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U.S. aims to boost its influence with 5 ex-Soviet states with ties to Russia, China

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden has spoken to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York today. On the sidelines, he's also hosting a summit with five Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These former Soviet states share close economic and cultural ties to both Russia and China. So what can the U.S. then offer to increase its influence in the strategically important region? We called up Raffaello Pantucci. He's a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. So why has the Biden administration determined that now is the time for the U.S. to seek deeper engagement with these Central Asian countries?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: Well, I mean, I think that this is not entirely new policy by the United States. We've seen the U.S., going back a few administrations now, has been trying to engage with the Central Asian countries. And you've had the creation of this kind of format, which they call C5+1, which is the five Central Asian countries, which you named, plus the United States in this case. And the Central Asians have a number of formats like this. But I think the U.S. has been very specific about trying to foster this engagement. And I think the president's specific engagement into this format, which follows Secretary Blinken's engagement with this format earlier this year, reflects a kind of interest and desire by the U.S. to try to engage with this group of countries to help give them options in a way because while these are countries that are kind of entirely surrounded by China and Russia and, due to, you know, obvious geographical reasons, have very strong economic and historical links with these two neighbors, they would like to have other options.

MARTÍNEZ: So the focus then will be on Russia and China. There's no two ways about that.

PANTUCCI: I think it's inevitable that that part of the conversation will come up a lot. But I think what the U.S. tries to be careful about is trying not to frame the conversation about being too much only about these other countries and trying to focus on the five Central Asians for themselves. I mean, no country likes to be essentially seen through the lens of someone else. They want to be seen, you know, in their own standing. And so for the Central Asian countries, they want to be acknowledged and recognized powers in their own right. And they want the United States to want to engage with them because the U.S. wants to engage with them rather than them being merely seen as sort of pawns in some sort of wider geopolitical struggle against China and Russia.

MARTÍNEZ: So considering the geographic proximity, what can the U.S. offer that Russia and China maybe cannot or is not willing to offer?

PANTUCCI: I think in a way, it's the ability for the region to have more economic partners and economic relationships. The region at the moment, their economic spheres are very heavily, obviously, dominated by their economic relationships with Russia and with China. And China is the one that's really been the most ascendant over the past decade or two, really. And it's become the largest trading partner, I think, of all the countries. It's also a very heavy investor into the region. So it's on that investment side in particular that I think the region would like to see more Western companies and American companies in particular trying to come in and offer an alternative option for them.

So it's really about the U.S. offering the region options. This is a region that feels very bound by its geography but would like to have options out there. And the U.S. offering it is something that they very much encourage. There is another side to this, of course, which is very much focused on the conflict in Ukraine because, unfortunately, these countries have also become, in some cases, conduits for sanctions evasion. And so there's a desire by the U.S. to try to get these countries to clamp down on that sanctions evasion, specifically to try to bypass some of the restrictions towards Russia.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Raffaello Pantucci. He's senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Thanks a lot.

PANTUCCI: Thank you so much. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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