How Useful was Secretary Blinken’s Visit to Central Asia?
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF
Background

A year has passed since the Ukrainian conflict erupted in February last year. This crisis has had a devastating impact not just on the countries involved but also on those not part of this conflict. Supply chain disruptions, a refugee crisis, and a decline in economic activity are a few consequences of the conflict in Ukraine. There is still no indication that the conflict will end soon. Despite the fact that the region is considered Russia’s sphere of influence, Central Asian countries have taken a balanced approach to this issue. They have neither supported nor denounced Russia. Yet, they are attempting to diversify their foreign policy and economic ties to mitigate the crisis’s impact. The Biden administration is also attempting to enhance engagement with the Central Asian region, particularly with countries facing economic consequences from the conflict.

Kazakhstan: the Focal Point of America’s Central Asia Policy

Amid the continuing Russia-Ukraine crisis, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, on February 28 for his first visit to Central Asia. Blinken met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In accordance with the C5+1 framework, he also met with other regional foreign ministers. During the second phase of his trip to the region, he went to Uzbekistan and met with President Shawkat Mirziyoyev and Acting Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov.

At a joint press conference, Secretary Blinken and Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister (FM) addressed a number of critical concerns, including secondary sanctions and Russia’s threat to Central Asia. Secretary Blinken complimented Kazakhstan for assisting in relocating over 200,000 Russian citizens who fled their country when President Putin started his special military operations in Ukraine. He also expressed gratitude to the people of Kazakhstan for their generosity in delivering food, medicine, clothing, and other humanitarian supplies to Ukraine, including the building of the Invincible Yurts in Kyiv and Bucha.

Regarding secondary sanctions, Mr. Blinken underlined that the sanctions imposed on Russia are in response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and its assault against the core principles of the international order and the United Nations Charter. To guarantee sanctions compliance, the US is giving appropriate licences, exchanging information with partners, and assisting the Central Asian nations to diversify their trade links. Moreover, licences have been provided to firms or organisations in countries that are involved with sanctioned Russian enterprises in order to give them time to wind down their activities and cease links with Russia.

The Kazakh FM reacted by saying that the Kazakh government and the US leadership have developed a system for frequent dialogue to minimise the harmful repercussions of the Ukraine crisis and to avert secondary sanctions. The American side has informed the Kazakh government of potential secondary penalties, although no Kazakh company or sector has been placed under secondary sanctions yet.

In response to the issue of whether Russia posed a threat to Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Secretary Blinken stated that Moscow appears to be primarily focussed on Ukraine at the moment and does not appear to be considering any other specific objectives or ideas. But, there is a greater likelihood that Russian aggression might target other areas if there was not a robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Answering the same question, Kazakh Foreign Minister stated that Kazakhstan does not permit the use of its territory to evade sanctions, but this does not imply that Astana now faces any risks or threats from the Russian Federation. He further clarified that Kazakhstan is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Economic Union, and Collective Security Treaty Organization, along with other states and nations that border Russia. Hence, Astana sees its relationship as an alliance within all these international frameworks.

There also exists a strong legal foundation for our Russia-Kazakhstan bilateral cooperation. Kazakhstan and Russia’s state boundary, the longest land border in the world, has been largely demarcated. More than 7,500 kilometres have been covered and have nearly reached completion. Furthermore, Kazakhstan will keep up its multifaceted foreign policy which indicates that the country is working to maintain the system of checks and balances, foster friendly ties with other nations, and maintain cordial ties with Moscow.

President Tokayev, in his meeting with Secretary Blinken, emphasised Kazakhstan’s willingness to expand its partnership with Washington, stating that the US is one of the country’s top investors, with a total commitment of more than USD 62 billion. He complimented the US for its consistent and unwavering support for Kazakhstan’s independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. In response, Mr. Blinken complimented the country’s ongoing political and economic development under President Tokayev’s leadership.[1]

C5 also Remained Silent on Russia

The US Secretary of State attended the C5+1 (USA+ Central Asian Foreign Ministers) meeting hosted by Kazakhstan. The agenda of this meeting was also dominated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Secretary Blinken emphasised that Russian action against Ukraine poses similar challenges and goals for the C5+ 1 nations. He also repeatedly stated that the US would protect these countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence. Even after this, Central Asian nations kept mute on designating Russia as a threat. This confirms these countries’ choice to remain neutral in the aftermath of the conflict.

