Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Central Asia on February 28 amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Blinken met with Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He also interacted with other regional foreign ministers following the C5+1 framework. On the second leg of his trip, he visited Uzbekistan, where he had meetings with Uzbek president, Shawkat Mirziyoyev, and the acting foreign minister, Bakhtiyor Saidov.
In Astana, the US Secretary of State attended C5+1 (USA and Central Asian Foreign Ministers) meeting. In the meeting, Secretary Blinken emphasised that Russia’s actions against Ukraine have presented the US and its Central Asian partners with common challenges and interests. He also frequently stressed that the United States will always support these countries’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, Central Asian nations have taken a balanced position. Even after a year of crisis, these countries remained silent when it came to labelling Russia a threat, reinforcing their commitment to stay neutral.
Significantly, as the Ukrainian war reached its second year, the UN General Assembly voted a resolution demanding that the Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine. This resolution had support from 141 countries, opposition from seven, and abstention from 32. Turkmenistan was absent, and the other four Central Asian countries abstained. These countries have deep historical and cultural links to Russia yet cannot oppose the West. Consequently, taking a balanced approach to the Ukrainian issue is their best option.
Secretary Blinken and Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister (FM) held a joint press conference to discuss numerous crucial issues, including secondary sanctions and Russia’s threat to Central Asia. In response to whether Russia constituted a threat to Central Asia, notably Kazakhstan, Secretary Blinken responded that Moscow seemed exclusively focused on Ukraine at the time, with no other specific ambitions or ideas in mind. Yet, if there is no firm reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine, there is a larger possibility that Russian aggression will target other areas.
In response to the same question, Kazakh Foreign Ministers indicated that Kazakhstan does not allow the use of its territory to avoid sanctions, but this does not mean that Astana is currently facing any risks or threats from Russia. He went on to say that Kazakhstan, like other states and nations bordering Russia, is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU),and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). As a result, Astana considers its partnership to be an alliance within these multilateral institutions. Additionally, Kazakhstan will maintain its multidimensional foreign policy, indicating that the country aims to preserve the system of checks and balances, build good relations with other states, and maintain cordial relations with Moscow.
President Tokayev emphasised Kazakhstan’s determination to expand its engagement with Washington during his meeting with Secretary Blinken. He added that the US is one of the country’s top investors, with a total investment of over USD 62 billion. He praised the United States for its continuous support for Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty. Mr. Blinken praised the country’s continuous political and economic reforms under President Tokayev’s leadership.
In answer to inquiries on sanctions, Mr. Blinken made significant mention of China. He claimed that the Biden administration would not be reluctant to impose sanctions on Chinese companies that support Russia’s military campaign. He said Beijing could not play a dual game on Russian aggression in Ukraine. He asserted that China could hardly bring peace while fueling the flames of Russia’s ire.
On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2023, Secretary Blinken met with the State Councilor of China,Wang Yi, and warned Beijing of the consequences if it gave material assistance to Moscow. The Chinese media also widely covered this meeting, emphasising that Wang Yi accused the US of using the Ukrainian situation for its gain and urged the Biden Administration to seek a diplomatic solution rather than ‘pouring fuel on the flames and benefiting from the opportunity.’
Mr. Blinken was expected to talk extensively about China and Russia in Central Asia. The question of whether the Central Asian nations would adopt a similar stance concerning making Russia’s aggression against Ukraine a common concern and objective was intriguing. Not to surprise, CARs applauded the US for staying committed to protecting their territorial integrity, political and economic reforms. Yet, to America’s dismay, they made no disparaging remarks about Moscow.
This visit by US Secretary of State Blinken to Central Asia demonstrated Washington’s continued lack of understanding of the region’s needs, including investments and support for expanding their trade and transportation networks. Even though the US launched the Economic Resilience Initiative for Central Asia with USD 25 million last year, Blinken pledged an additional USD 25 million to this initiative during his visit. However, this USD 50 million help scarcely qualifies as a significant step. Therefore, rather than flying high on its own aspirations in Central Asia, namely to counter China and Russia, the US must learn what the nations of this region want in order to acquire a favourable position in the region.
(The author is Associate Fellow (Central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.)
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