26. Information Center - Central Asia is experiencing an enormous amount
of ferment and change. The United States has been a de facto neighbor of Central Asia through its extended engagement
with Afghanistan over the last 19 years, The Hill
significantly different region than it was at the beginning of the early 1990s.
While the birth rate in the region has dropped significantly in the last 30
years, the population is still increasing. The average age is a young 27.6
years, and in the five countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — there are approximately 75 million
Uzbekistan alone, two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30, and approximately
500,000 young people enter the labor force annually. Without sufficient economic opportunities,
Central Asia’s youth population will find other alternatives for their energies
such as migrating, or a small percentage could be vulnerable to being radicalized
and attracted to violent extremist groups.
region is not a bright beacon of freedom, some of the countries are legitimately
democratic. This is
especially true in Kyrgyzstan, despite its somewhat tumultuous political
landscape and series of multiparty
changeovers of parliament. In Uzbekistan, the country is in the process of becoming a full-fledged
democracy, and the
U.S. should help them.
relatively new leadership has declared Kazakhstan’s intention of becoming a member of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of market democracies, which
implies that Kazakhstan aims to become a fully-fledged democracy over time. Kazakhstan
is currently one of the most active non-member partners for the OECD in the world. Tajikistan and
Turkmenistan are not democracies.
two United States administrations have broadened engagement in the region
beyond a traditional defense focus related to Afghanistan, other
counterterrorism initiatives and some focus on democracy and human rights.
administration established the C5+1 initiative, which established collaboration with the 5
Central Asian states on counter terrorism, business competitiveness, transport
corridor development, power and energy infrastructure, and environmental risk
planning. Additionally, Obama Secretary of State John Kerry made
a successful trip to the region in 2015. Under the Trump administration,
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a trip to Central Asia
most recently in January, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attended conferences in the region in
Russia has historically
been Central Asia’s closest trading partner and traditional security partner;
however, if Central Asia wants to become modernized, prosperous, economically
diverse democracies, Russia offers very little. Russia has only invested
approximately $20 billion in the region since the fall of the Soviet Union.
far more economically and politically influential than it was 30 years ago. China
is seen as a potential market and
supplier of infrastructure in the region and is in the top five trading partners
of each of the countries. Furthermore, Central Asian countries are
“authoritarian curious” about China’s model of authoritarian capitalism (e.g.,
social credit systems and the ubiquitous technology tracking of people). Central
Asia is arguably the “belt buckle” on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In just 2018
alone, Chinese FDI
for the year in the five Central Asian countries was almost $15 billion. Central
Asia is conflicted about China, fearing China from a security standpoint, and
doubtful that China’s economic engagement offers little more than a neocolonial
Central Asia know that in order to reach higher-income status or even escape the middle income country
need to harness their people, diversify their economies, participate in the
full fruits of modernity, and have deep connectivity with the rest of world. For
example, Kazakhstan aspires to become the technological and manufacturing hub of the region. Many
Central Asian countries have a hard time acquiring student visas to or
correspondent banking relations with the United States, likely because of
United States to engage Central Asia, the U.S. has to have far deeper
connectivity in the region, which is too often out-of-sight and out-of-mind for
policy makers. There are no direct flights from the contiguous U.S. to Central
Asia. The United States does not need to spend enormous amounts of money, but
it has to enable — or be seen as an enabler of — the higher aspirations of
these countries, whether in investment and trade, higher education, endorsing
Central Asian membership in global organizations, or in connecting the region
to technology and modernity.
Trump administration’s credit, they have built on some of the Obama
administration initiatives, and the United States is in the process of opening
USAID foreign aid
opening targeted/expanded missions and programs in all five of the Central
Biden would be well-served to host a video conference call with the five
Central Asian heads of state in the first three months of his term.
administration might also plan on sending a senior delegation in the first six
months to all of the Central Asian countries, composed of the Secretary of
State, the Secretary of Defense, along with senior leaders from other agencies
like USAID or the EXIM Bank.
Biden should be prepared to receive all countries as a group on the sidelines
of the next U.N. General Assembly. The new Biden administration should also
establish at least one or several direct flights to the region, encourage
stronger higher education partnerships in the region and re-examine the student
States is never going to supplant Russia and China in terms of geography and
history, but it is clear that Central Asia has expressed interest in more engagement from the
United States, especially as it continues is development efforts.
has struggled with human rights and political issues, and each country has a
different track record on these topics. While not making excuses for many of
the problems, Central Asian countries have made progress in these areas,
including modernization and democratization. For example, Uzbekistan has
forced and child labor in the cotton industry in partnership with the International
Labor Organization (ILO) Third Party Monitoring Project, which includes USAID
and the U.S. Department of Labor.
expands its Central Asian programs and invests more money every year in the
region, it is imperative that the United States should give Central Asia more
focus — and potentially serve as a hedge against Russia and China.
more attention and additional investment in the region could bring a lot of
positive payoff for both the Central Asian countries and the United States.