Blinken’s Central Asian Charm Offensive

Written by Allan Millward

March 12, 2023

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in Kazakhstan last week for a meeting of the C5+1 group, a diplomatic summit that consists of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the United States. All five Central Asian states are sandwiched between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China and are significantly influenced by both. These five states, which Russia formerly ruled as the USSR, have long been viewed as falling under Moscow’s sphere of influence post-independence and are, for the most part, deeply integrated with it militarily, economically, and politically. However, Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has rattled relations with none of the five approving of Russia’s actions and all abstaining in a vote to condemn the war. Meanwhile, China has increasingly become a significant part of many of these states’ economies through its well-known Belt and Road Initiative as well as major lending.

Blinken’s meeting comes on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an opportune time for the US, and Blinken made sure to capitalize on it stressing “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence” in all of his meetings. He reminded his Kazakh hosts that the US was the first state to recognize Kazakhstan in 1991. However, for all the big talk the US has had a history of mixed success in the region. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan did assist the US in its war on terror in Afghanistan, providing logistical support, and Kyrgyzstan even allowed for a US military base to operate within its borders, but these agreements were temporary and no significant shift away from Russia was achieved. If Blinken was hoping to use these Central Asian states’ very real fear of Russian intimidation to win them over to the West, he certainly came up short. This was perhaps best exemplified by Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi who thanked Blinken for the commitment of the US to Kazakhstan’s freedom but reasserted that given “the complex international situation” Kazakhstan “continues a balanced multilateral foreign policy.” The “C5” know that if they are to survive in their precarious position at the geopolitical crossroads of three major powers they have to work with all sides.

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