Why is the UK Courting Central Asia?
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF
Background

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has prompted Western countries to play a more active role in Central Asia. In March 2023, US Secretary Anthony Blinken visited Central Asia, followed by German Federal President Steinmeier’s visit in June 2023 and French President Macron’s visit in November 2023. The West is keen to engage with Central Asia as they suspect that these countries have been aiding Russia in evading the sanctions imposed by the West after the Ukraine conflict. Furthermore, the West sees this as a golden opportunity to strengthen its political, economic, and security connections with Central Asia, which has close ties with Russia. The West is confident that Russian influence in Central Asia is waning and is eager to court these nations to outmaneuver China and Russia in the region.

However, the reality is quite different from what many assume. Central Asian countries have close relationships with their two biggest economic partners - Russia and China. For many years, these two countries have been the primary trading partners of Central Asia. However, recent geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West, as well as the US-China trade war, have prompted Central Asian countries to consider diversifying their foreign relations with the West. Central Asian countries have been seeking to attract more investment and trade from Europe and the United States and improve their diplomatic relations with Western countries. This is part of their multi-vector foreign policy, which seeks to balance their relationships with different regions of the world to maintain their economic and political independence. Despite this, Central Asia's trade with China and Russia remains significant, and these countries will continue to play an essential role in the region.

What does Cameron's Visit to Central Asia Signify?

Continuing the trend of Western countries' increased interest in Central Asia, David Cameron, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs, embarked on a significant visit to five Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and Mongolia. This official visit, a direct response to the report titled "Countries at Crossroads: UK Engagement in Central Asia," published by the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in November 2023, underscores the UK's deeper engagement in Central Asia. The report highlighted that such engagement could yield substantial mutual benefits and be seen as a geopolitical necessity. As a result, the report recommended high-level ministerial engagement, including visits from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, to expand the UK's outreach to the Central Asian region and beyond. David Cameron's visit was particularly noteworthy as he became the first British foreign minister to visit Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan for the first time, and Uzbekistan since 1997, marking a significant step in the UK's growing interest in the region.

Geopolitical Strategy and Countering Russian Influence

The UK is trying to seize the opportunity presented by the significant transformations underway in Central Asia to play a more active role partly due to the perceived decline of Russia's influence in the region. The UK, the US, and Germany have emerged as one of the leading donors to Ukraine, providing aid and weapons. Since February 2022, the UK has pledged a substantial £12.5 billion in support to Ukraine, with £7.6 billion earmarked for military assistance. This includes a £3 billion commitment for military assistance in 2024/25. The UK is supplying both lethal and non-lethal weapons, such as tanks, air defence systems, and long-range precision strike missiles. While the UK has decided against providing combat fighter aircraft, it has committed to training Ukrainian fast jet pilots. In addition, the UK is hosting a training programme called Operation Interflex, which has garnered support from several allies. The programme has already trained over 30,000 Ukrainian personnel, with plans to train an additional 10,000 by mid-2024.[1]

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Western countries, including the UK, have been striving to establish Central Asia as a region resistant to Russian influence. The UK suspects that Central Asian countries might be aiding Russia in circumventing Western sanctions. By engaging more actively with these countries, the UK aims to disrupt any potential support for Russian sanction evasion. Despite these efforts, the Central Asian nations have chosen to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict. They have opted not to take sides and have continued to maintain strong economic, political, and security relationships with Russia. The UK's efforts to counter Russian influence in Central Asia underscore its geopolitical strategy and its role in shaping the region's political dynamics.

Economic Opportunities and Energy Resources

Geopolitical considerations do not solely drive the UK's burgeoning interest in Central Asia. The United Kingdom reevaluated its policy toward Central Asia due to the region's strategic location, abundant energy resources, and potential as a market for British exports. Central Asia boasts vast oil, gas, and minerals reserves, and its strategic position as a bridge between Europe and Asia is a significant advantage. The UK perceives an opportunity to bolster the region's economic development and stability through strategic investments and trade partnerships. The UK government aims to promote its expertise in financial services, education, and technology to bolster the region's growth and diversification.

Strategic Investment, Educational Cooperation, and Diplomatic Engagement

David Cameron announced a package during his visit. His announcement outlined a comprehensive plan to inject £50 million ($62.5 million) of new funding into the region over the next three years. This financial support includes a £19.5 million regional climate programme to address environmental challenges and £6.5 million earmarked for regional education initiatives. Cameron also highlighted the United Kingdom's competitive edge in the education sector and revealed plans to double the number of fully funded Chevening Scholarships for master's degrees, specifically targeting Kazakh and Uzbek students. Furthermore, he emphasized the commitment to provide English instructors across the region with access to high-quality English language teaching resources developed by the British Council.

The UK appears to be a new player in the region. The pledges made by Secretary Cameron also seem to be inadequate. Nonetheless, this visit holds significant symbolic value in the context of Central Asian countries' desire to expand their foreign relations with the West.

Conclusion

The UK's recent engagement with Central Asia aims to strengthen ties with the region, increase its influence, and counter Russian influence. The UK sees Central Asia as a crucial region in terms of its strategic location, energy resources, and economic potential. Through investments, trade partnerships, and diplomatic engagement, the UK hopes to deepen its relationship with Central Asian countries and contribute to the region's economic development and stability. To further the UK's Central Asia policy, it's important to consider more constructive approaches beyond simply criticizing Russia and China. For the UK to succeed in its objectives, it is essential for the country to deeply comprehend the unique requirements and aspirations of the Central Asian countries. By recognizing and addressing these specific needs, the UK can ensure that its engagement with the region leads to mutually beneficial and positive outcomes.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Reference

[1] "Military Assistance to Ukraine since the Russian Invasion." Research Briefing, UK House of Commons Library. May 2, 2024. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9477/.


Image Source: https://www.newschainonline.com/news/financial-news/cameron-seeks-new-era-in-uk-central-asia-relations-on-visit-to-region-396595

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