Next steps for Trump's strategy in Central Asia

Next steps for Trump's strategy in Central Asia
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This week’s Washington is off to a rough start with the government shutdown; however, last week the Trump administration scored a foreign policy diplomatic success with the visit of Nursultan Nazarbayev (77), the long-time leader of Kazakhstan, to the White House. Bordering both China and Russia, Kazakhstan is a key country in the heart of Eurasia, and achieved a number of breakthroughs since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kazakhstan decided to give up its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s, receiving guarantees from the U.S., Russia, and the rest of the nuclear club, that it would be safe from nuclear attacks. Today, the country is a nuclear policy model for North Korea and Iran. It hosts the first Low Enriched Uranium bank of the IAEA that serves as a last resort guarantee of supply for states that either do not wish to or cannot develop their own uranium enrichment cycle, but do want civilian nuclear power.

Foreign companies have invested $300 billion in Kazakhstan since the independence, including $50 billion from the U.S., toward developing its massive natural resources: oil, gas, uranium, and metals, boosting the country’s GDP per capita to the upper middle-income range, as defined by the World Bank.


The U.S. has developed an excellent relationship with Kazakhstan since the heady days of WMD disarmament. By continuing this trajectory, Washington can secure both the geo-political advantages, such as the land route to resupply Afghanistan, and open the door to further economic opportunities, like the nascent Astana International Financial Center.

A growing American economic involvement can help the country, which is a member of the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union, and is a key hub of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to connect the Pacific Rim with Europe via the oceans and on land, and pursues a consistent multi-vector foreign policy.

Trump and Nazarbayev, who appear to have good chemistry, declared that the two countries will enter an Enhanced Strategic Partnership. In particular, the countries will cooperate on the supply of the U.S. and Afghan militaries, amending a 2010 agreement. Kazakhstan is playing an increasing role in building infrastructure in Afghanistan, and training their technical professionals.

Kazakhstan is emerging as a neutral platform for diplomatic negotiations. It hosted the Astana talks to reduce violence in Syria, and has now has expressed a desire to host talks to find a peaceful solution for the Korean nuclear crisis. Nazarbayev stated that, having abandoned its own nukes, Kazakhstan has a moral right to reach out to North Korea and Iran, and call on them to give up their nuclear programs.

Nazarbayev also called for talks to solve the Ukraine-Russia crisis, which has sent US-Russian relations into a tailspin. The Minsk process is at a dead end, and the parties — Ukraine, Russia, the European countries, and the U.S. — need to try new approaches to move forward.

Kazakhstan is chairing the United Nations Security Council this month, and will remain a non-permanent member of that body until the end of 2018. Speaking at the UNSC on January 18, Nazarbayev called on  North Korea to give up its nukes. He further advocated boosting confidence measures and faster nuclear weapons reductions by the P5, which would encourage other countries not to pursue nuclear weapons, he said. In addition, Nazarbayev called for a UNSC resolution outlining sanctions against countries that move to quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty and obtain nukes.

As Russia, China, Pakistan, and the U.S. are all pursuing nuclear modernization instead of arsenal cuts, and as the long-standing taboo against chemical weapons use was broken in Syria, initiatives of this type could not be timelier.

Other Kazakhstani initiatives also deserve U.S. support, such as its bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development — the club of rich democracies — and become one of the top 30 economies in the world. That will require progress in the rule of law, developing government institutions, and diversification away from a raw materials-based economy. Kazakhstan, facing a post-Nazarbayev transition, has a room for improvement of its political system, freedom of expression, and further development of the free media.

To encourage Kazakhstan on its road of social and economic development, the Trump administration has announced that it will take steps to end the provisions of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment and establish Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Kazakhstan.

The U.S. should also support Kazakhstan’s declared course opposing radical Islam and developing a tolerant, multi-ethnic society while remaining majority-Muslim.

Finally, as no sitting American president has ever visited the strategic Central Asian region, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE might consider paying a visit to Astana. His Kazakh counterpart visited the U.S. seven times, and Presidents Xi of China and Putin of Russia visit Kazakhstan regularly. The Enhanced Strategic Partnership with Kazakhstan is an important step forward for the Trump administration to formulate and implement its Central Asian policy. A presidential visit, for example, for a C5 +1 dialogue summit (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the U.S.) would be a move in the right direction.

With a great deal to gain both economically and strategically by increasing U.S. involvement in the heart of Eurasia, Trump’s trip to the region, following up on Nazarbayev’s visit to the White House and the U.N., would be an important next step.

Ariel Cohen (@Dr_Ariel_Cohen), Ph.D., is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics, at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.