As the Biden administration takes shape, important changes are taking place in Central Asia that offer new opportunities for U.S. interests in the region, including for U.S. companies. The radically reduced U.S. troop footprint in Afghanistan has changed America’s strategic calculus in Central Asia. In 2011, when I served as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, one of the principal drivers of our policy was to develop the Northern Distribution Network as an alternative route to Pakistan to deliver supplies to the one hundred thousand troops we had stationed in Afghanistan. Today the much-reduced number of U.S. troops means that the United States can focus much more on Central Asia on its own merits. But as Central Asia now competes with other regions of the world to attract investment and resources, its countries must also focus more on making Central Asia an attractive region for investors.
Several positive trends are shaping new opportunities in the region. These include:
Uzbekistan’s transformation from being the primary obstacle to regional connectivity and cooperation under President Islam Karimov to the primary driver under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a process embraced by all of the countries in the region;
Uzbekistan’s prioritization of regional cooperation likewise has given new momentum to regional infrastructure projects such as the CASA-1000 project to export surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan;
A more vigorous approach by all five of the countries to improve their ease of doing business to attract more investment from the United States and others; and
Kazakhstan’s aspiration to join the OECD and its progress to diversify its economy and offer new opportunities to U.S. companies in sectors such as agriculture.
While there have been some improvements in democracy and governance such as the steady progress Uzbekistan has been making to reduce forced labor in the cotton harvest, and the Kyrgyz Republic’s relatively open political system, the region remains susceptible to the authoritarian capitalist model that China seeks to promote, both globally and in its backyard.
Likewise, progress towards opening new trade routes from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean region has been spotty at best.
Despite a U.S.-brokered peace process in Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to control many parts of Afghanistan, and all eyes are now on the United States to see whether the new Biden administration will delay the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops in May to boost prospects for a negotiated settlement.
Continued friction between Pakistan and India likewise has inhibited the potential for Central Asia to access India’s huge and growing market that is likely to be a driver of global growth for years to come.
And the uncertain outlook for a new Iran nuclear deal, coupled with the threat of U.S. sanctions against those who invest in Iran has hampered infrastructure investments in and to Iran, such as Indian investment in the port of Chabbahar, which it sees as vital to establishing a supply line to Afghanistan, but which also could benefit Central Asia.
As the new Biden administration takes shape, we should expect considerable continuity in our policy toward Central Asia with some important opportunities for new engagement. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the United States has consistently sought to support the sovereignty, independence, security, and prosperity of the five Central Asian countries to reinforce our interests in countering terrorism, nurturing regional stability, promoting energy security, and enhancing both prosperity and opportunities for U.S. business.
The Biden administration will have early opportunities to reaffirm these broad contours and signal our continued strategic interest in the region. A good first step would be for Secretary of State Blinken to arrange a Zoom engagement with his Central Asian foreign minister counterparts. That would provide the opportunity for Secretary Anthony Blinken to:
First, announce the U.S. government’s intention to continue high-level bilateral engagement with each government, as well as the regional Central Asia 5 plus 1 process (C5+1);
Second, reaffirm the USG’s intention to use the resources of the Development Finance Corporation, Export-Import Bank and other institutions to boost U.S. trade and investment with the region;
And third, affirm the renewed focus of the Biden administration to work with each of the five to encourage progress on democracy, human rights, religious freedom, trafficking in persons, and corruption.
The Biden administration will also have the opportunity to promote more vigorously two lines of effort of new significance:
The first is climate diplomacy. As the world prepares to attend the next global climate negotiations in Glasgow in November, the EU, China, and several other major economies have announced ambitious plans to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of this century and develop ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to present at Glasgow.
President Joe Biden’s Special Climate Envoy John Kerry already has signaled America’s intention not only to develop its own ambitious NDC, but also to work with the UN and like-minded countries to encourage each to make their own ambitious commitments. So each of the Central Asian countries should expect renewed pressure for them to scale up their ambitions. At the same time, the United States should provide financing for our companies to scale up a greater reliance on renewable energy and smart city technologies to help Central Asia reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
A second opportunity will be for the United States to scale up COVID-related diplomacy. Biden’s nominee to head USAID, Samantha Power, signaled her own strong support for this idea in an article she wrote in Foreign Affairs in January. Bilateral dialogues will determine the exact nature of how we can help. But assistance could range from technical assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Almaty and other experts in each of our embassies; to helping scale up vaccine availability as the United States rapidly meets its own needs.
While U.S. domestic matters rightly occupy the Biden administration’s attention now, it would nevertheless do well to seize early opportunities for engagement with Central Asia, where regional developments and U.S. interests intersect in new ways.
Robert O. Blake, Jr. served as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia from 2009-2013, and has also been US Ambassador to Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He is a senior director at the Washington DC-based global strategy firm McLarty Associates.