US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday was set to visit ex-Soviet Central Asia for talks with leaders of two countries where Russia and China enjoy privileged interests.
Pompeo was to meet the leadership of oil-rich Kazakhstan in capital Nur-Sultan before flying to Uzbekistan, a country of 33 million that is emerging from nearly three decades of isolation.
The visit was part of a tour of four ex-Soviet countries.
Ahead of the visit, Pompeo stressed that the Central Asian countries on his itinerary “want to be sovereign and independent” and said Washington had “an important opportunity to help them achieve that”.
But the secretary of state also acknowledged “a lot of activity (in the region) — Chinese activity, Russian activity”.
Washington has often struggled to keep a foothold in Central Asian states that were part of the Soviet Union up to its collapse in 1991.
At the height of hostilities in Afghanistan, NATO and the United States maintained important logistics centres in the region, but these have now closed.
Russia has retained military bases and heads security and trade blocs that have helped to entrench its position there.
Central Asia increasingly looks east to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road global trade plan as a panacea to treat battered economies.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have both seen leadership transitions since John Kerry toured the region in 2015 — the last US secretary of state to visit.
In Kazakhstan, Pompeo was to meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as well as his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who last year shocked Kazakhs by retiring from the presidency after nearly three decades in office.
In Uzbekistan, he was to hold talks with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has embarked on ambitious reforms, welcoming tourism and investment in the once-isolated republic while keeping the authoritarian system intact.
Mirziyoyev’s long-ruling hardline predecessor, Islam Karimov turned his back on the United States in 2005 after a row over the Uzbek government’s bloody crackdown on protests.
The relationship had healed somewhat by the time of Karimov’s death in 2016.
Mirziyoyev, who visited Trump at the White House in 2018, has mused on the benefits of joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union, a five-country bloc including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that is seen as a key vehicle for Russia to wield influence in the region.
In addition to holding bilateral meetings, Pompeo on Monday in Tashkent will hold a meeting with foreign ministers from all five ex-Soviet Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
This format was first tried under Kerry to enhance regional, economic, environmental and security cooperation.
Pompeo’s trip has also taken in visits to Ukraine and Belarus.