Debates: The new C5+1 format being established to strengthen cooperation between Washington and the countries of Central Asia could have implications for the future balance of power in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) with foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — at the C5+1 meeting in Washington, DC. Photo: EPA/Shawn Thew

On Aug. 3 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Washington with foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). This new so-called “C5+1” format that first appeared in October 2015 aims to reinforce regional cooperation on a broad range of issues, including economic integration, the environment and climate change, human rights and security.

As a result of the talks, the six ministers agreed to launch five projects in these areas, which the U.S. plans to support with up to $15 million in funding. These projects aim to strengthen existing links between the Central Asian states and enhance their capacity.

The projects also intend to support small businesses, help enhance the competitiveness of local producers, reduce intra-regional trade barriers, fight international terrorism, develop alternative energy sources and enhance energy efficiency in general, as well as coordinate national efforts to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Following the meeting, the U.S. has also expressed its readiness to cooperate on counter-terrorism with Kazakhstan. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, recently visited the country to explore potential opportunities for cooperation.

“The U.S. welcomes Kazakhstan’s commitment to a broader and more preventive approach to terrorism, and we stand ready to work with partners in and out of government who will join us to turn back this shared threat,” she said at a press conference on Aug. 17.

With policymakers now talking about the strategic importance of cooperation between Central Asian states and the U.S., Russia Direct asked experts to share their thoughts on the goals of the new format and whether Russia and China should worry about increased U.S. influence in the region.

Daniel Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State

The C5+1 is a format for diplomatic dialogue that gives the U.S. an opportunity to meet with the five foreign ministers together. We didn’t view at the time, nor do we view today, that visit and the meetings we had as part of some contest or something to do with influence or fighting for dominance.

American relations in the region are not a zero sum game. We don’t play that game. The U.S. supports the sovereignty of each of the Central Asian countries and believes that they should have healthy relations with each other, with their neighbors, and with all countries.

Washington believes that the countries of Central Asia should have very close and friendly relations with Russia and China, which are neighboring countries. For reasons of geography and history, those relations are necessary and important.  But we also think that that should not exclude very close warm and productive relations with other countries, even those that are geographically distant.

We share an interest with Russia in seeing stability in Central Asia, and also in seeing Afghanistan become increasingly secure and stable because that obviously has implications for Central Asia. We’ve always encouraged Russia to play a positive role in stability in Afghanistan and also in Central Asia through its engagement with authorities in the region.

Also read: "What's the future of US foreign policy in Central Asia?"

I should add that we don’t always share an identical assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan with Russia, and sometimes Moscow’s assessment is (we think) much grimmer, much more severe than ours, of the situation on the ground there. But we also note that Russia has engaged positively in some respects and by some of its programs and investments in Afghanistan.

About regional integration and regional connectivity of Central Asia countries and the skepticism out there, I completely understand it. Improving the connection of Central Asia to South Asia or to the East and West is overcoming a lot of historical barriers, and it’s a very difficult task.

But we have to be optimists and we have to work on this together, and all the countries of the region need to work on it together because there’s really no alternative in my view. Right now Central Asia as a region is one of the least integrated in terms of trade within itself of any region in the world, and I think the countries of the region recognize that that’s not good for long-term economic growth.

Vadim Kozyulin, senior research fellow at the PIR Center, a Moscow-based independent think tank

The C5+1 format presents a new option for U.S. cooperation with the countries of Central Asia. This format clearly shows that the Americans can no longer develop their “New Silk Road” project [a U.S. initiative for Central Asia and Afghanistan that aims to integrate the region and boost its potential as a transit area between Europe and East Asia – Editor’s Note] or invest in other regional initiatives.

Besides, C5+1 is a U.S. promise not to leave Central Asian states to the influence of Russia and China, but to help them by providing support.

It is via this platform that the U.S. will carry out a dialogue with the region on a wide range of issues helping with ideas and contacts as well as involving the EU, Turkey and Japan in regional projects with multilateral participation. Here Russia’s positions in the region are still weak. Yet, human rights and democratic values will remain key pillars of American policy in the region, which will annoy the authorities of the Central Asian states.

С5+1 may be a long-term format of U.S. cooperation with Central Asia. The practical interest of Americans in the region decreased ever since the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency and is likely to fall further. Given the radical cut of resources allocated to the work in the region, С5+1 will allow the White House to keep at least some kind of  presence there.

