The United States and Uzbekistan recently concluded the second meeting of their Strategic Partnership Dialogue. As Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and borders Afghanistan and the four other Central Asian states, U.S. policy regarding the republic is likely to be Washington’s blueprint for the region.
As part of the dialogue, the Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Norov, and his delegation had productive meetings with leaders of the State Department, the Defense Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom.
The official U.S. policy objective in Central Asia is to support “Central Asian states’ sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.” In day-to-day practice for U.S. officialdom, this means:
- Limit Russia’s commercial activity and energy trade in the region.
- Limit local participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in favor of Western projects such as the not-fully-funded Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
- Unseat the Taliban and install a complaisant government in Kabul.
All well and good, but what’s in it for Central Asia?
The region lives between Russia and China, borders Afghanistan, and feels the tremors of events in Iran and Pakistan. What sounds like a good idea in far-away Washington and Brussels, may falter once on the ground in Central Asia because the five republics, and Russia, China, et al, are “neighbors forever” and have little margin for error.
Likewise, should the U.S. appoint any country, notably Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, its “deputy marshal” in the region, an act that will compromise the leaders (unless that is the plan?) Being anointed as the U.S. deputy sure didn’t help the Shah of Iran so if Washington learned anything from that sorry episode it should apply it here.
Russia is regularly ranked as a top trade partner of Uzbekistan, and Russia and the Central Asian republics have been connected since the then-Russian Empire conquered the region in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Despite their long-standing links, the Central Asian republics are trying to create some daylight between themselves and Moscow and, in response, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited all five republics in 2022, unlike the American president and whomever it is who speaks for Europe. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have voiced support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and have also supplied non-lethal aid to Kyiv. And Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon, in a recent face-to-face meeting with Putin, demanded the Russian treat his country with respect.
Russia’s sudden announcement of a gas sale partnership with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan aggravated Tashkent as the idea was not first informally proffered and, as a result, Moscow looked amateurish and desperate to make any deal.
Despite deep business links between Uzbekistan and Russia, only one Uzbek firm appears to have violated America’s secondary sanctions against anyone supporting Russia in Ukraine. And while the war has slowed economic growth worldwide, Uzbekistan still expects its GDP to grow at 5.3% in 2022 according to the World Bank.
Washington will have to make fine calculations about the economic health of Russia’s neighbors, such as Uzbekistan, that both rely on the Moscow trade and want to hedge their bets by deeper links with the U.S., Europe, China, Turkey, Iran, and India. One way Washington can do so is by coaching Tashkent through the World Trade Organization accession process. Uzbekistan has created a WTO Working Party to ensure orderly progress, and the U.S. should provide needed technical assistance to help Tashkent succeed.
One big ask for Uzbekistan is most-favored-nation status with the U.S. which, it believes, will put on an irrevocable path of reform, help make up lost ground due to sanctions on Russia, which have raised local business compliance costs, and have complicated supply chains for the double-landlocked country, just as it was emerging from the pandemic slowdown.
China, via its Belt and Road Initiative, has invested in the region and is cementing its brick-and-mortar projects by education projects such as scholarships, academic exchanges, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes. In turn, Uzbekistan is “leveraging its partnership with China” to address its geographic isolation by projects such as a five-year trade and investment cooperation deal, a revival of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway, and it may soon turn to Beijing for funding for the Termez-Kabul-Peshawar railway.
And the flurry of projects was buttressed by personal interaction between the leaders of China and Uzbekistan. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made a state visit to China in 2017, and Chinese President Xi Jinping likewise visited Uzbekistan in 2022.
National leaders must make decisions based on an unemotional consideration of the national interest, but a face-to-face meeting with another leader can smooth over problems or make clear one side’s concerns that can be muddled by functionaries. What is clear to the Uzbek public is that that Xi – the leader of the world’s biggest country – visited their country, but no U.S. leader has ever bothered to visit Central Asia. And now may be the time in order to recognize that Uzbekistan has recently registered gains in development and governance indices, such as rule of law, press freedom, and e-government.
But in the meantime, China is pushing on an open door.
A Central Asia Barometer survey found 70% of Uzbeks polled answered that they have great or some confidence about China’s investment when asked “How much confidence do you have that China’s investment in our country will create jobs in our country for our citizens?” That positive public sentiment, plus China’s status as a top trade partner, Uzbekistan’s large and growing population, that 5.3% GDP growth in 2022, and reforms such as selling off state-owned enterprises which dominate some sectors of Uzbekistan’s economy, may see the way clear for a greater Chinese role in the region.