As the Ukrainian conflict entered its second year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the Russian military leave Ukraine. This resolution was backed by 141 nations, opposed by seven, and abstained by 32. Turkmenistan did not vote, while the other four Central Asian countries abstained.[2] These countries have strong historical and cultural ties with Russia but cannot oppose the West. As a result, having a balanced stance on the Ukrainian issue is the best alternative for them.

A Word of Caution to China

Kazakhstan is Beijing’s largest trading partner in Central Asia. China places a high value on its relations with Kazakhstan. This was demonstrated when the Chinese president selected Astana for his first official visit in September 2022 following the two-year COVID lockdown. It is worth noting that during his visit to Astana, Mr. Blinken singled out China. He stated that the Biden administration would not hesitate to sanction Chinese enterprises that assist Russia in its war effort. He said Beijing could not play a double game regarding Russian aggression in Ukraine. He asserted that China could not make peace offers while simultaneously fanning the flames of Russia’s ire.[3]

It is interesting to note here that on February 18, 2023, Secretary Blinken and Wang Yi, Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office and State Councilor of China, met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Mr. Blinken brought up the subject of North Korean missile testing and Chinese espionage balloons, and he also warned Beijing of the repercussions if it provides material help to Moscow.[4] In relation to the Balloon incident, Wang Yi offered no apologies or assurances that it wouldn't happen again. He also accused the US of leveraging the Ukraine situation for its own interest, and urged the US to seek a diplomatic solution rather than "pouring oil on the fire and profiting from the opportunity.”[6]

Conclusion

It was anticipated that Mr. Blinken would discuss China and Russia extensively in Central Asia. What was intriguing, though, was whether the Central Asian countries would take a similar posture in regard to making Russia’s aggression against Ukraine a shared issue and goal. CARs commended the US for its ongoing support for its political and economic reforms and territorial integrity. Still, to America’s dismay, they said nothing critical about Moscow.

This visit of the US Secretary Blinken to Central Asia proved that Washington is still unable to comprehend the prerequisites of the Central Asian nations, which is the investments and assistance in diversifying their trade and transportation routes. Even though Blinken gave an extra USD 25 million during his visit to the Economic Resilience Initiative for Central Asia, which the US launched last year with USD 25 million to expand regional trade channels, draw more private sector investment, and create new export markets. Yet this USD 50 million assistance hardly counts as a substantial move in light of what other countries are doing. Therefore, instead of soaring high on its own ambitions in Central Asia, namely to counter China and Russia, the US has to learn what the nations of this region desire in order to gain a good position in the region.

Endnotes

[1]President Tokayev Meets With US Secretary Blinken, Reiterates Commitment to Bilateral Cooperation BY AIDA HAIDAR in INTERNATIONAL on 28 FEBRUARY 2023. https://astanatimes.com/2023/02/president-tokayev-meets-with-us-secretary-blinken-reiterates-commitment-to-bilateral-cooperation/
[2]‘UN General Assembly calls for immediate end to war in Ukraine’, February 23, 2023. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/02/1133847.
[3]‘Antony Blinken wraps up Central Asia tour before G20 talks in India’, Business Standard march 1, 2023. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/antony-blinken-wraps-up-central-asia-tour-before-g20-talks-in-india-123030100451_1.html
[4]‘ ‘Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with People’s Republic of China (PRC) Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi’, February 18, 2023.https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-meeting-with-peoples-republic-of-china-prc-director-of-the-ccp-central-foreign-affairs-office-wang-yi/
[5]‘Mark Magnier and Orange Wang China-US relations: at Munich meeting, Antony Blinken tells Wang Yi balloon incident ‘must never again occur’, South China Monitoring Post, 19 Feb, 2023.https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3210722/munich-meeting-antony-blinken-tells-wang-yi-balloon-incident-must-never-again-occur

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