U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps from a plane upon arrival in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, February 2, 2020.  REUTERS/Kevin…
FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps from a plane upon arrival in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Feb. 2, 2020.

Oil, trade and good governance all figured into talks Sunday and Monday between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the foreign ministers of five Central Asian republics. But perhaps the most important country in the discussions was the one that wasn't there — China.

Pompeo, the most senior U.S. official to visit the region since then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015, was in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, for a meeting of the so-called C5 + 1, comprising the Central Asian nations and the United States. 

The State Department says the ministers discussed prospective Central Asian contributions to the peace process in Afghanistan in 2020, as well as joint border security and regional efforts to improve economic and energy connectivity.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center left, chairs the C5+1 ministerial meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Feb. 3, 2020.

Pompeo also met individually with each of the five foreign ministers and the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, stressing "the need for stronger regional coordination and accelerated progress … to advance stability and prosperity in the region."

The issues are not insignificant in a region which lies at the strategic crossroads of Afghanistan, China, Iran and Russia. But Pompeo's signal concern appears to have been the advance of Chinese power.

He cautioned the countries not to become overly dependent on Beijing, criticized Chinese business and lending practices, and openly discussed its persecution of its Uighur and Kazakh minorities.

To make the point during a side trip to the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, Pompeo met with several ethnic Kazakh-Chinese families who shared, as his team put it, "horrific stories about Chinese surveillance, arbitrary detentions and forced indoctrination."

"The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression," Pompeo said. "We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China. Protect human dignity. Just do what's right."

Yet Central Asian countries are unlikely to heed Pompeo's call to significantly reevaluate their growing relations with China, which is a major business and investment partner, pumping tens of billions of dollars in investment into pipelines and rail connections, and promising more to come.

Washington has long maintained that it does not want to compete with Russia and China in the region. But its growing emphasis on Chinese practices and public calls for Central Asian countries to reevaluate their interactions with Beijing threaten to undermine that argument.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Kamilov Abdulaziz Khafizovich hold a joint press conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Feb. 3, 2020.

Evan A. Feigenbaum, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia in the Bush administration, said in an interview the U.S. "has legitimate and important concerns" about whether China is leading its neighbors into a debt trap with loans they can never repay. But he said that issue "really shouldn't be defining its agenda in relation to some other external power's agenda."

"American foreign policy should not be reactive, on the back foot and on defense all the time," he argued. "It should be proactive and on offense, which is to say it should support the countries by leveraging uniquely American strengths."

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Apart from the broad regional concerns, Pompeo had more nuanced issues to discuss with each of the five countries, especially Central Asia's two leading nations, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan is the region's economic powerhouse, and despite recent financial struggles, America's biggest investment destination in the region. Washington has robust counterterrorism and security cooperation with the country, a former Soviet republic which gave up its nuclear weapons after the Cold War.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the Akorda presidential residence in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Feb. 2, 2020.

U.S.-Kazakhstan bilateral trade in goods stood at $2.1 billion in 2018, a nearly 60% increase from 2017, with a focus on extractive industries and agribusiness. Chevron and its partners have a deal estimated at $45 billion to expand the Tengiz oil field, scheduled for completion in 2022.

Uzbekistan, meanwhile, has Central Asia's largest population and has undertaken a reform agenda under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The country offers a large potential pool of human capital.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, February 3, 2020.

Washington sees Uzbekistan as a potential partner in promoting economic connectivity with the region. To this end, the U.S. has supported Mirziyoyev's reform agenda, hoping it will emerge as an open and prosperous society, leading to enhanced security, economic, educational and cultural ties.

One possible obstacle is Uzbekistan's interest in entering the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said would complicate relations and slow Uzbekistan's accession to the World Trade Organization. Thus far, Mirziyoyev has committed only to observer status in this pact, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Armenia and Belarus.

Pompeo argued that U.S. investment would be a better vehicle for Uzbek development, noting the need to "further improve the business climate, strengthen the rule of law and provide sustainable economic opportunities for all citizens all across Uzbekistan."

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