Comment & analysis

Openings for Biden in the inaugural US-Central Asia Summit at UNGA

16 September 2023 Jordan Street and Ilya Jones

This article was first published at Just Security.

It’s been a busy few years of summits for Central Asian states. The leaders of the five countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) have held high-level meetings with Russia, China, India, the Gulf states, the president of the European Council, and now for the first time with U.S. President Joe Biden, scheduled on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening in New York next week. The renewed attention in the region from U.S. policymakers likely is part of their push to counter the influence of China and to court regional leaders after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

But there will be many important issues on the table for both the United States and its counterparts. The U.S. government is worried about Central Asia’s economic arrangements with China, seriously concerned over the circumvention of sanctions on Russia via Central Asia, and cognizant that support for the U.S. position on Ukraine requires consistent and considerable diplomatic engagement across multiple regions (it is notable that none of the five Central Asian countries have voted in favor of any resolution to condemn the war in Ukraine). And while there may not be opportunities for instant progress on big-ticket issues during this summit, a heads of state meeting is itself a strong symbolic gesture of support for a region that has long been an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy.

Yet, if the Biden administration is serious about building positive relationships with Central Asia, it should not see the region exclusively through its own narrow priorities, and instead look to balance interests and build from this starting point. The United States should specifically consider three priority areas for the summit: the mutual interest in territorial integrity and regional cooperation, the need to protect civil society from repression, and the imperative of focusing on the most beneficial forms of shared security cooperation.

Territorial Integrity and Regional Cooperation Trump a Race to the Bottom

The United States cannot replace Russia or China, nor force Central Asian leaders to choose sides. The region is too distant – politically, historically, and ideologically – and the United States cannot offer enough to make this a viable option. The upcoming summit (a first for a sitting U.S. president) and the visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan earlier this year are positive first steps, but Central Asian states still don’t see enough engagement or investment to risk their other relationships that provide more concrete returns (remittance flows from migrants in Russia or infrastructure investment from Chinese companies, for example).

While U.S. security assistance and support might be on the table in some shape or form, a serious challenge to Russian influence in the region isn’t a real possibility. The military relationship between the United States and Tajikistan, for instance, is longstanding and will remain close to support efforts at the Afghanistan border. But Washington should be cautious about how an increase in security assistance could increase tensions in the region. With the negative democratic trends –in the region, the United States must avoid the security assistance “race to the bottom” with Russia and China, where in an attempt to outbid others with military aid, good governance and human rights commitments are sacrificed and security, in fact, worsens (as has happened elsewhere).

Instead, the United States should focus on more worthy and achievable aims with its security cooperation. Released in 2019, the six-year U.S. Strategy for Central Asia: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity emphasizes “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” as the first priority. Created prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this emphasis has taken on new meaning. The United States should take this opportunity to reinforce its commitment to being a reliable ally for those in the region in the face of increasingly threatening rhetoric from Russia. And while modest, yet meaningful, security cooperation need not be ruled out, more important will be support for regional cooperation wherever possible, especially on issues of mutual concern such as climate change, access to markets, trade diversification, economic expansion, and political ties with South Asia and other regions, or cross-border infrastructure projects. The United States could offer new commitments on infrastructure to the region and encourage the World Bank to increase investments in Central Asia where possible. While there are considerable regional tensions to work through – including military escalation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – the U.S. can play a distinct role in driving forward cooperation and supporting a stronger and more autonomous region.

Invest in Civil Society

To balance discussions of security assistance and cooperation during the summit, the United States must in turn look to receive some guarantees on human rights and fundamental freedoms. In Central Asia, support for committed – but increasingly beleaguered – civil society organizations and their leaders is an area where the United States can make a big difference. In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has implemented a series of reforms since assuming power in 2016 whereby civil society and freedom of expression have grown substantially, but such organizations still face uncertain operating environments. In Kyrgyzstan, where civil society has been relatively free, civil society organizations and media face new laws which will make them more vulnerable to suppression and self-censorship. In Tajikistan, civil society groups “face increasing challenges.” In Kazakhstan, U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin reported in 2020 that a series of government measures and legislation seriously curtailed the actions of public associations, religious associations, and political parties. Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world.

Certainly, the United States already plays a large role in direct funding for civil society in the region, acting as a much-needed lifeline. But it should increase its support and continue to direct investment to projects that focus on education, youth engagement and economic support, gender equality, and climate-resilient development. Finding a way to engage the regions’ increasingly youthful population will be an important component in such a strategy.

Where possible, the Biden administration also should further encourage more responsive and more accountable governance with authorities where opportunities emerge. Despite a level of reticence from the states in the region, there are ways to fund initiatives that open avenues for cooperation between civil society and government and encourage collaborative solutions to society’s problems.

There are several openings for this kind of work – for example, in Uzbekistan new laws have sought to provide greater protections against gender-based violence (where our organization, works with partners to support rehabilitation centers and shelters to address gaps and improve service delivery), as well as new initiatives to encourage collaboration at the local level between communities and authorities. Research has shown that interpersonal violence in the region has a clear link to wider security issues and perpetuates other harmful gender norms. In Kyrgyzstan, peacebuilding organizations have worked to empower young people to tackle issues in their community, while a new law aims to get local self-government structures (ayil okmotu) to take on more responsibility and work with communities to solve their security problems in an inclusive community approach.

The Limits of Security Cooperation

Intimately linked to the pressure on civil society in the region is the recent increase in the abuse of counterterrorism rhetoric, measures, and laws in Central Asia to target political opponents. We have argued before that the threat of terrorism has been inflated in the region by authorities who find the framing convenient. In the context of the C5+1 Summit, the Biden administration has the opportunity to reiterate its commitment to ensuring that counterterrorism partners do not impinge on freedom of expression under the pretext of “countering extremism” or use the labelling of “extremism,” when not linked to violence, as a justification to curtail human rights or fundamental freedoms.

Yet, there are areas of counterterrorism cooperation that can be emphasized and still allow the United States to uphold its human rights commitments. Kyrgyzstan’s repatriation of 95 citizens from the Al-Hol camp in Syria in August 2023 was rightly welcomed by the United States. Central Asian states are leading where many others are failing (notably the U.K. and states in the European Union).  The failure to repatriate some 56,000 former members of violent groups and their families (who are still held in prisons and detention sites in Syria) is not only a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe, but it is also a global security threat. It can be a clear area of deeper cooperation for the United States and the region. The Biden administration should commit to continuing and bolstering support to the C5 for future repatriation and reintegration efforts. Yet, in doing so, the United States also must be clear where the limits are on counter-terrorism cooperation beyond this. Until there are guarantees that other forms of cooperation will not be abused, the United States should be reticent to announce new initiatives and take extra precautions to ensure that current security investments are not being misused or turned against the regions’ own citizens.

A New Partnership With the Region?

The first summit between sitting leaders of Central Asian states and the president of the United States is – all other outcomes aside – a positive, symbolic step in itself. But it would be a mistake if the Biden administration sees this summit as a box-checking exercise held solely to counteract Russian President Vladimir Putin’s summit in October 2022 and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s own Central Asian summit in May 2023.

President Biden should instead work to find the areas of mutual interest, while not falling into the trap of trying to outdo Russia and China with military commitments. Declarations on cooperation will need to be centered on areas in which the United States does not have to compromise core national security priorities in the name of competition. Concepts such as regional cooperation, protecting civil society, and repatriation from Syria fulfil U.S. priorities and likely would be acceptable to most of the regions’ leaders. That would be enough to make this summit successful and to build towards a new, improved future relationship for the C5+1.

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