US interests in Central Asia
After the collapse of the Union, United States was the first country to welcome the independence of these five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and to establish diplomatic relations with all of these states. These Central Asian states are the prime focus of all the regional and global powers because of their geostrategic importance which will be discussed further. Similarly, the US involvement in Central Asia is in the favor of its interests and long-term economic gains.
The US interests included the weakening of the Central Asian states’ dependence on Russia, the prevention of Chinese expansion into the region, and weakening the influence of Russia and other powerful states in Central Asia. In a nutshell, the main purpose of the United States’ focus on Central Asia is to protect America’s interests in the region and to make sure that the states that do not comply with the policies of those interests do not get too strong.
The strategic importance of Central Asia:
Central Asian Republics (CARs) have been the focus of major powers because of their geo-strategic location and rich natural resources. Many factors contribute to making Central Asia an important region in the world. The most significant among them are: firstly, the availability of rich energy resources in Central Asia and the Caspian region; secondly, the geographic location being surrounded by powerful actors such as Russia, China, India, and Iran; and, thirdly, the issue of Afghanistan. After 1991, the western powers got involved in the region in the hope to get control over its vast resources; oil, gas, uranium, and transit potential.
In terms of its geographic location, Central Asia was termed as the “Heartland” or “Pivot area,” by the British geographer and geostrategist Halford Mackinder because of being a geographic center of Eurasia and hub of the Eurasia Silk Roads. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Mackinder stated that “Whoever gains control of Central Asia gains control over the Eurasia continent; whoever controls Eurasia gains control over the world.” This primarily highlights the geostrategic significance of the Central Asian region.
Furthermore, the availability of enormous energy resources in the region is the major factor that contributes to Central Asia’s important role in global politics. Most of the resources in the region remain under-developed, especially the oil and natural gas in inland waters. Central Asia has become one of the several regions in the world that hold great potential for energy development in the twenty-first century. Mainly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan possess Land oil resources with an estimated potential production of thirty billion barrels of oil and the potential production of petroleum underwater falls in the range of fifteen to forty billion barrels. Central Asia possesses a high potential for energy export.
Central Asia and the US:
In the second half of the 1990s, the US interest in Central Asia increased and the relations between the USA and Central Asian republics got strengthened, especially with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. At the same time, the countries in the Central Asian region started reconsidering their foreign policies to enhance the partnership with the United States and other leading countries.
Finally, in March 1999, the US Congress agreed to pass the Silk Road Law whose basic aim was to assist the economic and political independence of the Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus. This great initiative primarily focused on providing assistance in border protection, maintaining the ban on drug trafficking, reinforcing non-proliferation and eradicating some transnational crimes, as well as providing humanitarian aid and supporting the growth of free markets and regional infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the US private sector has invested over $31 billion in commercial projects in Central Asia and generated thousands of local jobs, and building human capacity. Finally, the United States has established strong people-to-people ties with each of the countries of Central Asia by directly funding over 40,000 student and professional exchanges.
The US policy towards Central Asia is part of a broader strategy that is related to Afghanistan, the Caspian Sea, the South Caucasus, the European Union, South Asia, and the Middle East. . Some Chinese analysts argue that the basic motive behind United States’ activities in Central Asia is the control of Caspian oil, and hence it poses a huge threat to China, Iran, and Russia.
“C5 + 1” Format (Central Asia and the US):
From October 31 to November 3, 2015, the Secretary of State of the United States John Kerry paid an official visit to Central Asia for the first time to enhance the relations with the Central Asian Republics to a new level. During his official visit to Samarkand, John Kerry held talks with Foreign Ministers of Central Asian countries in Samarkand within the C5 + 1 format to strengthen cooperation and address other international and regional issues.
The C5+1 format was designed in Samarkand on 1st November 2015 to discuss the issues of common interests of the United States and Central Asia as well as to promote regional dialogue and cooperation. Those negotiations can be summarized in these 4 points: 1) Diversification of economic relations and cooperation in this area. 2) Cooperation against various natural disasters that may arise due to climate changes and other environmental problems. 3) Respect for human values and rights, ensuring people’s active participation in political processes in the society and access to a compulsory education system. 4) The assurance of security in the north of Afghanistan, and strengthening common cooperation against threats that may harm regional stability.
The United States’ basic strategic interest in this region is to establish a more stable and prosperous Central Asia that is free to seek political, economic, and security interests with a variety of partners or states on its terms; is connected to global markets and open to international investment; and has strong, democratic institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights. A secure and stable Central Asia contributes directly to U.S. efforts to counter terrorism, support regional stability, promote energy security, and enhance economic prosperity in the region and beyond.
The US-Taliban peace agreement and the prospect of withdrawing all the US troops from Afghanistan have increased the US focus on central Asia. Although the Taliban has agreed not to allow the use of Afghan soil for terrorist activities against America but the political turmoil in Afghanistan indicates that the security perspectives remain uncertain not only for Afghanistan but for the whole region. In this context, the Central Asian states will play an important role in maintaining regional stability because of sharing borders with Afghanistan.
In contrary to this; if the situation gets worse, the whole region will be stepped into instability and insecurity. Central Asia will be used as a stepping stone. The threats of growth and penetration of radical groups within Central Asia can also increase. Hence, United States’ main goal is to increase the security cooperation with the Central Asian states to enhance their ability to respond to the ongoing and future security threats that may affect the regional stability. The US objective in the Central Asian region is to further strengthen the capacity of law enforcement and security services to protect borders and check the movement of terrorists and trafficking into and across Central Asia.
The US engagement in the Central Asian region needs to be balanced so that it may not exaggerate the existing tensions and competitions among the major powers. If any power increases its ties with the Central Asian states, its only purpose should be the reconstruction and prosperity of Central Asian republics so that it may not harm the infrastructure of any of the states of Central Asia. Efforts should be made to harmonize the transits, customs, and border management affairs which should be acceptable for all states.
No doubt, the US is working to bolster and support the development of Central Asia but along with the United States, other major powers are trying to get their influence in the Central Asian region such as China and Russia. Hence, this creates an environment of competition for dominance among states. The mere policies of the United States can not contribute to the long-term stability in the region. It is only possible through multilateral security cooperation among big powers in which the interests of Central Asian Republics are taken into account and the miserable socio-economic conditions of the people of Central Asia are addressed. It is more important to create conditions for sustainable economic development and political stability to solve the security problems that will be beneficial for all, not only for separate political players.
Author : Shumaila Ghazal
Shumaila Ghazal is a student of BS International Relations at International Islamic University,Islamabad.
Her area of interest is Global Conflicts.