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Majlis Podcast: Central Asia Prepares For Trump Administration

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk during the inaugural parade from the U.S. Capitol in Washington last month.
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk during the inaugural parade from the U.S. Capitol in Washington last month.

The new U.S. administration has a lot of people guessing, watching, and trying to predict what President Donald Trump's position will be on a myriad of issues.

In the case of relations with, for example, China, Russia, and Mexico, there are already signals about Trump's policy toward those countries.

The new U.S. president has not commented directly on Central Asia yet, but a January 31 article in Foreign Policy magazine titled Central Asian Autocrats Welcome The Age Of Trump explored some of the possibilities of the ties between the United States and the five Central Asian states in the coming months.

It's a good topic, so RFE/RL organized a Majlis, or panel, to talk about what U.S. policy toward Central Asia under new President Donald Trump might look like and what the Central Asian states can realistically hope for from the new U.S. administration.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Joining him at RFE/RL headquarters in Washington to take part in the discussion was a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, and currently a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation, William Courtney. Also participating from Washington was the author of the above-mentioned article in Foreign Policy magazine, Reid Standish. Good topic, like I said, so I was happy to jump into the conversation also.

So what can we expect the Trump administration to be looking for in U.S. ties with Central Asia?

The Trump administration has not made any direct statements about Central Asia as yet. But Standish noted there were people in Trump's administration who know something about Central Asia. "[Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson, earlier he was the CEO of ExxonMobil, obviously from his background as an oilman knows what's happening in the region in terms of energy," he said.

And Standish noted, "James Mattis, secretary of defense, was the head of CENTCOM, so he obviously has some pretty acute knowledge of the security situation in the region."

It's clear the Trump administration has "an intense focus on fighting Islamic extremism," Standish explained.

The Central Asian governments have been saying for many years, with some reason, that they are threatened with Islamic extremism. One of the region's southern neighbors is Afghanistan and between 2001 and 2014, all five of the Central Asian countries made some contribution to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

The situation in the northern Afghan provinces bordering Central Asia has been getting progressively worse during the last three years, with fighting moving at times to within easy earshot of people north of the Central Asian border.

Iran Sanctions

But if Trump's tough policy toward Islamic extremism might be a comfort to Central Asian governments, his views on Iran promise to complicate Central Asia's relations with its other southern neighbor.

"We saw...Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, came out and said that Iran was being put on notice," Standish said, and, "General also quite hawkish on Iran."

The lifting of some international sanctions on Iran after Tehran's conclusion of a nuclear deal with major world powers offered the Central Asian states the possibility of a new trade route to the southwest. Heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran would complicate the realization of this opportunity.

Courtney said there were some important aspects of U.S. policy toward Central Asia that were not likely to change under the new administration.

"For the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West and the United States have strongly supported the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all of the new republics of the former Soviet Union," Courtney explained.

That certainly should be important to the Central Asian governments considering they are surrounded by giant neighbors China, Russia, and Iran immediately, and Pakistan and India not much farther away.

Russia Up, China Down

However, the Trump administration's policies toward Central Asia's leading trade and security partners -- Russia and China -- are very different and this could prove problematic for Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent to navigate through.

As Courtney pointed out, "What we've seen so far in President Trump's desire to improve relations with Russia is a question whether he might be willing to lift or ease sanctions unilaterally on Russia with regard to its aggression in Ukraine. If that were the case," he added, "then that would have troubling implications for Central Asia."

There have been worries in Kazakhstan in particular that a Ukrainian scenario was possible in the north of the country, along the border with Russia, where there is an ethnic Russian majority.

Standish did not think any tensions between Washington and Beijing would complicate the foreign policies of Central Asia too much, saying that if it did "that's a sign that relations between Washington and Beijing elsewhere have gotten pretty bad."

One of the big questions is whether the Trump administration would be willing to focus on security issues in Central Asia at the expense of pressing governments there to improve their poor records of respecting basic human rights.

Standish suggested it was probable that "human rights concerns won't prevent a deal, to use Trump parlance, between Washington and the Central Asian countries."

Courtney said, "More respect for human rights is something that Central Asia really can and should do," and pointed out that Central Asian governments should not forget there will be some in the United States who would insist on Washington pushing the governments there to show greater respect for basic rights.

"To expect the Trump administration to go against the will of Congress and counter a number of NGOs who are in favor of human rights, political liberties, that's really not so realistic," he said.

What the Trump administration's policy toward Central Asia is might not be clear but it is clear Central Asia will not be forgotten by the new U.S. president and his team.

Courtney recalled: "The United States developed reasonable relations with Central Asia before 9/11. No one had any idea how important those relations with Central Asia would become after 9/11 and U.S. engagement in Afghanistan."

And Standish noted that Central Asia "is a very important and strategically vital part of the world where relations with China, relations with Russia, energy security, Islamic extremism, all sorts of things intersect here," so the region is unlikely to fall off the Trump administration's radar.

The panel discussed these and many other issues concerning the Trump administration and Central Asia. You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Trump And Central Asia
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.