Secretary Blinken Concludes Central Asia Trip
Author: Toghrul Aliyev
Mar 3, 2023
For the first time since early 2020, a U.S. Secretary of State visited Central Asia. On March 1, after two days of traveling between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finished his trip to Central Asia. Between February 28 and March 1, Secretary Blinken met with senior Central Asian officials and participated in the C5+1 Ministerial Meeting. Secretary Blinken traveled to Astana, Kazakhstan, intending to provide an alternative partnership to Central Asia’s existing relations with China and Russia. To discuss the strengthening of bilateral relations, Blinken met with the representatives of each of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This visit came after a series of increased high-level visits from the U.S. government to the region.
On February 28, Blinken met with President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi. During both meetings, the Secretary underscored the United States’ firm commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Kazakhstan, as well as the other countries in the region. Blinken specifically emphasized that the United States “reaffirms its unwavering support for Kazakhstan to determine its future freely,” and “strongly endorses the reform agenda announced by President Tokayev last March.” During the press conference with Tileuberdi, Secretary Blinken also acknowledged that sanctions on Russia, Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, have had an “economic spillover effect” on the whole region. He noted that the U.S. government was issuing “licenses that make sense” for companies engaged in legitimate business with Russian entities while “watching compliance with sanctions very closely.”
In Astana, Secretary Blinken also participated in his fourth C5+1 meeting with the five Central Asian Foreign Ministers, working groups, and other high-ranking officials from regional governments. Following the C5+1 meetings, Blinken 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). “That brings our total investment in the region since our meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly last September to more than $66 million - We’re focused on diversifying trade routes, fostering greater private investment, [and] providing job training” he added.
On the sidelines of the C5+1 summit, Blinken also held meetings with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With Tajikistani Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Secretary Blinken discussed how the two countries can improve their collaboration on economic opportunities and security cooperation, especially on security and human-rights issues related to Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister, Zheenbek Kulubaev, expressed appreciation for all the American assistance in the past three decades, contributing to a “democratic Kyrgyzstan that now has strong civil society, protects human rights, [and] fundamental freedoms.” In return, Secretary Blinken praised Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to repatriate 59 Kyrgyz citizens from northeast Syria with support from the United States. Lastly, Blinken discussed prospects for partnering on the climate crisis, security, and economic growth initiatives with Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.
In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Blinken held meetings with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Acting Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov. During his press conference, Blinken emphasized U.S. efforts to improve Uzbekistan’s education system in the past five years, with more than $25 million invested in English-language education. Blinken also commended the implementation of Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda, noting the progress made in Uzbekistan’s labor laws. In an interview with Doniyor Tukhsinov from Kun.uz, Secretary Blinken touched on the economic spillovers of the war in Ukraine on Central Asia, specifically citing Russia’s “use of energy and food as a weapon,” which has caused prices in the region and globally to increase. Acknowledging the spike in demand and prices within the region, Blinken stressed that the United States has been working closely with the Central Asian countries to mitigate these effects.
Commenting on the visit’s implications, Caspian Policy Center’s (CPC) advisory board member Bruce Pannier stressed that “the funds are targeted at projects that benefit Central Asia well into the future, with, most importantly, no huge debt or strings attached.” Especially considering the burdening debts China has imposed on the region, the United States' condition-free offer is an opportunity for Central Asia to build a trusting relationship. During his interview with a journalist in Kazakhstan, Secretary Blinken made it clear that the priority for the United States in its engagement with the region is “providing a choice, making sure that, hopefully, we have something positive to offer, maybe helping countries create greater opportunity for their own people with good jobs, maybe working together to deal with something like climate change, to deal with having a good supply of energy, including renewable energy, so that we’re dealing with climate change.”
In this regard, upholding commitment to the Central Asian countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence is central to U.S. foreign policy towards the region. Blinken’s statements signify the vital role Central Asia plays as a corridor in connecting the East with the West, especially in light of the uncertainties caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Looking ahead, U.S. efforts to create an alternative cooperation platform for Central Asian states has vast potential of being a milestone marking significant shift, especially because of the uncertainty present in the region due to Russian attempts to utilize food and energy as political weapons and the Chinese efforts to exert leverage through financial debts.