Biden and Central Asia – What Next?

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Dr Filippo Costa Buranelli is a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. His research agenda is strongly interdisciplinary, combining expertise on IR theory, regionalism (with a focus on Central Asia), global governance and international security.

The recent election and inauguration of Joe Biden as 46th US President have led several analysts and pundits to wonder what his foreign policy will look like. Among Biden’s top priorities seem to be a renewed engagement with China, a rapprochement with the EU, and yet another attempt to find a common ground for dialogue and at least coordination with Russia, especially on disarmament issues. Issues pertaining to international organisations and platforms, such as the WHO and the Paris Agreement, will also be among his priority concerns, as demonstrated on the first day in office. 

What will the role of Central Asia be in the US foreign policy during Biden’s tenure? What should we expect in terms of relations and dialogue between Washington and the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan? Spoiler alert – positive and pragmatic cooperation without a major hype, and good relations overall without drastic changes.

There are two preliminary considerations to make, which can be seen as concentric, i.e. one nested into the other. The first one is that domestic politics, as opposed to foreign policy, will likely be the priority for the Biden administration. As Ann Marie Slaughter has recently argued in the pages of the Financial Times, the US will be far more concerned with rebuilding its image and social fabric, as opposed to venturing into grandiose and loud foreign policy actions and programmes. While it is undeniable that external engagement will be important for the new incumbent, especially in terms of restoring trust with foreign partners and rekindling engagement with multilateral institutions, the focus will be on rebuilding, repairing, and healing domestic politics and public trust in the presidency,ensuring racial and gender equality, ameliorating working and living conditions for millions of Americans and creating a more just society. It goes without saying that four years (unless Biden gets re-elected) is not a long period to achieve meaningful results on the above. 

Within the lesser priority, which is foreign policy, Central Asia is likely to be a lesser priority, too. As mentioned above, stabilising dialogue and relations with other great powers and with allies across the world will leave less room for sustained attention to Central Asia than one may think, or indeed hope for. The fact that Central Asia will not be a pivotal priority for the incumbent US administration should not, however, be equated to neglect or disinterest. After all, even during the Trump administration, diplomatic engagement with the Central Asian republics through the workings of the platform C5+1, concerned with matters of economic cooperation and security. 

It is important to ask what sort of engagement is the one that the US will offer and implement, and what the purpose of such engagement will be. At the same time, it must be stressed that the Central Asian states are not passive recipients within this framework of cooperation but are and will be active players and shapers. Furthermore, it cannot be stressed enough the fact that Central Asia is not a monolithic and uniform – rather, each state has its own needs, objectives, and priorities, and it is not a given that they will always be the same and overlap unproblematically. Therefore, the US will have to balance multilateral and bilateral cooperation schemes with the Central Asian republics, being ready to talk about and discuss different issues and projects yet maintaining an overarching strategy. 

One of the most obvious and immediate consequences of Joe Biden’s election and accession to office for Central Asia has been the cancellation of the previously imposed travel ban against specific states with largely Muslim populations, in which for example Kyrgyzstan was included. Given the number of Central Asian living in the US and the need to ensure movement between the two for family and work reasons, this has been seen in the region as a positive first step. Another important signal sent to the Central Asian countries in terms of willingness to maintain and possibly enhance cooperation and dialogue is the composition of the presidential team itself. For example, Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, already served in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in the early 2010s as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Also, Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, has previously worked under President Obama on foreign policy matters pertaining to the region surroundings, in particular Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the events in Crimea. Furthermore, the nomination of Samantha Power as head of USAID, the main American donor agency for human capacity and sustainable development which can now count on two new agencies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is an important message to the region, especially given Power’s solidarist attitude and approach to foreign policy.

There are a couple of ‘standing items’ on the US-Central Asia agenda, which Biden is very much unlikely to write off. For example, discussions and initiatives pertaining to protection and preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all regional states are sure to be constantly reiterated, as indeed are policies, meetings, and negotiations to enhance and entrench the nuclear-free status of the region and the architecture of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. 

Given the deteriorating environmental situation in the region, the Central Asian states will certainly welcome any step coming from the US towards climate sustainability and green politics. Re-joining the Paris Agreement will certainly be a welcome indication for governments in the region that the US is ready again to share its responsibilities with respect to climate governance and environmental reforms. Support and assistance with containing the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, both medical and economic, will be an area of potential synergy, too. Central Asian governments have never disguised their preference for a balanced approach to foreign policy and for according privileges and access to different great powers, and the US is no exception. Specifically, if the US manages to devise a support plan for the region by emphasising both medical research and assistance and economic recovery plans, that would be a promising area for engagement. An initial step in doing this is visible in the fact that the governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the United States have launched the Central Asia Investment Partnership under the umbrella of the C5+1 format, in order to promote private-sector growth and strengthen regional economic cooperation.

Several commentators have recently argued that one of the priorities for the Biden administration in Central Asia will be (or rather, should be) the promotion and encouragement of human rights and democracy in the regional states. This, in my opinion, while laudable from a general perspective, and while it may well be a priority for Washington, may prove to be complicated to achieve. The last five years in the US (as I count four years of Trump presidency and the year of his nomination) have been marked by severe blows to human dignity and development as well as racist abuses, corruption, political violence, sexism, and brutality of language and behaviour, culminating in the Capitol Hill riots on January 6. While it may be an overstretch to argue that the US should learn from Kyrgyzstan how to hold elections, it is important to stress that the Biden administration will have to regain political and human capital in the region, as well as to restore its leadership, before demanding compliance with principles that have been greatly damaged at home. This, in sum, will require sharp political sensitivity, especially since public opinion on the US in the region has been less than favourable over the past years. At the same time, broader issues of human rights and human security are likely to inform US activities in the broader regional context, especially after Antony Blinken agreed with Mike Pompeo’s designation of China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a ‘genocide’.

Ultimately, hard security and connectivity aside, what will constitute the main area for engagement between the US and Central Asia will be a focus on human capacity and development. This will be possibly centred around public health, environmental governance, education and scholarships, and support to more diversified economic initiatives and inclusion of private businesses. The latter may prove to be a good vehicle for renewed engagement with the region as the Central Asian states may seek to diversify and balance their economic partnerships in times when the presence of neighbouring great powers is slightly decreasing and more opportunities for economic openness may materialise.

To conclude, the character of relations between the US and Central Asia under the Biden presidency will be marked by continuation, and will ultimately depend on how much the Central Asian states will be engaged as equals, as partners, and as autonomous subjects. There is a growing sense of frustration, in the region, with respect to how Central Asia acquires meaning only through the prism of the Afghan conflict. While security and counterterrorism are certainly important aspects of macro-regional dynamics, Central Asia is more than that. Should Biden understand this, and more importantly understand the position he comes from, then the outlook for positive diplomacy will be a promising one.

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