This month, Kazakhstan kicked off Astana Expo 2017, the first international exposition to be held in the former Soviet Union. The theme of Astana’s Expo is “Future Energy.” Heads of Asian and European powers, including President Xi Jinping, Indian Premier Narendra Modi, and King of Spain Felipe VI, among others, opened the Expo together with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Over the course of the summer, 115 countries will be represented at the Expo, and an estimated 3 million people from around the world are expected to visit. Hosting an Expo focusing on the future of energy production and consumption makes perfect sense. While one of the goal of the expo is to promote solutions to energy problems around the world, this is certainly also an opportunity to showcase Kazakhstan as a regional leader in Central Asia.
For centuries Central Asia has sat at a crucial geo-political crossroads. Muslims and Christians, Turkic and Slavic peoples have co-habited in the vast steppe for centuries. The region is also the convergence of many of America’s challenges in the world. In addition to the big players—U.S., Russia and China—Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are playing increasingly important roles in the region. Some of these actors have shared interests, while many times they are competitors. This creates a tangled web of alliances and interests in what is already a complicated neighborhood of the world.
The best way for the U.S. to weave its way through the challenges of the region is by having a strong bilateral relationship with Kazakhstan, already the number one U.S. partner in the region. This is why President Trump’s meeting with Nazarbayev in Saudi Arabia last month was of note. The U.S. spent much effort to develop relations with Kazakhstan since the 1990s, focusing on nuclear disarmament, oil and gas, and market reforms. The ties are still going strong.
There are five reasons why the Trump Administration needs to engage with the Central Eurasian region and improve U.S.-Kazakh relations.
First, the radical Islamist threat. As a secular, Muslim-majority country, Kazakhstan has been able to counter the rise of extremism, making it a natural partner for the U.S. As foreign fighters supporting ISIS start fleeing Syria, there is a risk many could return back to their homelands, and thousands of them did come from the countries of Central Asia, to continue their nefarious activities. Kazakhstan is well aware of this and has shown a willingness to work with the U.S. and others to prevent radicalism from becoming a destabilizing force in Central Asia.
Secondly, Kazakhstan has a track record and commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. One of the country’s greatest achievements since 1991 has been its championing the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. It divested itself of all the nukes left behind by the Soviets, and Kazakhs are proud of this fact. As North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons, and as the future of the Iran nuclear deal remains uncertain, Kazakhstan’s voice in the nonproliferation debate is crucial—especially while Kazakhstan is serving its two year term as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
Thirdly, there is huge economic potential in Kazakhstan as the recent Astana Economic Forum, in which the world’s leading economists and businessmen took part, had highlighted. It is the economic leader in Central Asia, with GDP greater than the rest of the region combined. Additionally, there are also trade and investment opportunities for the U.S. and its allies. U.S. exports to Kazakhstan totaled more than $1 billion in 2016.
Fourth is massive hydrocarbon potential. Kazakhstan’s location on the Caspian Sea littoral means it is one of the key energy players in the in the world, with 1.9 million barrels a day output projected in 2018 by International Energy Agency – higher than OPEC member Angola. Kazakhstan oil production helps offset European oil and gas dependency with Kazakh resources and further develop local petrochemical industry. This, in turn, has an indirect impact on U.S. security interests in Europe because each barrel of oil and cubic foot of natural gas Europe gets from Kazakhstan is one less it gets from Russia. Kazakhstan also supplies above the fifth of U.S. civilian uranium for power generation.
Fifth, and probably the least often thought of when it comes to Kazakhstan, is Afghanistan. While Kazakhstan does not share a direct land border with Afghanistan, the region is intertwined with historic trading routes still linking the two countries today. Kazakhstan has played a constructive role in the country. Over the years it has offered millions of dollars worth of assistance and has agreed trade deals with Kabul worth hundreds of millions of dollars more. As the region’s biggest economy and a secular republic, Kazakhstan has a direct interest to ensure that Afghanistan becomes stable. The threat of Afghanistan’s destabilization for the security and stability of the broader region is particularly important, as President Trump decides what his administration’s Afghan policy will be.
As the first non-permanent UN Security Council member from Central Asia, and as its chairman next January, Kazakhstan also is doing much to attract global attention to the region, including Afghanistan.
Since the announced drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, American influence in Central Asia has waned. Russia and China are now economic and military players in the region like never before, seeking to exclude the U.S. and its allies.
As the Trump Administration develops its strategies on Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is in U.S. interests to keep Kazakhstan engaged – and on America’s side.
Luke Coffey, Contributor Director of the Foreign Policy Center at the Heritage Foundation