According to most analysts, President Donald Trump's rise to power in the US marked a new era in American politics. A pragmatic approach and harsh statements about individual groups, and a rejection of the foreign policy paths outlined by the previous administration, suggest that a period of protectionism for America is coming, when the focus will be on the domestic problems of the country, and the United States' participation in international politics will be reduced.
The US policy in Central Asia since 2015 was formed in the format of a “C5 + 1” model, which meant building a dialogue with each of the states in the region on a new platform that united the Secretary of State and foreign ministers of the five republics. Interest in Central Asia in the last two years of Obama's presidency has also undergone changes: the confrontation with Moscow in the post-Soviet space comes to the fore, replacing the Afghan agenda.
USA in Central Asia: an expert assessment
How will Washington's policy in the region change under the Trump administration? There are several approaches to this question.
There is an opinion that the new US president will be more loyal to the Central Asian autocratic regimes, since the protection of human rights and the promotion of democratic values are not key in his agenda. On the other hand, according to statements on the policy and personality of V. Putin, it is clear that Trump is ready to make concessions on issues related to the internal affairs of partner countries, if this is necessary to achieve any foreign policy goals of the United States.
Experts from the United States believe that Donald Trump needs to modernize the C5 + 1 format, developed by the previous administration . Some even believe that the new president of the United States should make visits to the states in the region, which his predecessor did not do during his eight years in power, and also to return the practice of joint exercises involving the Pentagon - Tsentrasbat .
After promulgating the election results, many Russian experts believed that the pragmatic nature of D. Trump and the need to enlist the support of Republicans, many of whom are far from being loyal to the new president, will not allow him to make harsh foreign policy attacks . However, the speech before Congress on 28 February, in combination with the decisions already taken to restrict access to the United States for the citizens of seven Muslim countries, the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the imminent revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well as the forcing of a wall on the border with Mexico suggest the opposite.
Researchers from the Russian Federation, assessing the prospects for the future policy of Washington in the region, consider it mainly through the prism of the “big game”, the opposition in Central Asia of actors such as the United States, Russia and China . The influence of the latter will increase as the programme “One belt - one road” develops, therefore, it is in America's interests to counter Chinese expansion by pouring additional investments into the states of Central Asia.
Do not underestimate the business approach, which will, of course, be fundamental to foreign policy: the United States has certain interests in the region, the primary one of which is the fight against world terrorism and extremism. In this context, attention to Central Asia is inevitable, since the regional states are in close proximity to the instability points, and further retreat of ISIS from the current positions is expected to lead to massive redeployment of groups, especially those consisting of militant-citizens of the region's countries, to Afghanistan.
From these positions, according to some US analysts, the region can, on the contrary, become a platform for cooperation between China and the United States. The potential is for joint anti-terrorist activities: both sides are interested in reducing the activity of radical forces in Central Asia.
The next key agenda point is energy. Despite the fact that the United States is able to provide itself with energy resources, the potential in this area of Central Asia is important, since this market is actively used by Washington's partners in NATO, which means that access to it is a matter that concerns the energy security of the alliance. In addition, US companies invest in the countries of the region, which means that a practical approach will mean that the intensity of relations with the Central Asian states will continue, at least at the current level.
One of the arguments in favour of expanding interaction with the region, from the point of view of European experts, is that Central Asia is a rapidly growing market with a population of more than 70 million people. But the main advantages of the region from the point of view of the economy remain an advantageous geographical position and the availability of resources, including the demographic ones. Here, the United States opens a window of opportunity, of which Trump, who does not emphasize ethical principles, could take full advantage.
On the other hand, financial analysts believe that the protectionism of the new White House administration will lead to an increase in regionalization in the world, which ultimately will have a positive effect on the functioning of such associations as the European Union (EU) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the growth in their turnover of goods and services.
The opinions of Kazakhstani researchers were divided. Some fear that if the United States really cuts the radius of its foreign policy, the multi-vector nature of Kazakhstan will be under threat because of the imbalance between the “Western”, Russian and Asian vectors of our state's policy. Others believe that Trump's aggressive rhetoric has nothing to do with the political reality of the United States, where the president cannot make many one-on-one decisions. Therefore, in Kazakh-American relations, as in the case with other countries of the region, there are no fundamental changes .
