Central Asian Connectivity Is Crucial to America’s Strategic Interests

Central Asian Connectivity Is Crucial to America’s Strategic Interests

What rationale and strategies drive U.S. engagement in shaping the establishment of new trade routes for Central Asian trade?


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, precipitated by Russia’s invasion, has had numerous consequential effects on international affairs. Yet while much of the world has focused on the most pronounced of these—such as economic impact and shifts in energy routes—on particularly important trend has gone unnoticed: the war has spurred Central Asian nations to reconsider existing linkages and trade routes. In fact, the conflict has arguably ushered in one of the most pivotal moments for the connectivity of the Central Asian region with the global trade destinations since the dissolution of the USSR.

Prior to this conflict, the trade activities of Central Asian nations predominantly traversed Russian territory to access international waters. Yet the war has made transport through the Russia/Ukraine border region significantly more challenging. Moreover, sanctions imposed upon Russia by the West have further complicated trade activity through Russian territory. Thus, along with Moscow’s limited capacity to simultaneously engage in Central Asia, means there is a newfound impetus and favorable environment for the diversification and expansion of trade routes in the region.


This moment presents a unique opportunity for U.S. policymakers. Given Central Asia’s geographic and strategic importance, it is imperative for the United States to help facilitate new connectivity routes within the region.

Why does Central Asia Matter to Washington?

Long underrecognized, the Central Asia region, along with the nearby South Caucasus, is of flourishing importance to all geopolitical actors. It is filled with rich reserves of energy and natural resources, plays host to numerous key trade routes, and occupies a strategic geopolitical real estate between most of the great powers of the world. The importance of the Central Asian and Caucasus regions, collectively termed as the “Silk Road Region” by Damjan Krnjević Mišković, was best described by him in a recent essay for the summer 2023 issue of the Baku Dialogues. He argues that “as the region’s multifaceted connectivity infrastructure increases in both scale and scope,” it will become “indispensable to the fulfillment of the strategic ambitions of the major powers that surround it on all sides”

This trend is becoming increasingly apparent if recent diplomacy is anything to go by. In the eighteen months since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Central Asian region has seen a barrage of interregional and regional summits, building upon the U.S.-proposed C5+1 platform (with the “C” standing for the five Central Asian governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). These recent summits include C5+China, C5+India, C5+Russia, C5+EU, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Summit with Central Asian countries, and others. Throughout all of these engagements, significant emphasis is placed on expanding trade relations, investing in regional infrastructure, and enhancing connectivity.

Yet due to geographical distance, the United States is at a disadvantage in the region, which is itself encircled by Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea. Moreover, given prevailing circumstances—including Russia’s increasing propensity for military interventions in foreign policy, Iran’s determination to exclude non-regional countries from regional affairs, the lack of recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and the considerable extent of China’s regional presence—Washington’s involvement in shaping connectivity routes within Central Asia is of vital importance, as it provides an important avenue to exert influence.

To that end, it is worth considering some of the potential routes being explored and developed in the region.

The Trans-Afghan Route

On July 18 of this year, a trilateral agreement was reached by the railway authorities of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, the latter of which is under the administration of Taliban. This agreement concerned the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway, which aims to establish a vital linkage, connecting the city of Termez in Uzbekistan, spanning through Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul in Afghanistan, and culminating at Peshawar in Pakistan.

Although the project’s initial introduction to the public sphere dates back to 2018, substantive strides in its implementation were realized subsequent to the Tashkent International Conference on Afghanistan in 2022. Notably, the comprehensive feasibility study for this ambitious railway venture was successfully concluded within the same year.

While this route might offer a convenient route for Central Asian connectivity, financial challenges in Uzbekistan suggest a potential completion timeline around 2027. Moreover, the lack of widespread recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan poses obstacles for Uzbekistan’s export endeavors.

Given these circumstances, compounded by the United States’ non-recognition of the Taliban administration, Washington is likelier to advocate for an alternative route.

The Iranian Route

Situated in a geographically advantageous position to the southeast of the Central Asian region, Iran offers one of the shortest routes to international waters that traverse a single country. This route, however, remained largely underutilized for an extended period due to Moscow’s influence over Central Asian countries and Iran’s isolation from the global stage. However, following the onset of the war in Ukraine, leaders from nearly all regional countries embarked on official visits to Tehran to reassess their relations with Iran.

These commenced with the president of Tajikistan on May 30, 2022, followed by Turkmenistan on June 14 and Kazakhstan on June 20. The most recent leader to visit from the region was the president of Uzbekistan on June 18, 2023. While intentions were voiced for Kyrgyzstan’s president, Sadyr Japarov, to visit Tehran in February of 2023, this has not yet occured.

A pivotal focus during these visits was the theme of trade and connectivity. Iran holds the potential to provide these nations not only with the alternative route to the European market through Türkiye but also a direct path to the Arabian Sea, granting access to international waters. In addition, discussions during the visits of the leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also encompassed the situation in Afghanistan. Key topics in these bilateral dialogues were socioeconomic reconstruction, peace, and stability in Afghanistan. Iran’s president specifically emphasized Tehran’s interest in excluding non-regional countries from influencing the settlement of situation in Afghanistan.

Given Washington’s poor relations with Iran, it is obviously in the United States’ interest to discourage Central Asian countries from utilizing the route through Iran. This could not only fuel Iran’s economic growth but also elevate its influence in Central Asian affairs, with adverse implications for the U.S. interests in the region.

The Caspian Route

The sole route giving access to the international waters while not being confined solely to railways is the passage spanning the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye, ultimately extending to the Mediterranean Sea and the European Union. This route employs a combination of both railway and maritime transport for the movement of goods.

A few developments over recent years highlight the growing importance and usage of this route.

A pivotal juncture was first reached with the introduction of container train system, first tested on August 3, 2015. The inaugural test container train embarked from the Chinese city of Shihezi, traversing Kazakhstan, and ultimately arrived at Baku en route to Türkiye. Later, on October 30, 2017, after multiple delays, the ceremonial inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway transpired in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku. The commencement of this railway not only facilitated the connection between Azerbaijan and Türkiye via Georgia but also established groundwork for enhanced connectivity across the East-West corridor, linking Chinese, Central Asian, and EU markets.

The significant rise in trade via this route came with the ending of the Second Karabakh War in November of 2020. Rail freight data between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan for the years 2021 and 2022 demonstrate a remarkable surge, from 125,000 tons to 950,000 tons—an astonishing 800 percent increase. Similarly, another significant event unfolded on December 27, 2022, as the inaugural container block transporting copper from Uzbekistan to the EU successfully arrived in the Port of Baku.

Drawing the attention to the recent summit between the EU and Central Asian countries in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, where the expansion of trade relations emerged as one of the central topics, and considering the discussions surrounding the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway during the C + C5 summit in Xian province of China, there exists a compelling anticipation for a substantial increase in the volume of freight traversing this route.

Yet while trade volumes along this route have experienced significant growth, further expansion is limited at present due to the limited capacities of cargo ports in the Caspian Sea. On the western side of the Caspian is the Port of Baku, which holds a cargo handling capacity of 15 million tons, set to be increased to 25 million tons. The primary ports located on the eastern shoreline of the Caspian Sea are Aktau and Kuryk in Kazakhstan, along with Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. At present, Aktau boasts an extensive handling capacity of 17.7 million tons, while Kuryk port is set to expand its capacity to accommodate 10 million tons by the 2030, while the port of Turkmenbashi stands prepared to manage 17 million tons of cargo.

Overall, because these ports currently operate within restricted capacities, the Caspian Route is unable to evolve into the foremost trade artery for Central Asia.