Secretary Blinken’s First Trip to Central Asia for C5+1 Meetings
Author: Toghrul Aliyev
Feb 28, 2023
On February 23, the U. S. Department of State announced Secretary Antony Blinken’s plans to travel to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and India between February 28 and March 3. According to the statement, Secretary Blinken planned to meet with senior officials from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in their respective countries to deepen bilateral relations between the two countries and the United States. At the center of Blinken’s visit is the C5+1 Ministerial Meeting, held in Astana, Kazakhstan with the representatives of each of the five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Although it will be Blinken’s first visit to the region as the Secretary, it will be the fourth time he meets with Central Asian foreign ministers in a C5+1 format.
The C5+1 diplomatic platform, first launched in 2015, represents the U.S. government’s whole-of-government approach to the region by bringing together the five Central Asian foreign ministers, the U.S. Secretary of State, as well as thematic working groups and experts. In addition to the ministerial meetings, the platform also includes meetings between working groups in the areas of economy, energy and environment, and security. The National Security Strategy published by the Biden administration in 2022 emphasizes the C5+1 platform as an important instrument to enhance resilience and democratic development in the five countries in this region, in addition to supporting the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of of the five Central Asian countries.
Last year’s C5+1, with the participation of Secretary Blinken, took place on the sidelines of the 77th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, where the establishment of the C5+1 Secretariat was announced to further bolster regional cooperation. The discussion centered on initiatives to enhance regional economic security and connectivity, food and energy security, commitment to human rights, and the importance of maintaining the principles of territorial integrity for all countries.
During the special briefing proceeding Blinken’s trip, U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu pointed out that the visit would take place during the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at a time when Central Asia continues to grapple with the challenges emerging from the conflict. In this regard, the visit and the C5+1 meeting aims to “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Central Asian countries, and to collaborate with the region on solutions to shared global challenges.”
When asked about the Secretary’s upcoming visit to Central Asia, Caspian Policy Center’s (CPC) Advisory Board Member Bruce Pannier described it as “well timed and targeted.... He is traveling to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two most important countries in Central Asia,” Pannier noted. He emphasized that after the tumultuous events of 2022 that followed Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan “are now looking for reassurances from international partners about trade, security, and continued support for their sovereignty.” Pannier further stressed that the nationalist rhetoric from some officials in Russia about historic Russian lands has made both Central Asian countries “wary of the Kremlin’s long-term intentions toward former Soviet republics, with both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also being equally wary of falling too far under the economic influence of China.” In this regard, Pannier argues that as a global power, with no borders with the region, the United States can help Central Asia balance its foreign relations – “Blinken’s visit should be welcomed in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”
Commenting on the significance of the visit, member of CPC’s Board of Directors and former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland stated that it “will serve as a welcome reminder to the Central Asian leaders that U.S. foreign policy is paying attention to the region while their governments grapple with how to deal with their traditionally dominant partner, Russia, because of Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine.” Calling the Secretary’s trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan a “strategic move by the Biden administration,” Hoagland stressed that Washington has no desire to supplant Moscow in Central Asia, but also it “does want to remind the leaders of the region that the United States has not forgotten their multi-vector foreign policy and continues to be a reliable partner.”