An additional threat, by analogy with Ukraine, is the illusory nature of the obligations to ensure the security of the Republic of
Kazakhstan, which are spelled out in the Memorandum that completed the process of Kazakhstan's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). As practice shows, the United States does not aspire to take an active position, which is required from the security guarantor, and, consequently, Kazakhstan should not expect such support, especially within the ideological message offered by the new head of the White House. Moreover, his statements regarding the resumption of the nuclear race contradict Kazakhstan's peaceful initiatives in this direction, which in the long term may become an additional knot of contradictions in the international arena.
The deputies of the Majilis of Kazakhstan expressed a common opinion that the relationship between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the USA will remain constructive with D. Trump's accession to power. In addition to the traditional political rhetoric of friendship and partnership, many of them highlighted the prospect of improving US relations with Russia. This, as articulated, would improve the economic situation in countries that are in a single economic space with the Russian Federation .
For the countries of Central Asia, the further regional policy of Russia and China is of strategic importance. In the context of political transformation - the change of power in Uzbekistan, the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan in 2017, the initiated reforms to redistribute presidential powers in Kazakhstan, coupled with the growing terrorist threats, the region is increasingly focusing on the attention of key regional players. At the same time, the leaders of the Central Asian countries are seeking to preserve the legitimacy and political agreements from the perspective of Beijing and Moscow during the transition of power.
A series of terrorist attacks in Aktobe and Almaty, as well as an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek in August 2016 caused concern among the leadership of Russia and China, whose growing political and economic interests do not permit them to turn a blind eye to the deteriorating religious, social and economic situation in the region. In this context, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have repeatedly stated the importance of cooperation in the sphere of regional security at the bilateral level and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
It is noteworthy that at the last BRICS summit on 15 October 2016 in India, both leaders spoke about “inadmissibility of external interference in Central Asian affairs from outside”, which indicates that both leaders share common interests in maintaining stability at their borders, as well as striving to limit US influence in regional processes.
With the advent of the new Trump administration, the US foreign policy towards Central Asia will not undergo radical changes. To a large extent, it is a change of emphasis in the bilateral and multilateral cooperation. In this context, Washington's further relationship with Moscow and Beijing is more important for the countries of the region.
Speaking about the policy of Russia and China in Central Asia, it should be noted that traditionally the discourse of the “division of labour”, where Moscow bears exclusive responsibility for security, prevails, whereas
Beijing acts as the main regional investor.
Russia, assuming the role of a regional shield, gives China the opportunity not to focus on measures to counter various external and internal threats. From Beijing, in turn, it is necessary to take into account Moscow's position on the proposed infrastructural and energy projects implemented by China within the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt (BRI) initiative, and to promote economic development. In this regard, Chinese investment is seen as a “safety cushion”, thanks to which, even indirectly, the economies of the countries of the Eurasian Union will be mitigated by the consequences of low oil prices and Western sanctions against Russia, and, possibly, will continue to grow.
It should be understood that the launch of the Chinese BRI initiative helped Xi Jingping to establish good personal relations with the leaders of the Central Asian countries, which gave new impetus to the discussion of regional processes. Against this background, the longterm nature of the BRI initiative is a cause for concern. The arrival of each administration in China is accompanied by a new internal and external programme. There is an opinion that BRI, being the idea of the fifth generation of Chinese leaders headed by Xi Jingping, can undergo certain changes with the advent of the sixth generation of managers after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 2022. In addition, in the case of a serious slowdown in China's economy, investment in infrastructure projects in Central Asia can be significantly reduced.
At the same time, despite the growing indices of economic cooperation between China and the region, the image of the Chinese threat remains. This was vividly confirmed by the spring rallies in major cities of Kazakhstan against the adoption of amendments to the land code that would allow land to be leased to foreigners for 25 years.
As some Russian experts point out, the so- called “conjugation” of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in May 2015, contains more political calculations than specific economic benefits . First, Moscow thereby made clear to Beijing its intention of cooperation. It should be understood that the creation of the EAES was ambiguously perceived within the Chinese establishment, and was seen in a negative light. Secondly, through interaction with the BRI, the Russian side sought to make Chinese investments accountable to the mechanism of the EAEC. Thirdly, at present the foreign policy efforts of Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia are often viewed through the prism of competition. In this case, the interaction of the two regional powers was just the signal for the US first.
However, the scheme of sharing responsibilities and risks in the region is being gradually transformed, primarily due to China's activation in the field of security. The actions of Russia and Beijing over the last year show that the bargaining between them is still going on and each side is trying to strengthen its negotiating position. In general, 2016 showed that these two large neighbours of Central Asia are still in search of the right format for interaction with each other.
