ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took advantage of his visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan last week to lambast China over its treatment of its Muslim minorities and reliability as a business partner, but was met with a lukewarm response from the two Central Asian states.
Pompeo, who was making the first visit to the region by America's top-ranking diplomat since 2015, apparently left his hosts in Nur-Sultan and Tashkent feeling uncomfortable and drew the ire of China's embassy in Uzbekistan, which leveled accusations of "slander."
In Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan's capital, Pompeo raised the issue of China's detention of Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs with his Kazakh counterpart Mukhtar Tileuberdi. Pompeo further provoked China by meeting former detainees of what Beijing calls "re-education camps."
"We discussed trafficking in persons and the plight of the more than 1 million Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs who the Chinese Communist Party has detained in Xinjiang just across the Kazakh border," Pompeo told reporters on Feb. 2.
"The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression. We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China."
The Chinese Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, posted a defiant response to Pompeo's remarks on its website: "Any attempt to slander China and sow discord in friendly relations between China and the states of Central Asia is doomed to defeat."
The issue of the camps is a contentious one in Kazakhstan, which has to balance its relationship with China, its neighbor and second-biggest trading partner, with heightened domestic feelings over the mass detentions in Xinjiang and the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs who have crossed illegally into Kazakhstan from China.
Trade with China reached $12.85 billion in January-November 2019, accounting for 13.8% of Kazakhstan's exports and 16.3% of its imports, second only in volume to trade with Russia.
In December 2019, Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was careful not to rock the boat with China by expressing doubts over the numbers of ethnic Kazakhs detained in the camps.
"There is some deliberate fanning of tension around this topic. We understand this is part of geopolitics because China and the United States have clashed one against another in a trade war," he said. "Kazakhstan shouldn't become a territory of the so-called global anti-Chinese front."
"Any visit by a top U.S. official to any Central Asian country is a big deal. It is a sign of respect and recognition that is highly appreciated by the governments in the region. In this sense, Secretary Pompeo's visit definitely gave a boost to U.S.-Kazakhstan and U.S.-Uzbekistan relations, albeit his strong verbal attacks on China were most likely not appreciated," Nargis Kassenova, Senior Fellow, Program on Central Asia, at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Pompeo took his anti-China message to Tashkent on Feb. 3, where he made veiled references to America's influence in comparison with China's.
"We are convinced when American companies come to places like Uzbekistan, we show up, we create jobs for local people, we obey the local rules, we don't pollute their neighborhood, we're good citizens, we're good neighbors," Pompeo told reporters.
Abdulaziz Kamilov, Uzbekistan's foreign minister, responded diplomatically: "We want to see Central Asia as a region of stable development, prosperity, and cooperation, and we would really not like to feel on ourselves unfavorable political consequences in relation to some competition in our region between large powers."
Uzbekistan is keen to boost trade and maintain good relations with China as it is a major importer of Uzbek gas. In 2019 more than 500 new Chinese companies were registered in the country. Trade is likely to be further enhanced with Uzbek businesses now able to access loans at fixed rates via a yuan-denominated loan service at Uzbekistan's National Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs.
Pompeo's visit came in the week when Washington unveiled its United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as the region's two largest economies, are central to this plan, but both are undergoing periods of change.
In Kazkahstan, President Tokayev succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev last year, although his predecessor still wields considerable influence, and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is now into his fourth year in charge of Uzbekistan after the death of Islam Karimov in 2016.
"Already, before the Trump administration, U.S. policy in Central Asia focused on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as countries more promising for engagement. The ongoing political transition in both 'stans' and the opportunities that it creates has reinforced this approach," said Kassenova.
Washington's Central Asian strategy is concerned with consolidating the independence of the region's five states, seeing this as key to helping U.S. efforts to fight terrorism and boost regional stability and economic prosperity in the region and beyond.
But at the same time as the strategy was being unveiled, Washington managed to alienate one of the five countries, Kyrgyzstan, by including the Central Asian state on its latest travel ban, citing security concerns over its passports.
Kyrgyzstan's foreign ministry reacted angrily to this news saying that the decision struck a blow to Kyrgyz-American relations and was "inconsistent with the parties' desire to step up bilateral cooperation."
The U.S. is facing an uphill struggle to compete with China for influence in Central Asia. China has invested huge amounts in infrastructure in the region with its Belt and Road Initiative. In contrast, Pompeo promised "a million dollars of assistance to increase trade and connectivity between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan," while in Tashkent.
Previous U.S. initiatives, such as the New Silk Road, launched by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, never got off the ground. The project, which aimed to connect Central Asia with southern Asia via Afghanistan, was never put into action.
Kassenova sees America as having the tools to influence developments in the region, but she is skeptical that it can currently fulfill these plans.
"The U.S. has the potential to shape developments in Central Asia. It has major resources and instruments at its disposal and strong allies, such as the EU and Japan. It can draw on the desire of the states in the region not to be overwhelmed by China. However, its foreign policy and foreign policy establishment are not in their best shape."