U.S. has golden opportunity to engage Central Asia’s Turkic states: analysts

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In race to replace Russia, China and Iran also eye greater role in region

Conditions are aligning for the U.S. to strengthen engagement with the mostly Turkic states of Central Asia, which collectively cover an area approximately 40% that of the continental U.S., lawmakers and analysts have noted in recent weeks.

The biggest catalyst is that Russia has been forced to redeploy much of its troops and defense equipment from Central Asia to Ukraine. This has left a security vacuum, with Central Asian governments — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — looking for alternative security guarantors.

“Russia has consumed a lot of defense equipment in Ukraine, has gobbled up a lot of its munitions, and is going to find it very difficult to resupply its own stockpiles, but certainly to export to other countries will be very difficult for a long time,” said Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, in a congressional hearing earlier this year.

“Imagine if you’re one of the front-line states with Afghanistan, and suddenly you’re worried about getting spare parts for your airplanes or bullets for your rifles,” Lu said. “This has got them very concerned.”

“Relations with Russia have seen a fundamental shift among all five of the Central Asian states,” wrote President Nancy Lubin of JNA Associates, a research and consulting firm specializing in the Caucasus and Central Asia, in an essay titled “Central Asia and the War in Ukraine,” published by the Hoover Institution this month.

“In 2022 alone, Putin made five trips to Central Asia, reportedly to solidify his dominant role in the region; but at least politically, his travels seemed to illustrate just how fragile that role may have become,” she wrote.

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China would be the natural alternative to Russia, having established strong economic relations with many of the Central Asian states. Turkmenistan, for instance, ships most of its exported natural gas to China via pipeline.

Yet Central Asian communities “have increasingly unfavorable perceptions of China,” according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, owing to factors ranging from anger at China’s repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to “numerous corruption scandals” concerning China-based companies involved in Belt and Road infrastructure projects.

“China is moving very cautiously and with a mindset of not upsetting Moscow by increasing its profile too rapidly,” said Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities.

This leaves the likes of the U.S., the European Union, South Korea, Iran and Israel as potential suppliers of arms.

“Windows of opportunity such as this … are few and far between, and the United States should take advantage,” wrote RAND Corp. defense analyst Hunter Stoll in a September commentary titled “A Case for Greater U.S. Engagement in Central Asia.”

Stoll called for greater U.S. assistance in counterterrorism, utilizing the “numerous relationships already available.” National Guard units of various American states have partnership programs with Central Asian countries, such as the Virginia National Guard and Tajikistan, the Arizona National Guard and Kazakhstan, and the Mississippi National Guard and Uzbekistan, he noted.

“Building off that established rapport, the United States could rotate units through the region to support counterterrorism efforts,” Stoll wrote.

Yet there may be limitations to the U.S.’s ability to single-handedly take over Russia’s role in Central Asia, owing to distance and a history of indifference.

Rich Outzen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey and a former U.S. State Department policy-planning staffer, proposed leveraging NATO partner Turkey’s ties with the region in an article titled “Security and Military Cooperation Among the Turkic States in the 2020s,” published this month by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington.

“There has been a rapid intensification of Turkish relations with Turkic states in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the past decade,” the retired U.S. Army colonel wrote.

“This development could be a net strategic gain for the West in an era of Great Power Competition,” Outzen argued.

Turkey’s engagement is through the Organization of Turkic States, which consists of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan. Neutrality-conscious Turkmenistan remains an observer, while non-Turkic Tajikistan is not a member.

Turkey’s integration with the Azerbaijan military has been so multilayered that the two partners have been described as having “one nation, two states, one army.” Turkish-provided attack drones played a crucial part in Azerbaijan’s decisive victories over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh clashes in recent years.

Outzen foresees similar alliances between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan in the future as the latter struggles in border clashes with Russia-backed Tajikistan.

“If I’m Kyrgyzstan, I’m keeping in mind that the Turks are a friend. … They don’t stop arms shipments or freeze contacts if a conflict breaks out,” he told Nikkei Asia in an interview. “They rush to the side of their partner.”

Outzen said the integration of the Turkic states would probably be like a stair-stepping process, starting with cultural convergence and moving to trade convergence and ultimately toward strategic convergence. “They would like to be like the Arab League,” speaking with one voice on diplomatic issues, he said. While it would likely not grow into a security alliance, it could stop just short of a collective security arrangement, according to Outzen.

On the U.S.’s position, Outzen said that “we need to make sure we don’t get into a competition with Turkey, because frankly there’s greater trust, mutual trust, among the Turkic states, including Turkey, than there is between any of them and us.”

RAND’s Stoll agreed. “If the United States wants to boost its investment and engagement with Central Asia, I think doing so in tandem with Turkey could be a good course of action,” he told Nikkei Asia. “It would demonstrate long-term investment with a regional partner, which would be a stronger assurance to the Central Asian republics that this investment could last.”

This would be especially important, considering that for most of the past two decades, Central Asia served largely as a launchpad for American. involvement in Afghanistan and little more, he said.

But Defense Priorities’ Goldstein, who studied at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, said Russia’s decline in the region should not be overly exaggerated. “Russian soft power still goes a long way in Central Asia,” he said, adding, “U.S. prestige after Afghanistan coupled with the faltering war in Ukraine is also not so stellar.

“The negative legacy of the Afghanistan War for the region is likely to leave all players quite skeptical of great power games for at least a generation,” Goldstein said.

Central Asia’s strategic geography — bordering Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran — and its wealth of critical resources have driven U.S. interest in the region. Members of Congress have expressed interest in expanding American engagement with Central Asia.

In September, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Todd Young, R-Ind., introduced legislation to end Cold War-era trade restrictions on Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and grant the countries permanent normal trade relations status.

“As Russia and China’s influence on Central Asia begins to wane, a Cold War-era relic could cost the United States an important opportunity to redefine our relationship with the region,” Murphy said in a press release.

“Once a useful tool to coerce the Soviet Union into improving its treatment of Soviet Jews and minority groups, today the Jackson-Vanik amendment is an outdated trade policy that is holding back our partnerships with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan,” he said. “This bipartisan legislation would advance our economic interests while sending a clear message that the United States is committed to bringing our relationship with Central Asia into the 21st century.”

Source: Nikkei Asia