But China will have to adjust its model and provide intensive training for local citizens and not default to its standard practice of importing its workforce. Securing local buy-in will create a constituency for economic reform, and a bank of goodwill for the Tashkent administration that will courage further economic liberalization – a key U.S. interest.
And as China hopes to stabilize Xinjian by creating prosperity in the region, so will creating prosperity near Afghanistan help stabilize that forlorn place and thus open the door to more regional economic engagement. That said, Washington will be wise to not badger Afghanistan’s neighbors to take up its crusade to install a compliant regime in Kabul, either by granting it base rights for military and intelligence units, for arming Afghan resistance groups based in the republics.
Uzbek law bans law bans foreign military bases on its territory, and the revised constitution that will be up for a referendum in the Spring of 2023 reportedly makes the ban permanent, thus tying the hands of outside powers (I’m looking at you Washington, D.C.) that would be tempted to use the country as a platform for action in Afghanistan.
And speaking of Afghanistan…
Uzbekistan first publicly hosted a Taliban delegation in 2018 and called for intra-Afghan negotiations to end the civil war. Since then, Tashkent has maintained high-level links with the Taliban, and in June 2022 hosted US-Taliban talks on the economic challenges facing Afghanistan after the Western retreat from Kabul in August 2021.
Uzbekistan has provided Afghanistan with steady electricity supplies, despite late payments by Kabul, and promoted a project to connect Central Asia to the Indian Ocean, via Pakistan and Afghanistan, which will boost regional economies and enhance Uzbekistan’s regional leadership.
Tashkent wants to draw closer to America but it will have to do so judiciously if it also wishes to engage with Kabul, and also become a meditator of regional disputes, but it won’t happen if the Taliban suspect everything they disclose in confidence will soon be winging its way to America. Washington’s compulsion to securitize all relationships, and its “with us or against us” attitude, may limit Tashkent’s maneuver room as it strives to secure its southern border, avoid the grasps of China and Russia, contribute to regional connectivity, and grow its economy in a post-pandemic, high inflation environment.
And Tashkent can’t ignore the physical risk that comes with the neighborhood. In July, the border city of Termez came under fire by projectiles apparently from Afghanistan. No culprit took responsibility but IS-K claimed to be the instigator of an earlier rocket attack on Termez in April. Uzbekistan has recently concluded investment deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Russia and China, and may become a target-rich environment for future jihadis with additional diplomatic complications if foreign nationals are killed in attacks.
The Uzbeks do not want a repeat of the Summer 2004 bombing campaign by an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan splinter group that hit the US and Israeli embassies, and the office of the Uzbek prosecutor-general. The attacks left 33 militants, 10 policemen, and four civilian dead.
The American ambassador to Uzbekistan recently declared, “We want to see Uzbekistan continue to strengthen as a democracy and respect human rights. We don’t have a particular vision for how Uzbekistan should go about this. That’s up to Uzbekistan and Uzbek people to decide.” Of course, the U.S. also said something similar before the 2006 elections in the Gaza Strip then refused to recognize the result when the “wrong guys” won.
Political scientist Stephen Walt has observed that for the U.S. “restraint will always be a contradiction in terms.” What Professor John Mearsheimer calls America’s “crusader impulse” may see a resurgence in Central Asia if the U.S. decides to use it as a tool in its campaigns against Russia, China and Afghanistan, though many observers will note the impulse never went away and, in fact, has amplified since 9/11.
Washington’s blueprint for Central Asia may succeed as it is influential yet geographically removed and entertains no local territorial claims.
But first it will need a post-Afghanistan strategy for the region and not the boilerplate “we will continue to support the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asia” from the current National Security Strategy, in which Central Asia on only mentioned twice and in passing. (And it’s also time for a U.S. trade mission as the last one visited in 2018. A new visit would ensure the American business community has up to date information and can meet the new leaders of the Tashkent administration, most of whom were not in their current jobs in 2018.)
The people of the region see much to admire in the U.S., but Washington will have to show some respect local culture and social organization, which has survived czars, commissars, khans, and satraps before achieving independence in 1991. Take China: it declares it is a Communist country but it doesn’t try to export Communism.
Can the U.S. exercise such self-restraint, or will its future policy be the victory of hope over experience?
Its two-decade, $2 billion project in Afghanistan to forcibly change Pashtun culture was a bust, and the world watched the live-streamed denouement.
A wise Washington will be ready to offer technical assistance when needed, making a priority of WTO accession, ensure local infrastructure projects have more than one financing option, and allow the local governments – that will suffer the consequences of bad choices – to set the pace of regional integration, which will include Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, which aren’t foreign interlopers but part of the rich history of the region.
So, what will be the U.S. model: Cooperation or compellence?
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters.
Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.