Daniyar Kosnazarov, deputy director of the Synopsis Center for the Study of China and Central Asia

The U.S. presence decreased considerably in the region since 2014. It was then that the Northern Distribution Network ensuring transit of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) non-military cargos to Afghanistan and the U.S. Manas military air base in Kyrgyzstan were closed.

This, however, does not mean that Washington stopped developing its ties with Central Asian states. It is more likely that these relations shifted to their normal state, which existed before the military operation in Afghanistan. The emergence of a new platform for cooperation – C5+1 – proves that.

It would be wrong to regard the new C5+1 project as an instrument to balance the influence of China and Russia, which filled the vacuum in Central Asia when the U.S. began decreasing its presence in Afghanistan. Thus, the Chinese economic and resource potential today is quite larger than the American one and it is already impossible to stop or decrease its presence in the region. Other powers interested in cooperation with Central Asia will have to adjust to the interests of Beijing or move aside.

Notwithstanding the economic problems, Moscow keeps its political influence in Central Asia at the highest level and Americans will have to adapt to that. This level is largely ensured by the personal influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Central Asian leaders. Plus, the factor of Russia’s military primacy in Central Asia did not go anywhere.

However, maintaining ties with Washington is also important for the countries of the region. A lot of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy projects are carried out thanks to the White House. American support ensures that Astana achieves status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, becomes a member of the World Trade Organization and establishes a bank of nuclear fuel under the guarantees of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Without a favorable U.S. position, Central Asian countries could have found it hard to develop ties with international economic and political institutions, so the region needs Washington more than the U.S. needs the region. The higher such demand will be among the states of the region, the longer and wider will be the C5+1’s work.

Rafael Sattarov, independent political analyst from Uzbekistan

The worsening of situation in Afghanistan makes the format of C5+1 quite significant. Uzbekistan aims to become Washington’s primary partner and will do its best to prove that through the С5+1 format.

This new format is interesting for the U.S because it allows interaction directly with Central Asia without Moscow’s mediation. In a situation where Russian-American relations are in crisis, this is very important for the White House. It is also significant that C5+1 brings together all countries of the region and the U.S. makes efforts to discuss all regional problems with them.

At the same time, one should not overestimate the level of U.S. interest in the region. Today it is lower than it was during the active phase of the military operation in Afghanistan. Central Asian countries are largely responsible for the fact that the region remains on the periphery of American interests. One of the reasons for that is weak lobbying on the part of Central Asian immigrants living in the U.S. Even though the number of Central Asian diaspora in the U.S. is quite large, it is disintegrated and often acts contrary to the interests of their motherland.

Another reason is a disinterest of the U.S. in the region and a tense political climate in Central Asia, which presents obstacles to achieving mutual understanding on a wide range of regional issues.

Recommended: "Central Asia: The new Great Game is all about economic power"

Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of Tajikistan's National Association of Political Scientists

Cooperation with the U.S., Russia and China was always among the priorities of Tajikistan’s foreign policy. The reason for this is its geographical place on the crossroads of the four macro-regions: the Far East, Middle East, Central Asian and South Asia. The geography itself determined the partnership of Dushanbe with its neighbors.

Russia remains a primary strategic partner of Tajikistan in the military area, China is an important economic partner while the U.S. at the moment helps the republic to develop its energy potential. All these areas of cooperation with foreign actors lie in the core of Tajik’s national interests. Discussing the question of foreign forces’ competition here means to deny the sovereignty of Tajikistan in the system of international relations, which is totally incorrect.

The U.S. would want to see Central Asia as a united region and the new С5+1 format is a sign of that. Furthermore, there is an understanding in Washington that the countries of the region oppose each other in a number of questions and these contradictions are necessary to be overcome.

One of the main questions debated in the region is the destiny of Rogunskaya Hydro Power Plant (HPP), the building of which has been opposed by neighboring Uzbekistan for many years. Still, the U.S. is pushing for further development of the energy potential of Uzbekistan – thanks to its support the first energy unit of Rogunskaya HPP is planned to be built as part of CASA-1000, a larger energy project with participation of other countries of the region.

We hope that the building of the first power unit will erase Tashkent’s doubts about the project’s safety and it will take part in the building of the second unit of Rogunskaya HPP. The present trend towards warming of Tajikistan-Uzbekistan relations leaves some hope in this respect. With the improvement of ties between the two important countries of the region, Central Asia will make a step towards unity and external forces may stop to see the region as a territory of power struggle and start cooperating more closely with one another. This will be for a better good of all countries in Central Asia.