While the U.S. has announced intentions to pull back from the world scene, any sign that Russia or China is gaining too much influence in Central Asia could force the hand of the Trump administration.

Pictured: Lanzhou, a town in China along the ancient Silk Road. Photo: AP

New American President Donald Trump, who plans to reassess U.S. foreign policy, will pay even less attention to Central Asia than his predecessor Barack Obama, according to some experts. However, one should not underestimate Trump, who, after all, had business partners in the former Soviet republics and some Central Asian countries.

Given this experience and background, the new American president might pursue a realistic and pragmatic policy that won’t roll back or undo the achievements of the previous presidential administration in the region. After all, Trump repeatedly declared during his presidential campaign that his foreign policy would be based on pragmatism and rationalism.

That’s why Washington might strengthen its ties with Central Asia both bilaterally and multilaterally despite numerous expert opinions that Trump would pay less attention to the Central Asia than Obama. Moreover, Trump is said to personally know many important entrepreneurs in Central Asia, given his background and links in the region. This gives him an advantage in comparison with the Obama administration.

The Afghanistan issue

One of the key challenges in the region for the Trump administration is Afghanistan. This agenda has been haunting not only Washington, but also the Central Asian countries. The leaders of these countries offered their mediation help to the world, including Russia and the U.S., to contribute to resolving the problem of Afghanistan. However, the geopolitical heavyweights didn’t take seriously the peacekeeping efforts of the Central Asian countries, because of their inability to resolve their own domestic economic, social and political challenges.

Yet Trump, who seeks to reduce the American military presence in Third World countries, might take seriously the offer from his Central Asian counterparts. After all, it could allow him to partially shift the financial burden and peacekeeping responsibility for stability in Afghanistan to Kabul’s neighbors.

Such equal cooperation on Afghanistan would allow Trump to kill two birds with one stone. First, he would decrease the budgetary spending on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – this what he promised during his pre-election campaign. Second, such a move would demonstrate that his policy in Central Asia is not heavy-handed and he is not going to reverse the achievements of his predecessors in the region.

The fight against radical terrorism

Another field for cooperation between the U.S. and Central Asia is the fight against international terrorism and, specifically, the coordination of intelligence efforts, technical assistance and tight border controls to prevent the citizens of the Central Asian countries from joining terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

Also read: "Will Central Asia become a field of rivalry or cooperation?"

The Central Asia countries might be interested in such cooperation with the U.S. in order to decrease their military and political dependence on Russia and China. This means that Washington’s closer cooperation with its Central Asia partners might be an effective counterbalance to Beijing’s ambitions in the region. In fact, it echoes Trump’s pre-election pledges and intentions to contain China.

At the same time, it should not be in the interests of Trump to compete with Russia in the region, given Trump’s intention to improve relations with Russia and cut the American presence abroad: Washington is hardly likely to violate the existing political status quo.

Moreover, Russia and the U.S. might team up and the region might be another field of U.S.–Russia cooperation in terms of global security (if Trump and Putin succeed in establishing personal chemistry). Another factor that might unite Russia and the U.S. could be the growth of China and the necessity to counterbalance Beijing in the region. At least, this might be the pragmatic logic of the Trump administration. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin will be ready to team up with Washington against China.

Trump and political instability in Central Asia

While dealing with Central Asia, Trump also should be mindful about the risks of political instability in the countries of the region. Such tensions might emerge in the case of a power takeover or dominance of some political stakeholders, as indicated by the events in 2016, when many leaders of the region started thinking about peaceful transition of power to successors.

For example, before the upcoming presidential election, Kazakhstan held snap parliamentary elections to test the approval and credibility ranking of the country’s 76-year-old President, Nursultan Nazarbaev and, most importantly, the political system he created.

In Tajikistan, the authorities conducted a referendum that allowed current President Emomali Rahmon, age 64, to stand for the presidency with an unlimited number of terms. This move resolved the problem of succession, at least until the moment he passes away. Moreover, Rahmon appointed his son to the position of mayor of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, which indicates that he might be the country’s next president.

Uzbekistan has already changed its political elites, with those at the helm trying to create their own stable political system and increase their clout inside and outside of the country. On Dec. 11, 2016, Kyrgyzstan conducted a referendum that allowed the authorities to amend the country’s constitution. It was seen as an attempt to create a more reliable mechanism of power transition. 

The situation in Turkmenistan is even more complicated and challenging, with its oil-dependent economy. In 2016, the country faced an economic crisis that resulted from the drop in oil prices, and this poses a serious risk for the presidency of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and the country’s political future, in general.

While being aware about all these looming political threats, the leaders of the Central Asian countries might seek support from their more powerful foreign partners, including Russia, China and the United States. However, the new political elites of the region will ask the Trump administration to decrease their dependence on Moscow and Beijing. It is a matter of diversification. Washington could jump at the opportunity in this case by supporting the new political elites and strengthening their ties with civil society in the region.

However, it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will once again assume its messianic role, lecturing and spreading democratic values (given Trump’s reluctance to do it). It just means that the U.S. could increase the number of exchange programs, scholarships and fellowships in the U.S. for students, professionals, politicians and academia to give them opportunities to acquire all necessary skills abroad and apply them in their home countries.

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

And the C5+1 format, which brings together the U.S. Secretary of State and his counterparts of the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), could be a good platform for such dialogue on civil society development.  In fact, over the medium term, such an approach could be much more effective in alleviating political risks, strengthening democratic institutes and maintaining stability in the region than immediate military support for the survival of the regimes.

This is what Trump should keep in mind if he wants to maintain good relations with the Central Asian countries. At the same time, he should understand that amidst the Russian-led Eurasian integration project and China’s One Belt, One Road project, Central Asia could find itself in the situation where it has to choose. And this also means the U.S. can take its own initiatives and invest in the region. At any rate, Central Asia will remain open for investment from the U.S. as well as Russia and China. And this is a good sign.  

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.