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The new great game continued? How the West is trying to get (back) to Central Asia

Article by Anastassiya Mahon & Stefan Wolff

October 20, 2023

The new great game continued? How the West is trying to get (back) to Central Asia

A decade ago, in September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what became known in English as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Kazakh capital Astana.[1] This did not mark the beginning of China’s engagement with Central Asia region, but it signalled the start of increasing geopolitical competition in a region that had been at the heart of the so-called ‘great game’ between Russia and the British empire throughout most of the 19th century.


The United States and its European allies had generally taken a backseat in Central Asia in the first decade-and-a-half after the end of the Cold War, with their main focus being on the challenges of stabilising Afghanistan. However, the geopolitical transformations of 2014, marked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine, compelled a more robust western engagement with Central Asia, aligning with the proactive and containment-oriented facets of US foreign policy.


Inaugurated in November 2015 by then US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to the region, the C5+1 diplomatic format was born as a platform for dialogue and cooperation involving five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and the United States.[2] With a primary focus on regional security, economic development, and political stability in Central Asia, the C5+1 format aimed to enhance cooperation between the United States and the five Central Asian states in an attempt to reduce Russia’s influence in the region and to counteract the growing Chinese presence and activities there.


During the years that followed, C5+1 meetings routinely happened at the level of foreign ministers and addressed issues of common interest, including the risks posed by instability in Afghanistan, energy security, and the increasing challenges of climate change.[3] In the wake of the crisis in Afghanistan, interaction in the C5+1 format intensified, including ministerial meetings in the margins of the 76th and 77th UN General Assembly meetings in 2021 and 2022.[4]


In a notable departure from the traditional ministerial format, the September 2023 C5+1 gathering took the form of a presidential-level meeting for the first time. In their joint statement, the six leaders reaffirmed their commitments to partnership and cooperation.[5] This New York Declaration on ‘C5+1 Resilience through Security, Economic, and Energy Partnership’ indicates the minimum consensus among these six distinct countries and glosses over some differences in terms of their individual priorities. Hence, each capital’s readout of the meeting between the presidents tells us a lot about the more concrete opportunities for engaging more systematically with Central Asia. For example, the White House emphasised the need for an improved environment for trade and private sector investment with a particular focus on critical minerals and connectivity (including the Middle Corridor).[6]


Economic cooperation was also high on the agenda of the C5, with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan expressing particular interest in green energy projects.[7] Kyrgyzstan additionally noted the country’s openness to foreign private investment, notably in water management – a key environmental and economic challenge for the country that often dangerously overlaps with security concerns arising from unresolved border disputes with neighbouring Tajikistan.


Kazakhstan put particular emphasis on the development of its extractive industries such as oil and minerals.[8] Security concerns, notably terrorism, were another key issue for the country as was the request for U.S. assistance in establishing a UN Regional Centre for Sustainable Development Goals for Central Asia and Afghanistan.


The official Tajik press release about the C5+1 meeting similarly underscored the dual challenges of economic development – the transition to a green economy in light of the challenges of climate change – and security, especially in the context of the risks continuously emanating from Afghanistan.[9] While the political, economic, and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is one of the key security challenges for all of the C5, and remains on the US agenda as well, Tajikistan is arguably the most exposed because of its long border with its southern neighbour.


The most likely elephant in the room during the meeting of the presidents will have been the war in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia. While neither got an explicit mention in any of the read-outs, “the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations” was the formula that the C5+1 agreed in their joint declaration.[10] The official Turkmen statement on the meeting reiterated that there was a unanimous consensus among the participants regarding the importance of upholding the norms of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.[11]


This indicates that there is a relatively solid basis for continuing interaction between the US and the countries of Central Asia. Less politically sensitive topics, such as climate change and economic cooperation, as well as some areas of security cooperation, such as the fight against terrorism, appear promising areas for further engagement.


The EU has also put greater effort into top-level engagements with Central Asia, including at a summit-like gathering of the five Central Asian presidents with the President of the European Council at the end of October 2022.[12] Among its member states, Germany has been among the more active ones – with a visit by the foreign minister to the region immediately after the EU-Central Asia meeting and a top-level summit of the five Central Asian presidents with senior German government officials, including the country’s President and Chancellor, at the end of September 2023 in Berlin, just after the C5+1 in New York.[13] The Berlin summit ended with a notably more substantive joint declaration than the one in New York.[14]


The UK has been more active in the region as well. The Foreign Secretary travelled to Kazakhstan at the end of March and the Minister for Europe followed up in June with a visit to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.[15] A parliamentary inquiry on the UK’s foreign policy in Central Asia is currently underway.[16]


