On November 1, the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, hosted the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian republics, who met together with US Secretary of State John Kerry in the newly introduced C5+1 format (Rpg15.wordpress.com, November 1). Initiated by Washington, the C5+1 format has several important features: it engages only the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries (without Afghanistan, as the US-proposed New Silk Road initiative had stipulated, for example) along with the United States, and it seeks to promote better regional cooperation by offering Central Asia something it had always wanted from the US, namely greater economic assistance. In fact, the promised US assistance to Central Asia will focus heavily on professional, trade and business development (State.gov, November 1), and will aim to support younger and entrepreneurial populations across Central Asia.
The C5+1 format and its associated economic proposals are a timely introduction, particularly since virtually all countries of Central Asia are currently struggling to adapt to persistent low commodity prices and the negative impact on the region of the Russian economic crisis (Worldbank.org, October 26). The eventual level of US economic assistance is still unknown, but it should not be underrated. Unlike the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, which is defined by multibillion-dollar Chinese government commitments to build roads, rail and infrastructure across Eurasia, the planned US assistance is underpinned by private, not public investment. Moreover, the US money will be targeted specifically at creating a more favorable business climate in the region, thus making it more receptive to additional private investors in the future.
At the same time, the new format also deemphasizes US regional interests in the security sphere, which Washington had been overwhelmingly focused on since the start of the war in Afghanistan (see EDM, July 19, 2014). Military cooperation is thus eclipsed by support in the economic and longer-term workforce development spheres. By prioritizing economic and investment issues, the C5+1 succeeds in providing a more stable framework for intra-regional cooperation, which would be more challenging to coordinate if the focus remained on security issues—particularly, given the diverging positions of the Central Asian countries themselves and their complicated geopolitical environment. In this sense, the multilateral economic initiatives introduced within the C5+1 explicitly avoid competing with Russia’s renewed military assistance to the region (see EDM, November 14, 2012; October 22, 2015), thus carefully eschewing this point of potential conflict.
Choosing Samarkand as the initial venue for the C5+1 forum was a meaningful gesture in that it unambiguously highlighted Uzbekistan’s commitment to the new format. Over the past two decades, Tashkent has often been stubbornly opposed to most regional multilateral initiatives. It is also notable that Turkmenistan joined the C5+1 format, despite its neutrality; and the initiative has enjoyed key support from Kazakhstan. Indeed, the United States has undertaken a particularly difficult task of combining the efforts of the five Central Asian countries in one common format; and the importance of the eagerness of the regional countries to participate should not be underestimated.
Amid threats from Afghanistan, as well as uncertainty in the Caspian Sea on the ownership of oil fields (Russia/Azerbaijan) and the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline, Turkmenistan is actively changing its policy of total neutrality. At the same time, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are actively cooperating to address common security issues. In October, Presidents Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and Islam Karimov signed a joint statement confirming their commitment to developing mutual trade and transportation projects (News.uzreport.uz, October 8). Neither Tashkent nor Ashgabat are bound by military or trade obligations to Moscow, and Turkmenistan has even been negotiating the placement of a US Air Force base at the Turkmenistani airport “Mary-2,” in exchange for assistance in the fight against radical Islamists as well as in the implementation of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project. (Ng.ru, October 20). Turkmenistan’s new openness to cooperation with the US is reflected in the signing of a bilateral memorandum on strategic security (State.gov, November 3).
Another area of assistance suggested by Secretary Kerry is the “Smart Waters” project, aimed at training a new generation of experts and personnel to manage the region’s shared water resources. The fair and peaceful utilization of Central Asia’s rivers and waterways by the upstream and downstream countries is vital to ensure the success of the planned CASA-1000 water-energy mega project. The final intergovernmental agreement on CASA-1000 was signed on November 24. The project will make use of upstream hydropower dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to produce electricity that that will be delivered, via newly constructed transmission lines, to customers in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Fergananews.com, November 26). Secretary Kerry promised Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rahmon, that in “the five-year prospect Tajikistan would be able to supply all of the energy of Afghanistan as well as of its own people” (State.gov, November 3). So far, Tashkent has not voiced its opposition to the CASA-1000 project’s signing, which might be regarded as a modest success. Since the end of 2014, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have resumed more normal relations. After a series of intergovernmental meetings, the two neighboring states agreed on resolving issues related to the delimitation and demarcation of borders, deliveries of Uzbekistani natural gas to Tajikistan, easing their visa regime (visa-free travel up to 30 days), and resuming direct air flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent (Tojnews.org, January 15, 2015; Anhor.uz, September 26, 2014).
Russia, preoccupied with its bombing campaign in Syria, has not yet officially addressed the new US plans in Central Asia. Nonetheless, some Russian media have already commented on the C5+1 initiative using sharp, Cold War–style rhetoric. News outlets like Regnum have warned that Russia is being pushed out of its sphere of influence (Regnum.ru, November 12). The US government, however, seems to welcome Moscow’s role in regional security issues: recently, Washington has even partially lifted restrictions on Russian arms supplies to Afghanistan (Fergana, November 25, 2015).
Recent visits to Central Asia by the Indian and Japanese prime ministers as well as the US Secretary of State, indicate that these governments consider intensifying multi-vector foreign ties to be critical to reinforce their sovereignty in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment. Recognizing that, the United States insists that it wants to see a “win-win” solution for the region: “[N]obody should think of this visit as anything to do with choosing between Russia or choosing between China or choosing between [any other power]—that’s not why I’m here,” Kerry declared in Astana, on November 2 (State.gov, November 2).