The recent US initiative to create a trade corridor between India, Saudi Arabia and Europe is a sign that Washington is finally entering the global geo-strategic struggle in real terms, in its modern iteration, albeit a step or two behind adversaries. After twenty years of distraction during the war on terror, playing catch-up in this intercontinental rivalry means the US, while still gathering momentum, must pick its counter-moves intelligently. There’s nowhere more pivotal than the Silk Road region of the so-called ‘Stans for maximum geo-strategic returns on investment. President Biden should be lauded for initiating the US-Central Asia summit (C5+1) during the current UNGA with the Presidents of the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The trick is to follow up concretely and quickly with commerce, security and investment deals.
Surrounded by the West’s top rivals, not least Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, hegemonized for two centuries by Moscow and now wary of economic domination by China, the region is actively looking for outside friends. What’s in it for the US, indeed the West as a whole, to embrace the offer? Think of the Silk Road’s sensitive geography. For Washington, a strong, wealthy, powerful Central Asia opens an entirely new flank of concern for Russia and China in their back yard. In a zone they’ve hitherto exploited for raw materials without any danger of competition. Namely, Kazakh oil, Turkmen gas, Uzbek gold and much else – which was all hitherto essentially landlocked and subject to the veto i.e. the control, even the price control, of the book-ending powers on either side. Niched in the blind spot of two superpowers, any economic or security independence for the region helps distract those giants from their outer-directed power moves. Either towards Europe in the west or, in the east, Taiwan.
While the outside world was dithering, the five ‘Stans came up with their own interim solution. They formed a united trading bloc by creating a cohesive market of 70 million people in order to avoid being bullied singly and to encourage foreign investment, but primarily to make a virtue out of adversity and turn their regional isolation into a plus. The primary mover on this, was Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. As this column has previously observed several times, top among the radical changes from former isolationist President Karimov to the current leader, Mirziyoyev, was the opening of business, borders, tourism and trade. Mirziyoyev visited his neighbor countries multiple times very soon after taking office in 2015 and launched the inter-trading initiative. More dependence on each other, less on their neighbors.
Having achieved lift-off without outside help, the region showed the world it had the pre-requisites for doing business – political continuity, currency stability, commercial rule of law and the like. And stronger economic performance than much of the world: Uzbekistan, for example, was one of the few economies to flourish during Covid, not least because of its strong gold exports. But the future potential is the key via self-starting industries that offer rewards to the participation of outside finance. For example, with a little help, Uzbekistan stands fair to becoming an east-west north-south travel hub to challenge the likes of Dubai, especially because flight over the Russian Federation are embargoed. Meanwhile, English language tech colleges are proliferating to feed the start-up industry and the businesses fleeing Russia and China.
Having said all that, let’s not mince words: human rights issues continue to beset the republics. But so it was with Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the like for several decades after independence. This is not to say that free speech and human rights shortcomings in the region should be ignored. For the sake of geostrategic imperatives, however, the West has to be patient and encouraging. The key factor is the directional vector: leading states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are going solidly in the right direction. They have shown huge improvements since the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, especially considering the neighborhood, hemmed in as they are by Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, China, where human rights barely exist. In that geography, the dangers to the Stans of artificially stoked destabilization from outside is a perennial problem in the form of separatism, religious extremism, cross-border corruption, disloyal oligarchs and the like. Such forces often create trouble and then hide behind human rights posturing so as to alienate western engagement.
Uzbekistan is negotiating entry into the WTO. The US should expedite that process sharply. During the Trump administration, a perfectly good initiative was launched for the region entitled the DFC, Development Finance Corporation, to foster business loans. It has lain dormant under Biden. It should be reinvigorated. Above all, it’s time to repeal the Cold War-era legislative relic of the Jackson-Vanik amendment that still blocks the Central Asian states from normal trade relations with the US. Here’s where President Biden can really make a difference. A motion was launched in Congress this month to lift the amendment and the US President should follow up the C5+1 meetings at the UNGA by pushing the bill through Congress. The C5+1 format was created in 2014 as a forum for the five countries’ ambassadors and foreign ministers to co-ordinate with the US over Afghanistan. President Biden has now elevated it to the Presidential level. Kudos to him. American Presidents since the time of Bush1 have deprioritized geo-strategic goals – it doesn’t resonate among the voting public. Doesn’t get you elected. But, for once, the trend has been reversed and the President deserves congratulating for this first step. Concrete steps must follow.