NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 34

US Central Asia strategy: Implications for China and Pakistan

While the world focuses on the armed conflicts between Israel and Hamas and the war between Ukraine and Russia, the United States has been quietly implementing a new strategy for Central Asia over the past year. This new approach aims to strengthen the regional economies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, aiding them in nation-building efforts.

These countries, collectively known as the Central Asian Republics (CARs), engage with the US through the C5+1 diplomatic forum, established in 2016. However, Washington’s new strategy in Central Asia extends beyond official declarations and announcements, targeting both Russian and Chinese influences in the region. By countering Russia’s traditional dominance and preventing China from expanding its influence, the US aims to reshape the geopolitical landscape. The Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, currently headed by Assistant Secretary Donald Lu, manages US foreign policy for both Central and South Asia, indicating a strategic intertwining of these regions in Washington’s policy circles. Consequently, the new US strategy in Central Asia carries significant implications for Pakistan.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan last year, where he met with foreign ministers of all five regional countries, was a strategic move to counter China’s growing influence. It’s noteworthy that for the past two decades, Washington’s policy in Central Asia has been primarily focused on supporting its war efforts in Afghanistan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has significantly altered the dynamics in Central Asia. Moscow’s military presence in the region has diminished due to the ongoing war, raising concerns among Central Asian capitals that have traditionally relied on Russian security guarantees. However, this situation presents an opportunity for these countries to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence. Additionally, economic sanctions on Russia have disrupted Central Asian trade and exports, heavily reliant on transit through Russia, and threatened the livelihoods of millions of Central Asian migrant workers who send billions in remittances from Russia each year.

The US is attempting to seize this opportunity by promising to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions on CARs. By providing economic support, Washington aims to reduce the CARs’ dependence on Moscow and increase their reliance on the US, thereby diminishing Russia’s influence in the region.

The United States has intensified its efforts to strategically encircle China. From the Philippines to Australia to Japan, and with a new US Marines base in Guam, more American troops and military assets are being deployed to Asia. This strategy, known as Washington’s encirclement of China, is also reflected in the US’s new approach to Central Asia.

The US encirclement of China will significantly increase the importance of Pakistan’s Gwadar Seaport. India, with its strategic advantage due to its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, could potentially impose a naval blockade on China. If the US successfully courts the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and increases its military presence in the region, it could establish new military bases, strengthen Taiwan’s military, and bolster its own military capabilities in the South China Sea. This would make the military encirclement of China a real possibility. Furthermore, this military encirclement could be accompanied by an economic blockade, which would severely hinder Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), a project worth nearly one trillion US dollars aimed at economically integrating approximately 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa. This would particularly affect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship BRI project intended to connect Western China with Pakistan’s strategic deep seaport of Gwadar.

China and Pakistan have consistently maintained that the development of Gwadar as a major seaport is solely for facilitating trade and commerce and integrating South Asia and potentially Central Asia. However, Gwadar holds significant strategic-military value, and both countries aim to capitalize on this. Facing military encirclement by the US, Beijing would seek to maximize Gwadar’s strategic advantage, especially to counter India. However, Pakistan cannot afford to allow any other country to exploit Gwadar’s strategic value, as this could lead to severe security, political, diplomatic, and economic repercussions. Therefore, Pakistan must navigate this situation with caution. While Pakistan cannot allow its ally China to be encircled by the US, it also cannot afford to be completely alienated by Washington.

Pakistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central and South Asia makes it highly significant. Although Pakistan does not share a border with any of the CARs, it is separated from Tajikistan by the narrow 16-kilometer-wide Wakhan Corridor. The best response for Pakistan to the growing involvement of great and regional powers in Central Asia is to tacitly align with China. However, Pakistan must avoid being used by Beijing to counter the US presence in the region.

Recently, Washington expressed a strong willingness to renew its long-standing support to Pakistan in countering terrorism, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has regrouped and resurged in Afghanistan with the support of the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, increased US engagement and influence in the CARs is not necessarily against Pakistan’s national interests.