Russia continues to escalate the situation, capitalizing on the threat of the DAESH government in Syria and Afghanistan. Moscow actively promotes its counter-terrorism experience, and at every opportunity gives reminders about the readiness to share its combat skills with the countries of Central Asia. The alarmist statements by Russia's special representative to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov are of grave concern. These often overstate the scale of the influence and presence of DAESH in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the DAESH militants are concentrated in certain counties of the Nangarhar province, fighting both government forces and the Talibans. Kabulov's main message is that the DAESH government considers Afghanistan as a transit point for further transfer to Central Asia.
Since early 2016, high-ranking representatives of the Russian defence ministry have held several meetings on 06 April in Tajikistan and on 08 June - in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. On 26 November 2016, defense ministers of Russia and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on expanding military- technical cooperation. It is noteworthy that during the recent visit of Putin on 27-28 February this year in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, one of the key agenda items was the strengthening of cooperation in the field of regional security.
In turn, Beijing, in addition to investing and issuing loans, began to pay special attention to bilateral and multilateral military-technical cooperation.
For example, one of the biggest events of recent years is China's supply of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with a Chinese copy of the S-300 Russian anti-aircraft missile system known as HQ-9, which undermines Russia's monopoly on deliveries of missile defense technologies and services related to their servicing. And most importantly, it is a definite challenge to Russia's aspirations to create a unified air defense system in the region and maintain a military advantage. Thus, the countries of the region are also trying to diversify arms suppliers. So, for example, Kazakhstan, being an ally of Russia, does not deny itself the acquisition of Chinese Wing- Loong drones.
Another no less significant event is China's initiative of August 2016 to create an antiterrorist regional alliance between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It was also suggested that the Counterterrorism Centre with China be established in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. In addition, Beijing has its own channels with Talibans, inviting some representatives to negotiate with themselves. China's participation in the Quadripartite Coordination Group on the solution of the Afghan issue, along with the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, gives the Chinese leadership an additional lever of interaction with the region.
For Moscow and Beijing, a common "irritant" in the region is the problem of “foreign fighters” - citizens of Central Asian countries participating in the fighting in Syria and Iraq. The terrorist attack at Istanbul airport on 28 June 2016, the attack on the Turkish Reina nightclub on 31 December 2016 and the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last summer, actualize the trend of using Central Asian militants in terrorist activities in the territories of third countries. It is noteworthy that on 27 February this year, the Analytical site SITE Intelligence Group published a video with the Uighur members of DAESH, directly threatening terrorist actions against China.
All these military-political initiatives of China largely give way to Russia's role in the sphere of regional security. However, according to some Chinese experts, this will allow Beijing to consistently build its own approach to international counter-terrorism cooperation.
Beijing will continue to rely on Russia for security issues, but in parallel providing its own services in Central Asia. At the same time, Chinese analysts began to speculate on whether Russia, in the midst of economic stagnation, could retain the status of a “guarantor of security” in Central Asia in the long term.
In general, Russia and China have no fundamental differences in the format of security in the region. Each of the powers will, in the first place, continue to be guided by its own interests and considerations, strengthening its own foreign policy agenda in the region. Now Russia remains the dominant military-political force in the region, but this, apparently, will not become an obstacle for China in the matter of positioning itself as an independent player on the security field. Beijing is interested in the security of its investments in the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative (BRI), as well as in the continuation of the established format of bilateral relations.
As for the countries of Central Asia, it is important for them that Russia and China retain their interest in maintaining stability in the region. In this context, the notion of “division of labour” with outlined zone responsibilities does not meet the interests of Kazakhstan's multi-vector policy, and also limits the space for political maneuvering to other countries of Central Asia. The optimal option is the “comprehensive cooperation” between Russia and China in the modernization of the economies and security in the region.
So, the new republican administration's accession to power in the US is not expected to bring about significant changes in US policy in Central Asia: it is likely that only certain emphases will be corrected.
For the balance of power in Central Asia, the construction of a relationship between the Trump team and the leaders of Russia and China is more critical, on the basis of which a “big game” is formed in the region. At the same time, Russian-Chinese relations will have the greatest impact on the regional situation; While Russia will remain a key player in the security sphere, China will continue to build up its trade and economic influence. At the same time, Beijing will build parallel mechanisms in the field of security, mainly on a bilateral basis.
Maintaining a balance of interests of key players would be the most desirable scenario for the countries of the region, just like the US, concentrated in 2017 on internal problems.
The fight against terrorism and the possible deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan are becoming a new argument for involving key players in the regional agenda, and this can become a platform for both cooperation and rivalry between the United States, Russia and China, which will keep international attention focused on Central Asia.
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