US involvement in Afghanistan has broadened and deepened diplomatic and economic relations with Central Asian countries. Yet soon-to-retire former US defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to Afghanistan early this month reminded Americans and the world that large-scale US and NATO troop engagement in Afghanistan is nearing its end. The withdrawal of most US and coalition forces is giving rise to considerable concern among the Central Asian states that this may mark the beginning of a much lower level of overall US and Western engagement in the region.
The US and the transatlantic community have a major stake in working with Central Asia in the common pursuit of development, security, stability, and economic and environmental security. The New Silk Road Initiative was put forward by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 primarily to stabilize and integrate Afghanistan into the wider region through reviving traditional trading routes and constructing infrastructure, but the initiative has also been designed to promote purpose-driven transatlantic ties and engagement.
The US is promoting the New Silk Road Initiative linking Central and South Asia in four key areas: regional energy markets, trade and transport, customs and border operations and business and people-to-people relations. The initiative, despite its relatively low profile, has already yielded some results.
The existing and planned physical infrastructure of the emerging new Silk Road is already impressive. As factories move inland, trade through land between Europe and China has picked up significantly. New east-west and north-south trade routes and transit ways that connect via Central Asia both Europe and the Middle East on one side and South Asia and the Far East on the other hold promise as potential engines of growth and economic development across Central Asia.
At the same time, many argue that the US vision for a New Silk Road has already been eclipsed by muscular Russian posturing and a massive Chinese trade and investment campaign, especially on the energy front, coupled with a robust cultural diplomacy.
Western positions continue to weaken as Europe is struggling with its own economic woes and limited power projection capabilities and the US is increasingly introverted and preoccupied with other foreign and security policy priorities. The Great Game, strategic rivalry and conflict between great powers over supremacy in Central Asia have been the norm for centuries.
Yet the West need not panic over “losing Central Asia,” at least not yet. There is increasing interest from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan in ramping up relations with the West. Countries in the region realize that they need to diversify the political, security and trade relations in the long term if they want to remain independent.
Despite the competing nature of the great power relationships in the region, there are synergies to be exploited. American, European and Chinese strategic interests largely overlap: a stable, secure environment, stemming transnational threats including terrorism, trafficking in narcotics, weapons, and people and the free flow of goods through Central Asia.
With a renewed focus, clear strategic intent and increased resources, a transatlantic engagement with Central Asia can and should be revitalized. To enhance its effectiveness and build on common interests in the region, the possibility of a Sino-US-European dialogue and cooperation shall be explored to develop a sustainable, competitive, and mutually-beneficial Silk Road across Eurasia.
This should, among others, include a regular forum for dialogue on regional security, energy, food and water issues and the environment; a robust, WTO-focused conversation aimed at developing trade policies and approaches that will bolster the competitiveness of trans-Eurasian routes; and the elaboration of strategies for maximizing the economic development gains that new trade and transit infrastructure should give rise to.