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the united states needs a new strategy in central asia

The United States Needs a New Strategy in Central Asia

Author: Dr. Marsha McGraw Olive

06/26/2024

Image source: EBRD and CPCS

Why is the United States in the wings instead of at the center of Middle Corridor planning? The Trans-Caspian Transport Corridor (TCTR), as it is officially known, is a top policy priority for the United States, EU, Central Asia, and Caucasus because it offers a secure alternative to Russia or the Red Sea for long-distance commerce between Europe and Asia.  Yet the United States was missing in action at the most auspicious event to date for the corridor.  

On June 12 in Astana, amidst a pantheon of international financial institutions and states, the European Union and Kazakhstan hosted the launch of the new Coordination Platform for the Trans-Caspian Transport Corridor (TCTR).  The Platform tackles the most nettlesome challenge to maximizing the corridor as a multi-modal transit route by coordinating the actions of numerous public and private actors across many countries.  

There may be many explanations, from limited foreign policy bandwidth to bureaucratic oversight, but the most fundamental is the vacuum in official policy.  The Biden Administration has not publicly updated the Trump-era strategy for Central Asia.  This gives individual agencies the freedom to pursue idiosyncratic activities rather than cohere behind a narrowly defined, whole-of-government commitment to strategic U.S. policy goals.       

A case in point is that the launch occurred when U.S. Special Trade Representative Katherine Tai was on official business in the region.  It was her first visit for the annual Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) dialogue. But the joint Kazakh-U.S. statement failed to underscore the vital value of American trade and economic cooperation to the corridor’s viability.  

It was also a lost opportunity to demonstrate common purpose with the EU on measures to advance economic prosperity in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  The United States is indirectly named in the Astana factsheet as a “non-EU G7 country.”  The U.S. Commerce department’s complementary coordination platform appears in passing.  It should have been a headline component because it targets critical soft infrastructure such as harmonization and digitization of customs and logistics procedures. 

Admittedly, the EU assumed an early leadership role by commissioning a TCTR roadmap from the EBRD in 2023 and hosting an investment forum in January 2024 to help finance it.  The resulting pledge, totaling Euros 10 billion, was a sizeable down payment on the Euros 18.5 billion that the EBRD estimates is needed in short, medium, and long-term investments to make TCTR an efficient shipping option.  A version by the World Bank, published in November 2023, estimates that US$10 billion can debottleneck major chokepoints that will triple freight volumes and cut shipping time in half by 2030.  The EU Platform includes a work program to sort out the options by the end of this year. Reducing travel time to 15 days (equivalent to the northern corridor) is a high priority to diversify routes and trade partners and develop the regional economy. 

Deferring to the EU or Central Asians for leadership is fine, so long as the United States is in the tent.  If financial capital is in short supply, at least the U.S. can employ political capital by its physical presence.  Presence is the basis of trust.

This is all the more unfortunate following the Biden Administration’s historic achievement in hosting the first C5+1 summit in New York in September 2023 and its sponsorship of the B (for business) 5+1 in Almaty in March 2024.   

It is well past time to update the Trump Administration’s 2019-2025 strategy, which was predicated principally on Afghanistan.  After the chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the U.S. regional strategy was “overtaken by events” in State Department parlance.  

The closest the Biden Administration has come to a replacement strategy is the New York Declaration, issued just after the C5+1 Summit.   By giving presidential weight to a once-peripheral region in U.S. foreign policy, Central Asia emerged from the shadow of Afghanistan only to be upended by backwash from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The Declaration contains admirable planks to moor the region in security, economic, and people-to-people ties with the United States. 

But opening a new chapter of relations in a C5+1 statement is not a coherent foreign policy or security framework for the United States.  Issuing an updated strategy during an election season carries risks but would provide a long-term interagency vision that is more likely to carry across administrations.  This is particularly critical for maintaining momentum in the C5+1 process.   

More is at stake than U.S. participation in planning the Middle Corridor.  Central Asians have opened the door for the U.S. to align strategically with their felt needs and aspirations. The question is whether the future in this geopolitically strategic region will be decided by a rising middle class of Central Asians, with U.S. support, or by an ascendant China, with Russian support.  


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