Yet, the US and its allies are not alone in courting Central Asia. China has been an increasingly important player in the region for some time. In fact, the president-level meetings between Xi and his Central Asian counterparts are almost routine at both the bilateral level and in multilateral contexts, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.[17] The first dedicated China-Central Asia Summit preceded the New York C5+1 by four months and produced an impressive array of 54 agreements, 19 new cooperation mechanisms and platforms, and nine multilateral documents, including the Xi’an declaration.[18] The Russia–Central Asia Summit in October last year was a less glamorous affair but demonstrated that Russia cannot be discarded as a player in the region.[19]


While there clearly is alignment between Russia and China when it comes to Central Asia, and particularly when it comes to keeping ‘the West’ out of the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is unlikely to relinquish completely its traditional grip on the region, nor is China likely to actively wrestle Moscow for greater control in the near future. While there is undoubtedly a rebalancing of power afoot between Russia and China, this is likely to take the form of a gradual power transition.


That Russia is still keen, and capable, to project influence in the region was apparent from the launch of Russian gas supplies to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan – with the three countries’ presidents personally in attendance at a ceremony in Moscow on 7 October 2023 – and from Putin’s subsequent visit to Kyrgyzstan on 12 and 13 October.[20] The visit was both a bilateral state visit marking the 20th anniversary of establishing a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and facilitating Putin’s attendance of the meeting of the Heads of State Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).[21]


Putin’s 6 October speech at the Valdai Club with its focus on an indivisible Russian civilisation and the signature at the CIS summit of the ‘Treaty on the Establishment of the International Organization for the Russian Language’ and the adoption of the ‘Statement on the Support and Promotion of the Russian Language as a Language of Interethnic Communication’ will have done little to assuage fears in Central Asia about Russian imperial impulses.[22]


Given the presence of the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Zhang Ming, at the meeting, Putin’s visit to Bishkek is less of a challenge to growing Chinese regional dominance than it is a show of support for increasingly autocratic regimes in Bishkek and the Central Asian region as a whole, which plays a critical role in undermining western sanctions against Russia, including by providing a route for the re-exporting of Chinese goods to Russia.[23] Add to that the dependency of Central Asian states on Russia as a source of remittances from labour migration and on Chinese loans and investments for infrastructure development, any hegemonic power transition from Russia to China is unlikely to create any sense of regional or national strategic autonomy in Central Asia.


While the West will hardly be seen as an alternative in such a hegemonic power transition from Russia to China, the transition itself, nevertheless, offers opportunities. The US, the UK, and the EU can strengthen their own engagement and cooperation with Central Asia precisely because this presents the states there with a chance for some re-balancing of their own and for strengthening their traditional aspiration for a multi-vector foreign policy.


The emphasis that the Central Asian states, the West, and China put on trade and connectivity, including the Middle Corridor, creates a window of opportunity for potentially more cooperation with China as well. At a minimum, Chinese and western interests are not completely at odds in this regard: China needs alternatives for its largely blocked northern trade corridor through Russia and Belarus, and the West has an interest in maintaining a credible sanctions regime against Russia. A viable Middle Corridor can potentially serve both purposes while also strengthening economic development in Central Asia.


The prospects of cooperation between China and the West in, and on, Central Asia, however, will depend, in part, on the further development of geopolitical and geoeconomic relations between Beijing, Moscow, Brussels, and Washington. The visit to China by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, emphasised the need for, and possibility of, EU-China cooperation.[24] Prospects for that materialising, however, have hardly been enhanced by the subsequent bilateral meeting between Xi and Putin in the margins of the tenth-anniversary celebrations of the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing on 18 October 2023 – while Xi did not mention the “no-limits partnership”, there was no sign either of cooling relations between Russia and China.[25] The key question now is whether there will be a meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November and what its outcomes are.[26] This, in turn, is likely to depend, in part, also on how hawkish the EU-US summit in Washington on 20 October 2023 will be on China as an economic competitor and geopolitical rival.[27]


Notably absent from a lot of these economic and security-focused discussions are human rights concerns.[28] While the Berlin summit declaration includes references to the importance of human rights, these are absent in the New York declaration, and only briefly alluded to in the White House readout from the meeting. The danger is that human rights issues will be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency – gaining a foothold in Central Asia, procuring oil and gas from there, weakening Russia, and pushing back against China may all seem more important and potentially even appear as stepping stones to future engagement on human rights issues.


The problem with such an approach is that without transparency, accountability, rule of law, and other ‘trappings’ of free societies, the countries of Central Asia will not become resilient to the challenges that await them – be that climate change, a more assertive China, an aggressively resurgent Russia, or an imploding Afghanistan.



Anastassiya Mahon is an independent researcher based in the UK, specialising in the intricate dynamics of global security. As the founder of, she is working towards creating a dedicated community interested in exploring profound issues within the realm of global security. Mahon’s research primarily focuses on the interplay of (in)security in shaping policy, particularly in the context of illiberal regimes. Her works have been published in International Studies Perspectives, Critical Studies on Terrorism, and Studies of Transition States and Societies. Through her academic pursuits, Mahon continues to make significant contributions to the understanding of how security threats influence political landscapes and societal structures.


