While new U.S. President Donald Trump has announced his intentions to pull back from the world, his policy toward Central Asia remains largely unknown. What policy will he pursue in the region where the U.S.' influence is declining but China and Russia are gaining clout? What is the likelihood that the U.S.-Russia relations will improve, given a Russia-loving Trump but anti-Russia sentiments in the U.S.? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen interviewed Paul Stronski, a senior fellow of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia Program, on these issues.
GT: Central Asia observers see a declining U.S. presence in the region in recent years. Do you agree?
Stronski: I would agree with that. One of the reasons is that Central Asia is not a key priority region for the U.S. foreign policy. The key regions that the U.S. is most interested in are North America, Europe and the East Asia-Pacific region, because that is where our biggest bilateral trade partners and alliances are.
There is not a lot of trade between the U.S. and Central Asian countries. The region doesn't border any U.S. allies. The U.S. policy toward Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union has never really been about Central Asia itself. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were a lot of things such as nuclear, chemical weapons material – all these types of things.
One of the priorities was to safeguard the materials and make sure they didn't get into the terrorists' hands. That was why the region was of interest to the U.S. Central Asia was important to the U.S. because of the Afghan War. But after 2014 when NATO and the U.S. started to withdraw, once again, the region lost its importance.
Central Asia has never decided that it really wants a close relationship with the U.S. either. While the U.S. is focused on the instability in the Middle East, there is a clear possibility that the instability could spread to Afghanistan. The U.S. shouldn't just ignore Central Asia, but right now, it is not a key area of concern.
The U.S., under former secretary of state Hillary Clinton of the Obama administration, proposed the New Silk Road initiative. It was a great idea, but the U.S. again, because the region is not a top priority, didn't put the resources in.
GT: What are your thoughts on China's growing influence in the region?
Stronski: China is putting the resources in through the "One Belt, One Road," which passes through Central Asia. The Chinese approach is not all that different from the U.S. approach. It is helping to build regional integration which I think is stabilizing the region because there are a lot of internal problems in the region. If one of the goals was to defend the sovereignty of these countries and give them outlets to the outside world, what China does makes a lot of sense. It is different from the U.S. approach, but the Chinese approach might have more success.
The U.S., which is disengaged from the region, does hope that China will continue to push the security umbrella. I don't think the U.S. will play a major security role there in the future unless there is a ramp-up again in Afghanistan. U.S. officials might not say it publicly, but privately, they look to China and Russia to make the region stable in the long term.
GT: What policy will Trump pursue in Central Asia?
Stronski: We have no real insight as to what policymakers in the Trump administration think about Central Asia. Central Asia was not a topic in the U.S. election. I don't see priority for Central Asia for this administration.
President Trump is very interested in trying to figure out a way to improve relations with Russia. There is a lot of talk about having a grand bargain with Russia. Given the limited U.S. interests, if the U.S. were to have some grand bargain with Russia, Central Asia would fall into the Russian orbit as a place that Trump is not going to focus on. There is counter-terrorism cooperation between Central Asian states and the U.S. Some of the cooperation will remain, but it will be on a limited basis, not any big initiatives.
GT: What is the likelihood that the U.S. and Russia will improve their relations?
Stronski: I served in the Obama administration. The Obama administration tried to have a reset with Russia, and ended up badly. The efforts of the George W. Bush administration ended up badly, too. There are fundamental differences in how the U.S. and Russia view the world. It is very easy to come to the agreement that we collaborate on fighting the Islamic State and other emerging threats. But putting these pledges into real actionable policies is quite difficult.
There is a lot of pushback among the Democratic Party in the U.S. against a better relationship with Russia. The controversy in the U.S. right now over what sort of influence the Russian government had in the U.S. political system during the campaign complicates Trump's ability to implement his Russia policy. But Trump is, sometimes, unrelenting and he just decides he wants to do it. My inclination is that it might not be a successful one. Like the Obama administration and the Bush administration, the Trump administration may find the U.S.-Russia relations end up far worse than when they began.
GT: Is Trump trying to use ties with Russia to counter China?
Stronski: That might be what he is trying to do as he sees China as a threat economically. His obstacle is that the Sino-Russian relations are fairly strong and beneficial to both sides. It is particularly beneficial for the Russians because the Russians do seem to want to push back at the U.S. and be a global power. It is difficult for them to do that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and they have more clout when they partner with China.
The U.S.-China relationship is quite complex. Their economic dependency and linkages are strong. There are frictions in the relationship, but both sides recognize its importance and it needs to be carefully managed. It is difficult to manage the triangular relations among China, the U.S. and Russia all together and use Russia against China or vice versa.
GT: What could be the next flashpoint between the U.S. and Russia?
Stronski: Depending on what the investigations in the U.S. about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia find out, it could have very significant impacts on the Trump presidency and Trump's ability to engage with Russia. There is harsh anti-America rhetoric in Russia. After this campaign, among a certain sector of the American population, there is harsh anti-Russia sentiment in the U.S. Overcoming that will be challenging.
We have very close proximity in the Middle East on Russia–NATO frontier, and certainly there's potential for miscalculation to happen. A lot of misunderstandings and problems in U.S.–Russia relations have happened when there were leadership changes in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states, and I see potentials for flashpoints. But it is important for the two sides to talk and to figure out how to anticipate these flashpoints.