The United States’ decision to update the strategy towards Central Asia shows the intention of the US Administration to strengthen political, economic and military commitments with the five republics of a region appearing strategic for Washington, due to security and geopolitical reasons. US aims to build “a more stable and prosperous Central Asia” (“United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity”, US Department of State, February 5, 2020).
This rejuvenated strategy reflects the US will to increase its presence in the region following the new geopolitical landscape which emerged in the last three years: on the one hand, unlike his predecessor Karimov, Uzbek President Mirziyoyev has promoted a new approach in foreign policy – based on regional cooperation and good relations with the external actors – that represents a strategic window of opportunity to extend US influence in the region. It is not by chance that the recent official visit of US Secretary State Pompeo in Central Asia (some days before the launch of the strategy) was limited to Kazakhstan (an old partner for the US in the region) and Uzbekistan, the main Central Asian economies and the main promoter of a regional integration aimed at balancing the external actors such as China and Russia. On the other hand, Washington needs to counterweight China and Russia’s growing influence in Central Asia, both bilaterally and multilaterally, thanks to their regional initiatives in the economic (namely through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union) and in the security field (the Collective Security Treaty Organization).
One of the most interesting aspects of the US strategy is the combination between security and economic issues concerning Afghanistan and its relations with Central Asia: the US main goal is to prevent that spill overs linked to Afghanistan’s instability could spread to the whole Central Asia region, so Afghanistan’s integration within an interconnected regional framework of economic cooperation will represent a strategic goal to achieve. During his visit in Tashkent, Pompeo attended the US+5 forum (involving all Central Asian foreign ministers) to discuss peace and security in Afghanistan.
In this new US approach, Uzbekistan should play an influential role in order to further enhance trade cooperation and infrastructural interconnections with Afghanistan: Pompeo announced a $1 million initiative to increase cross border trade between these two countries (“US faces headwinds pushing Central Asian integration”, Eurasianet, February 3, 2020), also considering that Uzbekistan already benefits of the Termez-Hairaton-Mazar I Sharif, the only existing railway connection between Afghanistan and Central Asia.
US renewed interest for Central Asia will be a strategic card for regional republics to better balance the overwhelming Sino-Russian influence: the main task for Washington will be to pursue a concrete political and economic willingness to support Central Asian republics in their ambition to develop a multi-vector strategy in foreign policy.
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PhD holder in Geopolitics at University of Trieste and non-resident fellow research at Center for Energy Governance and Security (EGS South Korea).