The US role in Central Asia has historically been limited in comparison to the deep historical, security, and business ties that Russia shares with its former Soviet neighbors, or the more recent influx of investment and demand for commodities coming from China. However, with the new US foreign policy under President Donald Trump, there is a chance that more may shift than meets the eye. Human rights and democratization, consistent issue areas for past administrations, will almost certainly fall as a priority for the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson.
Likewise, the president has prioritized combating terrorism not just as a matter of state, but also as a pillar for his own base of support and as a focal point of his foreign and national security policies. Central Asian states may see their own opportunity to boost relationships with Washington, and remind their partners in Moscow and Beijing that they will not back away from multi-vectored foreign policies.
In the past two decades, American programs in Central Asia have tended either to view regional security through a post-9/11 lens, with an eye on Afghanistan, or to pursue goals pertaining to economic development. Border security, counter-proliferation of small arms or nuclear materials, and military training are common themes, alongside specialized development programs of interest to host governments. Even some economic programs have been cast in Afghan terms — the State Department’s 2011 New Silk Road concept justified support to Central Asia in terms of supporting development in Afghanistan.
Regional oil and gas exports have also been a focus for the US government, though Washington’s involvement has largely been limited to promotion of diversification of export routes. The US has generally left planning and financing up to regional governments, and projects like a trans-Caspian pipeline or the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project remain distant prospects.
In the latter years of the Obama administration, the White House moved toward an approach involving the C5+1 dialogue that treats Central Asia as a holistic region. The format, comprised of the Central Asian states and the US, focuses on counter-terrorism and countering radicalization generally. It also furthers the general goal of promoting intra-regional trade, and boosting renewable energy usage and resilience to climate change, but security has drawn outsized attention.
There is no reason to think the format will disappear under Trump. International aid budgets are likely to be slashed across the board, and some programs devoted to Central Asia will fall under the axe. However, this administration will amply fund security programs. The US defense budget is set to increase, and there is some potential to shift relationships with Washington to an even more security-focused angle.
The change in administration in the US comes at the same time as changes in the region might lead Central Asian states to look for some additional cooperation with Washington. The new government in Uzbekistan, led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears more open to boosting the country’s relationships inside and outside the region. The economic crisis in the region driven by lower oil prices has led some states, notably Kazakhstan, to look for greater foreign investment into non-extractive economic sectors. Russia’s own recovery from the low oil price environment will constrain foreign spending, and Chinese investments from the Belt and Road Initiative and demand for regional exports may be less extensive than Central Asian governments had hoped.
Washington is not in a position to supplant either Moscow or Beijing on these political or economic relationships, and the new administration almost surely does not aspire to do so. However, its transactional approach to foreign policy and interest in counter-terrorism may appeal to regional governments that have long sought to hedge their relationships with their larger neighbors.
For now, the Trump administration is still staffing its agencies, and Central Asian leaders will need to find appropriate interlocutors regarding opportunities for engagement. The question of how America will or will not adjust its regional relationships will draw more attention later this year.
Cliff Kupchan is Chairman of Eurasia Group