It was a day 32 years in the making, but the American president finally met the assembled leaders of the five Central Asian republics on the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
According to the White House, President Biden welcomed discussion on strengthening the republics’ “sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity” while advancing human rights, and “committed to continued collaboration on border security, counterterrorism, and law enforcement issues.”
One of Washington’s “deliverables,” to use a favorite term of the Biden administration, is launching a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue to “to develop Central Asia’s vast mineral wealth and advance critical minerals security.” That dialogue is no doubt aimed at China’s Belt and Road Initiative and likely hopes to corral the region’s mineral wealth for the West’s green energy plans. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Central Asia is an emerging REE and rare metals (RM) producing region. A newly compiled inventory of REE-RM-bearing mineral occurrences and delineation of areas-of-interest indicate this region may have considerable undiscovered resources.”
Next, the U.S. side highlighted “support to drive investment in and development of the Trans-Caspian Trade Route (the so-called “Middle Corridor”)” which it is promoting in order to entice the region to avoid the “Northern Corridor” that traverses Russia and Belarus.
The region is ahead of the U.S. on this as Kazakhstan, which borders Russia and the Caspian Sea, started exploring the Caspian Rote in early 2022. And Uzbekistan, which has long promoted Central Asia – South Asia connectivity, supports the Trans-Afghan Railway that will connect Central Asia to Pakistan, and has also inked agreements with Iran to use the ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar for trade with Asia. And Turkmenistan, often regarded as the “hermit kingdom of Central Asia,” wants a role as a regional transport hub that would facilitate the republics’ trade with Iran, and will host the International North-South Transport Corridor, a 7,200-km multi-modal network for moving freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe.
The U.S. and the republics have many ongoing government-to-government projects, most funded via the U.S. Agency for International Development, such as countering foreign terrorist organizations and the radicalization processes, entrepreneurship development, improving transport and trade corridors, and adapting to climate change.
During the C5+1 ministerial meeting in February 2023, the U.S. announced the launch of new projects to expand the relationship with the region: to expand regional trade, open new export markets, and attract investment to the region; to increase the level of English language proficiency among young Central Asians to reduce their consumption of Russian-language media; to expand access of the local private sector to technical assistance from foreign financial institutions; and to support reforms in the region in the field of liberalization of national energy markets, development of “green energy,” and reduction of methane emissions, especially important to Turkmenistan which emits more methane than the United Kingdom.
Berdimuhamedow promoted a Global Security Strategy based on the principles of the United Nations Charter, noted the UN’s role in preventive diplomacy, and called for an inclusive, full-scale, and systematic Central Asia – UN dialogue, the Conference on Security in Central Asia and its adjacent zones.
Mirziyoyev announced that Uzbekistan has adopted the Development Strategy Uzbekistan 2030, which is in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, has prioritized accession to the World Trade Organization (Turkmenistan is also in the accession process), proposed a UN General Assembly Resolution “Central Asia Facing Global Climate Threats: Solidarity for Common Prosperity,” and introduced the Central Asian Climate Dialogue.
The climate dialogue will prove to be the most important effort underway in Central Asia as it deals with the general effects of climate change and, more specifically, the consequences of Afghanistan’s plans to use 20% the water of the Amu Darya for a large-scale irrigation project, and a follow-on hydropower project, that will further increase water stress in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
The U.S. and Europe have prioritized human rights in their dealings with the Taliban and, while the republics agree that Afghanistan needs an inclusive government, they don’t have the luxury of running out the clock on Kabul. The republics have started to engage the Taliban on the water issue and one way to regularize the process and include all countries in the region may be via the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia (ICWC), which was formed in 1992 by the newly independent Central Asian republics with the mission of “the adoption of principles of collective decision making on common water-related issues” and it recognizes that water is a “limiting factor in development.”
So, what can Washington do now so that President Biden’s inaugural meeting with the Central Asian presidents is viewed as a success? It should, first, support water resource management projects by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and UN-Water; then, provide technical assistance to support the WTO accession of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Central Asian people have positive views of America but do not want to be conscripted into its crusade against China, Russia, and Iran. The local leaders understand that the big powers tend to bump into the furniture and so know how dodge and weave as necessary, which may require cordial economic relations, and an occasional accommodation, with America’s foes.
If America wants to show it is sincerely interested in the region, the proof won’t come until 2025, when the American president should visit, at the same time Chinese leader Xi Jinping attends the next meeting of China-Central Asia Summit in Kazakhstan. The U.S. will find the government of Uzbekistan all too ready to host a competing C5+1 meeting, though it will want to avoid the appearance of a bidding war for influence in the region.
Washington has an advantage in dealing with Central Asia as it is not too close for comfort. If it wants to improve its image with the Central Asian republics it should take action “for” Central Asia and not “against” China, Russia, and Iran, which are not aliens but are “forever” neighbors and part of the rich heritage of the region.
By James Durso for Oilprice.com
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