Wednesday, 29 May 2024

The UK Seeks to Engage Central Asia as a Latecomer Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu

May 29, 2024

The UK has embarked on a quest to establish a new political framework aimed at enhancing its relations with Central Asia and countering regional rivals. In response to the Russia-Ukraine War and China’s expanding influence in the region, the UK has initiated a high-level strategy to redefine its approach to Central Asia. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the scale and scope of this effort. Even UK authorities are uncertain whether the current regional policies have the capacity to meet these new challenges.

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BACKGROUND: UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron visited Central Asia in April 2024, announcing a new policy of rapprochement with these nations. During his tour, he visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as well as Mongolia. This initiative comes at a time when Russia is seeking to circumvent sanctions with the assistance of third countries. The initiative was announced as a “new era” in the UK’s relations with the region.

Cameron, the first UK Foreign Secretary to visit Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the first to visit Uzbekistan since 1997, apologized to the countries of the region for the delay. The three key themes of his visit were political rapprochement, educational cooperation and a financial support package, with the objective of making up for the previous lack of interest in Central Asia. Educational cooperation includes expanding English language education in the region through the British Council and doubling the Chevening scholarships. In terms of financial support, the aim is to provide £50 million in development funding.

Cameron conducted high-level meetings and signed agreements in various fields. He also published an article about his visit explaining the near-term goals of the UK in the region. Besides discussing the main theme of strengthening relations, the article urged the countries of the region to help prevent Russia from circumventing sanctions through Central Asia. Yet the visit also sparked discussion about whether there is pressure on the countries of the region to choose sides.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UK’s policy towards Central Asia has been relatively weak. Compared to actors such as Russia, China, the U.S., South Korea and Turkey, the UK’s profile in the region has been less effective and lacked a distinct regional policy. In recent years, China’s growing influence and various countries’ joint initiatives with Central Asian republics have prompted the UK to accelerate its engagement.

The UK shows a desire to become an important partner for Central Asia, capable of playing a critical role in the region’s economic and political transformation by providing essential support. However, questions regarding Central Asia’s importance to the UK remain to be answered. Although UK authorities have attempted to address this question both directly and indirectly, no definitive answer has yet been provided. “We live in a contested, competitive world. If you want to protect and promote British interests you need to get out there and compete. Central Asia is at the epicenter of some of the biggest challenges we face and it’s vital for the UK and the region that we drive forward its future prosperity” Cameron said, signaling that the UK is ready to engage in open competition with other actors in the region.

IMPLICATIONS: After several attempts, the UK needs to become more specific in its approach to Central Asia, as its strategy remains unclear compared to nearly three decades of regional policies developed by the countries it will be competing with in the region. Beyond bilateral relations, the UK will be expected to create platforms for sustained multilateral engagement, increase the frequency of high-level talks and prioritize the issues that the countries in the region need addressed.

Cameron’s visit to the region followed several studies conducted in the UK on Central Asia. During this process, numerous meetings were organized to discuss the opportunities arising from Russia’s circumvention of sanctions through third countries, its declining influence in the region, and its preoccupation with Ukraine.
For many years, countries far from the region, such as South Korea and Japan, have successfully maintained a joint dialogue platform. Similarly, the U.S. and Germany’s “C5+1” format has served as an influential model for the UK. In early 2024, the UK demonstrated its intention to establish a 5+1 platform and promptly took steps to create the necessary infrastructure for this initiative.

In late 2023, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee published “Countries at Crossroads: UK Engagement in Central Asia,” a comprehensive report of the UK’s achievements and shortcomings in the region. The report comprehensively analyzes the opportunities and threats for the UK in the region as well as the capacity and engagement of the UK’s competitors.

One particularly important aspect of the report is the caution against defining Central Asia with terms such as “Russia’s backyard” and “post-Soviet countries.” This can be considered an important step towards establishing a regional policy concept. Additionally, the report highlights that Russia has suffered a serious loss of prestige in the region, in light of its invasion of Ukraine and the inability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to resolve regional issues. The less frequent use of Russian language among the new generation is also cited as an example of Russia’s declining influence.

The report emphasizes that China’s presence in the region is primarily economic, noting that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries. China’s large-scale projects and high-budget financial support are welcomed by the regional states, while the existence of a rivalry with Russia is also discussed. On the other hand, the report notes that while the EU’s activities in Central Asia are progressing well, they have not yet reached the desired level due to the region’s political problems.

Stating that the UK should offer to the region what the analyzed actors cannot, the report seems to signal that the country will formulate a specific policy concept for Central Asia. In light of this analysis, the UK can take several potential steps toward increased engagement in order to build positive relations with the countries in the region. It is evident that infrastructure development and financial support will remain the basis of the first stage of the new process, while the context of regional politics and trans-regional issues also requires the UK to act with caution.

However, there are two major problems with this attempt. First, the UK prioritizes the goal of acting to reduce the influence of countries it considers threatening. In the current circumstances, Central Asia is perceived as a region that needs to be protected against the growing “Russian and Chinese threat.” Yet beyond that, the countries of the region also need to be considered as equal partners in the international arena – not merely as a region to be utilized in order to mitigate a threat. Second, it is unclear how the UK will approach the internal affairs of regional states, democratic challenges and authoritarianism. This will require a balance between maintaining high-level relations and engagement with civil society.

Furthermore, other issues in line to be addressed include establishing more favorable trade laws than the EU, improving conditions for Central Asian migrants living in the UK, and exercising soft power in the region through appropriate channels. Especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are particularly dependent on remittances sent from abroad, should be provided with the necessary support in this regard. Other regional countries expect to be assured of the UK’s intentions.

CONCLUSIONS: In what the UK has ambitiously announced as a “new era” in its relations with Central Asia, a well-defined concept of regional engagement needs to be implemented. The aspiration to compete with other actors that have been active in the region for many years and decades does not seem realistic. Additionally, basing the regional partnership on the objective of reducing Russian and Chinese influence could create long-term problems. Furthermore, a directive approach on democracy, authoritarianism and human rights in the region may undermine the “new era” strategy.

The country needs a mechanism for frequent high-level discussions rather than relying on attractive definitions. To achieve this, it could adopt the multi-meeting format that the U.S. and Germany have successfully employed in recent years. This approach would facilitate the start of a new process in an atmosphere of trust, with equal partners at the table and common aspirations expressed.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu is a Visiting Professor at Joongbu University and Senior Researcher at the Institute of EU Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He studied and worked in Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Seoul as an academic and journalist. He is the author of numerous articles and books on South Caucasus and Central Asian affairs.

Read 12325 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 May 2024

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