Out of the shadows: The C5+1 Summit
Author: Dr. Marsha McGraw Olive
Oct 12, 2023
After a road show of summits, including with Xi Jinping in Xian in April 2023, the first-ever meeting of the five heads of state of Central Asia with President Biden on September 19, 2023, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, was not unexpected. But it was historic. By giving presidential weight to a once-peripheral region in U.S. foreign policy, both sides emerged from the shadows: Central Asia from Ukraine, and the United States from Afghanistan. Yet Ukraine and Afghanistan still loom. The limelight brings opportunities for mutual benefits, but also pressure for concrete results.
The fact that the summit took place, with a content-rich communique issued just days later, is a tribute to the emergence of Central Asia as a policy region in its own right, and to the U.S. team and their Central Asian counterparts who fleshed out a solid regional agenda. More so because the communique went further than the March 2023 C5+1 ministerial attended by Antony Blinken and gave presidential imprimatur to new directions that resonate with both sides.
First is a shared vision for a sustained partnership rooted in “mutual respect and accountability to our people.” This formulation gives the United States a model to satisfy its two minds on dealing with authoritarian states, on one hand, by accepting regimes as they are today, while on the other, staking out a longer-term path for improvements in human rights that speak to the felt needs and aspirations of a predominantly young society.
Second is security assistance, notably coming at the request of Central Asian leaders. The communique reaffirms cooperation on defense, law enforcement, and counterterrorism and recognizes that Central Asians care deeply about risks to their security and stability as neighbors of Afghanistan. A commitment to regional security helps the United States get past its withdrawal humiliation and puts the Central Asians on the same page after Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan signed on to a security-oriented Treaty at the C5’s 2022 Cholpon-Ata summit, but Turkmenistan and Tajikistan did not.
Third is a private-sector centered approach to economic and energy cooperation. While the Russians and Chinese push state-to-state deals that aim to buy loyalty and influence, the United States focuses on business-to-business ties, a regional network of young professionals, and “inclusive, sustainable economic development” (read: environment, labor, and governance standards). Significantly, the C5+1 is now committed to a regional business forum to parallel the official track. And for the first time, the United States is willing to engage the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) to leverage infrastructure investment for the Middle Corridor. This G7 counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has never been considered for the region.
Fourth, following a long USAID engagement in the power sector, the C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue cracks open a door to the tough topic of transparency in the energy transition supply chain. This indirect challenge to Chinese dominance ups the ante in the international competition for access to critical minerals. It is a U.S. national security imperative, and American intentions in Central Asia will not go unnoticed in Beijing.
Fifth, premising the partnership on people is long overdue. Bringing my SAIS graduate practicum to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in March 2023 showed how easily sensitive topics such as human rights and freedoms can enter the conversation when led by students. Greater assistance for higher education was the biggest “ask” in official and student-led meetings, and while there are scores of programs, particularly for English language and IT training, their effectiveness needs evaluation. More and different programs are likely to be needed, given the influence of China and Russia in the education sector.
So far, so good. What comes next? Already, Ambassador Sidiqov of Uzbekistan threw down the gauntlet for an annual or biennial presidential summit. Aside from overdue actions such as lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the first step is to hasten the publication of a new U.S. regional strategy to replace the one overtaken by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It would ideally scope out the headline accomplishments that can be announced at the next summit, whenever it takes place.