The C5+1 Summit: Biden's Tactic—Simultaneously "Astute" and "Myopic"
September 25, 2023

By: Imad Chidiac
Political and economic author, specializing in international relations.

As the world's gaze was firmly fixed on the speeches of global leaders at the 78th UN General Assembly in New York, President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever heads of state summit between the United States and Central Asia's five countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), a cooperation format known as the C5+1  This grouping of countries emerged in 2015, and the United States collectively attaches great importance to it, as:
  • A Russian sphere of influence because it was once a part of the former Soviet Union.
  • A bridge over which China's "Belt and Road" initiative will traverse.

Washington's Dreams vs. The Ground Reality

At first glance, Washington stepping onto this stage looks like a strategic masterstroke, akin to "hitting two targets with a single arrow" - contesting both Russian and Chinese footholds simultaneously. Yet, when one peers beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that this move might be more of a diplomatic dance and less of a tactical triumph - a game where the odds of success are lean.
In the lexicon of the U.S. State Department, their collaboration with the C5+1 is painted as a noble endeavor to "deepen ties" in pursuit of an idyllic vision: a "self-reliant, thriving, and secure Central Asia." America's narrative underscores a singular mission: to "fortify the autonomy, independence, and territorial sanctity of the group."
Since the fall of 2021, the curtains have risen on four ministerial symposiums under the group's banner. 2022 saw the birth of a General Secretariat, an entity sculpted to crystallize shared objectives, weave communication threads between member states, and architect elite ministerial rendezvous and other diplomatic ballets.
In the most recent summit's spotlight were luminaries like Kazakhstan's Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, and Uzbekistan's resolute Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Previously, the meetings were held solely at the level of foreign ministers. Yet today, there has been an elevation in rank, marking the inaugural summit at the presidential level. This showcases Washington's growing intrigue with Central Asian nations.
During the summit, U.S. President Joe Biden described it as a "historic moment," stating that his country is "building on years of close collaboration" with Central Asia. A partnership anchored in a "shared commitment" to "sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity." It almost felt like a subtle nod, perhaps even a veiled warning, to the Central Asian countries about Russian and Chinese influences. And, seemingly, this might be the furthest extent to which the U.S. can exert its play.

The American Impasse

On the geopolitical chessboard, a detailed survey of the Central Asian landscape reveals a glaring incapacity on Washington's part to carve out a stronghold or to mold a military alliance aligned with its, or more broadly, the Western ethos. Such an alliance is conceived to counterbalance Russian and/or Chinese dominion in this sphere. This is principally because, as a plethora of geopolitical connoisseurs assert, Central Asia is tantamount to a "logistical quagmire" for Washington.

Indeed, there exists a singular, precarious pathway for the West to infiltrate this enclave: it meanders through the Caspian Sea and is accessed via Azerbaijan. This geographical constraint renders the mobilization of military personnel, the conveyance of military apparatus, or the forging of military garrisons a complex and hazardous endeavor. Initiating such a move necessitates circumnavigating through Russia from the north, piercing through China from the east, or threading through Afghanistan and Iran from the south. Notably, none of these states revolve within the United States' geopolitical orbit. This insinuates that such nations are implausibly going to facilitate any logistical conduit for an operation, especially if it is construed as an antagonistic posture against Moscow or Beijing. Hence, any military aspirations Washington might harbor for this region can only be perceived as symbolic and rather quixotic.

Numbers Reflect Reality

When we shift our focus to the economic dimension, arguably the most pressing and significant in today's global landscape, a mere glance at the trade volumes between Central Asian nations and Russia, China, and the United States quickly reveals a stark disparity.

 Its trade volume with Russia stands at around $26 billion, aiming to reach $30 billion. With China, the figure is $13.6 billion, while its trade with the United States barely touches $2.5 billion.
 Its trade volume with Russia approximates $4.4 billion, with China it's about $5.2 billion, and with the U.S., it's a mere $500 million.
 The nation's trade with Russia amounts to roughly $400 million, with China it's $1.4 billion, and with the United States, a paltry $26 million!
 Trade with Russia hovers around $650 million, with China it's about $900 million, and with the U.S., a negligible $50 million.
 Its trade volume with Russia stands at about $1.2 billion, with China it's $2.4 billion, and with the United States, it doesn't exceed $125 million.

These figures underscore an undeniable fact: the disparity in trade figures heavily favors Russia and/or China. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s economic footprint in this region, concerning these countries, is not just modest but almost invisible. Thus, the prospect of the U.S. challenging China and Russia's dominance in this area is virtually non-existent.

The Door to Sanctions: Firmly Sealed

Should the U.S. harbor aspirations of enlisting these nations in imposing sanctions against Russia or potentially against China, Central Asian states would undoubtedly decline. Given the significant trade and economic stakes these countries have with both Moscow and Beijing, their participation in such endeavors appears improbable. For example, under the vision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan continuously endeavors to cultivate additional avenues for deepening economic ties with these two major powers. Yet there's a delicate dance these nations perform: they strive for a balance between the interests of the East and the West. Their nuanced foreign policy, while intricate, ensures not to offend Washington's sensibilities.