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The United States Must Deepen Engagement with Central A

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Michael Rossi 

Central Asia will become a key node in a rapidly developing Eurasian network, linking countries, peoples, and industries across continents.

As the global landscape adjusts to an emerging multipolar world, the United States must expand its diplomatic outreach beyond traditional Transatlantic alliances. This is particularly salient given the impending expansion of BRICS to include new member countries from Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. In this context, Central Asia—comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is a region long neglected in U.S. foreign policy calculations.

Until its 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington viewed Central Asia as a logistical pathway to its military operations. This narrow viewpoint, however, fails to recognize the region’s broader geopolitical importance.

Bordering Russia, China, and Iran, the U.S. has the potential to become Central Asia’s additional partner for economic cooperation and development. This would give the U.S. strategic leverage in a region surrounded by geopolitical rivals. Long considered a crossroads for trade, Central Asian countries are integral players in several transnational projects and initiatives led by China, Russia, India, Iran, and Turkey. This importance stems from the region’s central location in Eurasia and its abundant natural resources, including hydrocarbons and precious minerals. Failing to deepen engagement with Central Asia when the region faces a range of economic challenges would be a missed opportunity for the United States.

Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest country, has shown a marked interest in deepening its relationship with the United States. Despite its extensive economic and trade associations with Russia, Kazakhstan has refused to support its neighbor’s invasion of Ukraine. This stance aligns with Kazakhstan’s commitment to the UN Charter and its “multi-vector” foreign policy, which aims to balance relations with multiple powers. Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has, on several occasions, publicly expressed his country’s position on the war, reiterating that while Kazakhstan maintains a positive relationship with Russia, it will not sidestep Western sanctions. This nuanced stance highlights Kazakhstan’s potential as a strategic partner for the United States in the region.

Washington has much to gain from expanding its soft power influence in Kazakhstan and fostering closer political and economic relations throughout Central Asia.

Firstly, engagement with Central Asia allows the United States to diversify its geopolitical portfolio. The region could serve as a strategic intermediary in conversations with states that traditionally fall outside America’s sphere of influence. Given the shifting landscape marked by the war in Ukraine and the expansion of BRICS, Washington is lagging in making diplomatic inroads into the developing world, particularly in comparison to Beijing and Moscow.

With traditional alliances under strain and the emergence of new global challenges, the United States should look beyond its historical partners to diversify its strategic relationships. In this vein, Central Asia presents a reservoir of untapped potential that could be pivotal for achieving American foreign policy objectives.

Secondly, the United States has a strategic interest in enhancing regional connectivity, streamlining supply chains, and optimizing energy routes in Central Asia. There are direct advantages for the United States and its allies, particularly in trade routes that bypass Russia. Last year, the Biden administration initiatedthe Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia. This program aims to stimulate economic growth, develop alternative trade corridors, boost shipping capabilities, and upgrade infrastructure along the Trans-Caspian trade route, which originates in Southeast Asia and China, traverses through Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, and extends further into European countries. Echoing this sentiment, President Tokayev emphasized in his recent state-of-the-nation address the need for his country to evolve into a transit hub within the Eurasian landscape.

Thirdly, the United States can collaborate with Central Asian countries on global challenges, ranging from regional stability and climate change to global security. For instance, a coordinated effort between the U.S. and Central Asia could go a long way in mitigating threats like extremism and terrorism, as well as curbing the narcotics trade originating in Afghanistan.

For the Central Asian countries, closer engagement with Washington allows them to deepen relations with a global power, which would be particularly valuable in areas such as technology exchange, defense capabilities, and economic development, making it a win-win proposition for all parties involved. It is a welcome development that a bipartisan bill has been introduced to the U.S. Congress to end Cold War-era trade restrictions for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and grant those countries permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.

The forthcoming C5+1 Leader’s Summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this month presents another excellent opportunity for the United States to deepen its engagement with Central Asia. Established in 2015, the C5+1 platform—consisting of the United States and the five Central Asian countries—aims to foster dialogue and cooperation. With President Joe Biden slated to participate, the summit offers a prime occasion for the United States to strengthen its diplomatic bonds with the countries in the region.

Central Asia’s increasingly strained relations with Russia and growing wariness of Chinese influence have created a timely window of opportunity for the United States to enhance its position through sustained, long-term investment in the region. In the near term, American engagement is likely to concentrate on soft power avenues such as educational initiatives, consumer markets, and tourism, given the enduring relationships that Central Asian nations have with Russia and the expansive infrastructure projects underway by China.

However, looking toward the medium and long term, platforms like C5+1 should be catalysts for strengthening economic and political relationships. Proactive American investment in the education, economy, and culture of Central Asia’s emerging generations could yield significant benefits for the United States for years to come.

Failing to recognize and act on Central Asia’s strategic significance would be a missed opportunity for Washington. The region will become a key node in a rapidly developing Eurasian network, linking countries, peoples, and industries. Ignoring this dynamic could leave America on the sidelines, forfeiting the chance to play a significant role in an increasingly important region.

Michael Rossi is a Lecturer in Political Science at Rutgers University of New Jersey and a Visiting Professor at Webster University Tashkent.