Biden's Presidential Outreach to Central Asia—A Strategic Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy
Author: Samantha Fanger
Sep 15, 2023
For the first time, leaders of all five Central Asian republics will meet with U.S. President Joseph Biden in a formal C5+1 meeting. A letter, signed by U.S. President Biden and addressed to his Uzbek counterpart, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, reads: “Over the last year, we have taken our collaboration to new heights – including strengthening our trade and investment ties, advancing our security cooperation, and working together to tackle regional challenges.” The official correspondence from one president to another concludes with an invitation to meet in-person, along with fellow regional leaders, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York in September. The letter and invitation enclosed send a clear message: the Biden Administration’s recognition of the importance of the Central Asian countries’ role in an evolving global landscape. U.S. engagement with the region is picking up stride.
In years past, the United States has participated in several C5+1 meetings at the ministerial level. September’s meeting is the first that will take place with U.S. involvement at the presidential level. According to U.S. Ambassador (ret.) of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Richard E. Hoagland, this is an important symbolic gesture. “With this planned meeting in New York, the White House is sending an unmistakable signal related to Russia’s ongoing criminal war in Ukraine,” Amb. Hoagland said. “It clearly affirms that Washington supports the continuing efforts of the five Central Asian states themselves to explore ways to work more closely together, with the eventual goal of forming an association that would enhance their own security and promote all forms of connectivity among the five. The work on such an association should move into higher gear because there is real truth in the phrase stronger together.” Though the upcoming meeting might be seen as simply symbolic, it could be the foundation for deeper long-term cooperation.
Leadership engagement at the highest level for this month’s C5+1 meeting is in keeping with an increase in U.S. engagement with the region during the past two years. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s official visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in February is a recent example of this. Emphasizing the importance of bilateral cooperation and regional integration, Blinken said, “A more connected, a more cooperative Central Asia will be better able to determine its own future and deliver for its people’s needs. The United States is committed to supporting that vision.”
The United States has also shown an increase in monetary support. Following Blinken’s visit, the U.S. Department of State announced the Biden Administration’s commitment to provide an additional $25 million in funding to expand upon the preexisting Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia (ERICEN). Blinken added that this funding is intended to "serve as a catalyst for increasing private-sector investment.”
Though in the past, the Biden Administration has demonstrated its recognition of the region’s geopolitical and economic importance, direct engagement with the region has remained limited to the working level—until now.
The stride to high-level engagement is a timely one. In October 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a C5+1 meeting with his counterparts in the region. Increasingly, China has made strategic moves to increase engagement with the region, including Chinese President Xi Jinping hosting the Central Asian presidents in the same format in May of this year. As Russia and China continue to bid for influence in this region, strategic competition for cooperation with Central Asian countries has ramped up. However, the emerging economic instability of China and Russia is posing a challenge to the stability of this strategically vital region. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, President Biden is expected to utilize this meeting as an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. support.
President Biden's decision to engage with Central Asian leaders at the presidential level represents a significant pivot in U.S. foreign policy towards the region. It underscores the Biden Administration's recognition of Central Asia's strategic importance in the evolving global landscape. By extending a formal invitation to meet during the United Nations General Assembly, the United States signals its commitment to deepening ties with Central Asian nations, both in terms of security cooperation and economic collaboration. Washington is not only acknowledging Central Asia's geostrategic significance but also its role as an alternative energy source supplier, which is crucial given Europe's efforts to diversify away from Russian energy dependence.
While this meeting might be seen as a symbolic gesture, it has the potential to lay the groundwork for longer term cooperation that could benefit all parties involved. However, it will be essential for the United States to maintain consistent high-level engagement to ensure the sustainability and success of this partnership.