Kazakhstan and U.S. Strategy

Kazakhstan and U.S. Strategy

At a time of intensifying great power rivalry, the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship is becoming increasingly crucial.

Central Asia, a vast land-locked area between Russia and China, deserves far more U.S. attention than it currently gets. Greater U.S. engagement with the region can help counter Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Similarly, U.S. efforts to compete with China can get a boost given that this region is critical for Chinese geoeconomic prowess. At the same time, having a robust relationship with the heart of Eurasia will allow America to create a pressure point for Iran, which is aggressively trying to alter the security architecture of the Middle East. Furthermore, it will enable the United States to ensure that Taliban-run Afghanistan does not become a haven for transnational jihadist agendas at a time when the Islamic State is on the rise again.

U.S. efforts to forge closer ties to Central Asia greatly hinge on its relations with Kazakhstan. The country has the largest economy in the region and is already a middle power. Astana is also a rising international player eager to be a partner of the United States and its allies. Two factors will determine how Washington will enhance ties with Astana. First, both sides must find the optimal midpoint between what the Kazakhs seek from the United States and what Washington can deliver on. Second, Kazakhstan must balance existing relations with Russia and China with its efforts to grow closer to the United States. At a time of intensifying great power rivalry, the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship becomes crucial. While both sides, for their own reasons, will need to navigate the path forward carefully, there are certain key areas in which they can make progress in the short term.

Kazakhstan invests top-level attention in the management of its crucial relationship with Washington. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu visited Washington and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last March. The two discussed practical ways to deepen bilateral cooperation and strengthen U.S. investments in the largest Central Asian economy by revitalizing the Strategic Energy Dialogue. Nurtleu also met with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and discussed bilateral engagements under the aegis of the World Trade Organization and how Astana could support the efforts of the region’s other nations to join the WTO. The two leaders agreed to hold the forthcoming meeting of the Council on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between the Central Asian countries and the United States in Astana.

This meeting follows the March 13-15 B5+1 Forum held in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, which I had the opportunity to attend. Participants discussed ways to make Central Asia more attractive for foreign investment. The B5+1 is the business counterpart to the diplomatic C5+1 framework comprising the United States and the five Central Asian states. B5+1 was conceived of during President Joe Biden’s meeting in New York last September with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan’s efforts to take the lead in establishing greater connectivity between Central Asia and its partners, East and West, come at a critical historical moment. Central Asia finds itself caught in the middle of two sets of significant power conflicts. On the one hand, Moscow appears to be gaining the upper hand in the Ukraine conflict, which the West is struggling to counter. At the same time, Washington’s efforts to contain China are accelerating—both in military terms in the western Pacific and on the international trade front. The situation for Kazakhstan is all the more acute considering its long borders with both powers and deep economic, political, and security relations with America’s major competitors.

In this context, Washington (especially the next administration, given elections in November) will have to grow its relations with Astana. It is essential to recognize that when many around the world are questioning American leadership, Kazakhstan is eager to cultivate deeper ties with the United States. Doing so helps advance the resilience of the Central Asian nations to withstand the pressures from Moscow and Beijing.  

More importantly, investing in Kazakhstan’s prosperity means investing in global energy security, particularly in the clean energy transition. While the current dispute between the Western companies that invested in Kashagan’s giant offshore oil field and the Government of Kazakhstan needs to be resolved, the country is home to many of the most sought-after rare earth elements (REE). The United States and its allies must diversify the global REE supply chain, which China currently dominates. Western investments in the exploration, mining, and refining of these deposits in Kazakhstan can go a long way in rolling back the edge Beijing enjoys in this crucial sector. Likewise, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium ore, another industry in which China has gained a significant advantage in recent years by investing in exploration efforts.

One of the key takeaways from the B5+1 Forum last month was that Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian nations needed to implement political and economic reforms that render their region attractive to investors. While China can pour tens of billions of dollars into projects for geopolitical reasons, Washington and its allies rely on the private sector to do most of the heavy lifting. Western firms are motivated by returns on their investments rather than national strategy. This is a general operating principle, but for sectors like critical minerals and uranium in a climate of escalating great power strategic competition, Washington needs to think outside of the box about Central Asia. Security should trump profit.

So far, the implementation of the bilateral agenda between Washington and Astana is moving rather slowly. The State Department must take leadership to lift the antiquated, Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment and apply permanent trade relations status to this market-oriented country. One hopes that Foreign Minister Nurtleu’s visit to Washington will catalyze progress and move the vital relationship forward. An election year means any serious upgrading of U.S.-Kazakhstan ties will have to wait until 2025.

Regardless of who wins a second term come November—Biden or Trump—the United States will have to deal with a litany of challenges from the Eurasian landmass and will need a far more robust strategy for Central Asia than what we have seen thus far.

Kamran Bokhari, PhD is the Senior Director of Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X at @KamranBokhari.

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