Stefan Wolff  is a Professor of International Security and Head of Department, Political Science and International Studies, at the University of Birmingham, co-coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, and Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre. A political scientist by background, he specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts, in post-conflict state-building in deeply divided and war-torn societies, and in contemporary geopolitics and great-power rivalry, especially in the post-Soviet space.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

Image by Official White House Facebook Page.


[1] Wu Jiao, Xi proposes a ‘new Silk Road’ with Central Asia, China Daily, September 2013,

[2] U.S. Department of State, Remarks at the Opening of the C5+1 Ministerial Meeting, November 2015,

[3] U.S. Department of State, C5+1 Joint Statements and Releases,

[4] U.S. Department of State, Joint Statement on the C5+1 Meeting during UNGA 76, September 2021,; U.S. Department of State, Joint Statement on the C5+1 Meeting during UNGA 77, September 2022,

[5] The White House, C5+1 Leaders’ Joint Statement, September 2023,

[6] The White House, Readout of President Biden’s Meeting with the C5+1 Leaders at UNGA, September 2023,

[7] Daria Podolskaya, A view from across the ocean. Why did the United States pay attention to Central Asia?,, September 2023,; The President, Republic of Uzbekistan, The President of Uzbekistan outlined the vision of priorities for cooperation between the states of Central Asia and the United States, September 2023,

[8] Government of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took part in the summit of heads of state “Central Asia – USA”, September 2023,

[9] President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Participation in the meeting of the heads of state of Central Asia and the United States of America, September 2023,

[10] The White House, C5+1 Leaders’ Joint Statement, September 2023,

[11] Government of Turkmenistan, The President of Turkmenistan took part in the first meeting of multilateral cooperation “C5+1”, September 2023,

[12] European Council, Joint press communique by Heads of State of Central Asia and the President of the European Council, October 2022,

[13] Federal Foreign Office, Foreign Minister Baerbock travels to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, October 2022,

[14] Bundesregierung, Joint Declaration by Heads of State of Central Asia and the Federal Chancellor of Germany, September 2023,

[15] British Embassy Astana, UK Foreign Secretary visits Kazakhstan,, March 2023,; FCDO and Leo Docherty MP, Europe Minister to forge closer relations in Central Asia,, June 2023,

[16] Foreign Policy Centre and John Smith Trust, Views from Central Asia on the UK’s Foreign Policy in the Region, FPC, August 2023,

[17] Rebecca Nadin, Ilayda Nijhar and Elvira Mami, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit 2022: key takeaways, ODI, September 2022,

[18] Stefan Wolff, How China is increasing its influence in central Asia as part of global plans to offer an alternative to the west, The Conversation, May 2023,; China News, China-Central Asia Summit Xi’an Declaration, May 2023,

[19] President of Russia, Russia-Central Asia Summit, October 2022,

[20] President of Russia, Launch of Russian gas supplies to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan, October 2023,; Reuters, Russia’s Putin visits Kyrgyzstan in first foreign trip since ICC arrest warrant, October 2023,

[21] President of Russia, Official event marking the 20th anniversary of establishing a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan, October 2023,; President of Russia, Meeting of the CIS Heads of State Council, October 2023,

[22] President of Russia, Vadai International Discussion Club meeting, October 2023,; CIS Executive Committee, The Council of Heads of State of the CIS signed the Treaty on the Establishment of the International Organization for the Russian Language and adopted a Statement on the support and promotion of the Russian language as a language of interethnic communication, CIS Internet Portal, October 2023,

[23] Carl Schreck, Kubat Kasymbekov, Manas Qaiyrtaiuly, Riin Aljas, Kubatbek Aibashov, Kyrylo Ovsyaniy, Kyrgyz, Kazakh Companies Send Western Tech To Firms Linked To Kremlin War Machine, RFE/RL, June 2023,

[24]EEAS Press Team, China: Press remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell after concluding his visit to the country, EEAS, October 2023,

[25] euters, Moscow-Beijing partnership has ‘no limits’, February 2022,; Joe Leahy and Max Seddon, Xi Jinping hails ‘deep friendship’ with Vladimir Putin as leaders meet in Beijing, Financial Times, October 2023,

[26] Kevin Liptak, Ongoing planning underway for potential Biden and Xi meeting in San Francisco in November, sources say, CNN, October 2023,

[27] Suzanne Lynch, Borrell to join EU-US summit as Brussels seeks to present united foreign policy front, Politico, October 2023,

[28] Hugh Williamson, Germany Should Keep Focus on Rights in Central Asia Talks, Human Rights Watch, September 2023,


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