expand cooperation; U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu noted that America stands ready to help Uzbekistan further liberalize its economy to increase American private-sector trade and investment. 

So, how should the U.S. take advantage of this strategic shift in Central Asia? As I wrote here recently, for the U.S. to play the new “Great Game” successfully, it must clearly articulate its interests in the region. First, it wants to stop the revival of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, following the fall of Kabul. Second, it wants to keep rival great powers (Russia and China) from wholly dominating the Eurasian heartland. 

To make this happen, it is past time for America to rescind the outdated Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, a Cold War relic that imposed economic sanctions and tariffs on a Soviet Union that interfered with Jewish emigration. The amendment no longer applies to Russia but applies, nonsensically, to Uzbekistan and its neighbors, which have good diplomatic relations with Israel and freedom of emigration. 

It precludes closer U.S. economic ties with the region. While entirely correct for the time, now everyone — from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to chief rabbis and Jewish communities throughout the region — has urged Washington to terminate the amendment, allowing for a much-needed expansion of trade. At the same time, U.S. Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), the common platform by which America trades with even such competitors as Russia, must be enacted with Central Asian countries.

Central Asia finally being “at the table,” rather than being “on the menu,” presents the U.S. with a largely unforeseen strategic opportunity. It is high time that America takes advantage of it.

This blog post was originally published in The Hill.