U.S. and Japan posing as alternatives to Russia and China in Central Asia?

Tajikistan's Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov (2nd L) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting with Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon at the Palace of Nations in Dushanbe, Nov. 3, 2015.

Tajikistan's Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov (2nd L) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting with Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon at the Palace of Nations in Dushanbe, Nov. 3, 2015.

Experts discuss the role of U.S. engagement in Central Asia.

The four-day tour of Central Asia by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, preceded by a similar diplomatic engagement of the five post-Soviet republics by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, revealed the growing importance of the region, always viewed as a grand chess board in relations between Russia and the West.

Taken at face value, the almost synchronized “pivot” to Central Asia is dictated by mounting concerns over radicals and militants, especially from Islamic State affiliates seeking to establish control over Afghanistan with an eye on expanding its outreach to neighboring countries.

However, the other unspeakable motive of the two global powers belonging to the “collective West,” seems to be to counterbalance the legacy of Russia’s influence, which has received a boost recently in these nations with their slightly diluted ethnic Russian middle class and the increasingly visible economic and financial presence of China. At least, this was the unanimous verdict reached by observers in the U.S. media.

In a remarkable display of pragmatism, John Kerry during a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov, described by American media as an “autocratic ruler… among the world’s worst human rights offenders,” avoided an accusatory tone and sounded surprisingly conciliatory. Moreover, in the ancient city of Samarkand Kerry talked to the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian “stans,” assuring them that United States is keen to engage with all of them, irrespective of their democratic credentials and geopolitical leanings.

Kerry was quoted advising ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that “in Central Asia as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective.” Yet another proof that the focus was on the possible security vacuum in Central Asia and on “buying influence” is found in the final statement agreed upon after the foreign ministers' meeting, which features just a casual mention of commitment to protecting human rights and developing democratic institutions.

Judging by what was omitted rather than by what was said publicly, it looks like a major “pivot” to Central Asia by the West. Or is it? Alexander Karavaev, political scientist and deputy director at the Center for CIS studies at Moscow State University, disagrees. He made the following comment for Troika Report.

“This is hardly anything new. Since the end of the 1990s the U.S. has been engaging Central Asia, kick-starting a number of investment projects and sponsoring an alternative to a Russia-led integration of the post-Soviet territory in the form of the GUUAM alliance, comprised of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, which began to take shape in 1997. Uzbekistan, for instance, was playing the Moscow card and the Washington card to get favors from both. The same balancing and fine-tuned foreign policy was followed by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The leadership of these states is keen not to limit their reliance solely on Russia and China, but to seek additional partners. They are not ready to jump on Russia’ anti-terrorist bandwagon. But due to concerns over the existential threat emanating from the “arch of instability” stretching from Syria to Afghanistan, they are eager to welcome any credible security provider, and here is where the U.S. and the West general fits in.”

Conspiracy theory aficionados claim that visits by Abe and Kerry should be interpreted as attempts to push aside Russia and China from the region. Is it a valid assumption? Vadim Kozyulin, Senior Research Fellow at the PIR Center, a Moscow-based independent think tank, dismissed these plots in an interview with the Troika Report.

“In accordance with the new U.S. strategy towards Central Asia, the U.S. is no longer the sponsor. The U.S. cannot invest much; its businesses have little interest in coming to the region. It diminishes the economic foundation of the relations. Yet the U.S. has to maintain some level of presence. So, Washington concentrates on political ties.

- Is American presence in the region a challenge for Russia or, on the contrary, a benefit?

“A certain level of presence of the United States in the region would be to Russia’s benefit. It would help counterbalance the influence of China. Besides, even with diminished capabilities, the U.S. remains one of the key players in the region, it would monitor the developments and affect them.”

The same positive assessment of the U.S. involvement in regional affairs was spelled out to the Troika Report by Dmitry Kosyrev,a political analyst at RIA Novosti Russian news agency.

“It looks like an adjustment of America foreign policy to the new realities in Central Asia.

“The two dominant nations in the region are certainly Russia and China, and let’s not forget India, which is pursuing an assertive foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi. Then there is Iran, which is poised to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and there are other players too. Here the United States is just one of the external powers. It wants to be present in the region, otherwise it would lose credibility.”

- How should Moscow react to Western powers flirting with local elites?

“Believe it or not, but Russia and China never tried to block the American presence in Central Asia. We only wanted to prevent regime changes initiated from the outside. That’s all. The United States is welcome here as long as it follows the rules of engagement with nations in this vital area for us. In fact, the same ‘rules’ are applicable to Russia and China.”

In sum, the United States and Japan while not counting on undermining the dominant position enjoyed by Russia and China in the region, considered it timely and worthwhile to grant assurances to Central Asia. The assurances basically amount to an unwritten pledge that even after U.S. presence in Afghanistan is either terminated or curtailed, the largest military power in the world will be standing guard to prevent religious wars and chaos in Central Asia, should it come to that.

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