“It appears that the Great Game in Central Asia flares up again in much vigorous and quite peculiar manner. The Game is reflected in the mathematical model of geopolitics: it is “5+1=5” for the US, “5+1=6” for Russia, and “5+1=x” for China, so to speak,” Uzbek political analyst Farhod Tolipov writes in his article for CABAR.asia.
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On October 15, 2020, foreign ministers of 5 Central Asian countries met with the Russian foreign minister and adopted a joint statement on strategic cooperation areas. It marks the third meeting in such a composition, hence reflecting the development of a diplomatic format analogous to the American “C5 + 1”, which has been set up few years before that. It should be mentioned that China, too, bolsters the same “5+1” approach to the region.
Such an enhanced focus on Central Asia by global superpowers is capable of various contradictory interpretations, evaluations, and expectations. Despite the seemingly identical designs, substance and modalities of these formats differ profoundly from each other. And this is largely due to the “tug of war” within the notorious US-China-Russia geopolitical triangle in the good old spirit of realpolitik, a notion that has been religiously reiterated for nearly 30 years of independence by scholars and politicians.
Geopolitical math has recently attained a certain magic of numbers: the sum of “5 + 1” has different solutions, depending on which angle of the ever-shifting triangle we are looking from. It is “5 + 1 = 5” for the US, “5 + 1 = 6” for Russia, and “5 + 1 = x” for China. Let us take a quick look at the mathematical model of geopolitics.
The C5 + 1 format was initiated in September 2015, with the first meeting in November 2015 in Samarkand. The parties since held several meetings and assumed consistency. The Tashkent meeting in February 2020, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, gave a very particular tone to the format. Pompeo’s visit virtually coincided with the adoption of the new US Strategy for Central Asia for 2019-2025. In fact, both the Strategy and the Tashkent C5 + 1 meeting had commenced the start of a new round of the Great Game in the region. It also outlined the consistency of the usual dimension of both the Strategy and the meeting format.
The strategy states: Central Asia is a geostrategically vital region for the national security interests of the United States, regardless of the level of US involvement in Afghanistan. This paragraph sends an important message arguing that Central Asia is an independent region and Afghanistan is not a decisive factor in US-Central Asia relations.
From 2016, the “C5 + 1” format provides for the joint work of states in five areas: 1) counterterrorism; 2) business competitiveness; 3) transport corridor development; 4) power the future; 5) supporting national and regional adaptation planning in the environmental area.
Comparing the 5 + 1 process with the policy pursued by the United States over the past 30 years, it is evident that, with traceable consistency, US policy towards Central Asia was based on recognizing and supporting the independence of the region in its unity. For instance, the draft law Silk Road Strategy adopted back in 1999 outlined the following key US interests: 1) promote sovereignty, independence with a democratic government in the region, including the resolution of regional conflicts; 2) build strong and friendly relations between states in the region, with the United States and its allies; 3) promote economic development and market-oriented principles in region’s natural resources, and not through exploitation by regional, hegemonic powers.
It is imperative to mention that the C5 + 1 format, multiplied by all previous US efforts in Central Asia, explicitly articulates intraregional cooperation as the end goal and essence of this entire process. It is evident in joint statements and previous strategic documents of the US regarding Central Asia.
Meanwhile, the well-known American political analyst Eugene Rumer, discussing the importance of the post-Soviet space for the US interests, acknowledged the inevitable rivalry between the world and regional powers in Central Asia. “But it is unlikely that China or Russia will promote systemic reforms that the United States sees as essential to long-term stability in the region.”
So, the American “C5 + 1” equation does not pursue the establishment of certain US dominance in the region and therefore is region-centered in its focus and essence.
Analyzing the results of the recent foreign ministers’ meeting, the Kommersant newspaper writes: “From now on, Moscow will not only forge bilateral ties but also ponder Central Asia as a single whole … This is a kind of new strategy of Russian foreign policy in Central Asia”. But it turns out that it’s not a new but rather old strategy as “Moscow’s plan was to establish a joint vision of the cooperation development, whereas “the five” regarded Russia not so much as “+1 ” but, in fact, the sixth member of their association.” This understanding of the Russian variant “5 + 1” is rather pretentious as it flouts the independence and intrinsic value of the region, as though the region cannot be construed without the sixth member of the group. History seems to be repeating itself: Russia was once a member of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), not only failing to prevent CACO dissolution in 2005 but apparently facilitating it.
Central Asia’s Foreign Ministers at the online “Central Asia + Russia” meeting on October 15, 2020. Photo: Press service of the Central Asian Foreign Ministries.
Comparing (as with the American strategy) the Russian variant of the “5 + 1” format with the Russian strategy towards Central Asia over the past 30 years of independence, we can highlight the fact that democratic ideas and values have never been reflected in it. This greatly distinguishes Russian strategy from the American and European ones. Moscow, therefore, endures in the “new” format its earlier efforts to maintain the status quo in the region.
Central Asian states hereby witness geopolitical phantasmagoria: Russia’s Central Asian format emerged as a response to Americans. If we ponder the issue from this perspective, then we create a visible or obscure geopolitical dimension. The explicit or implicit difference in the goals and essence of the two formats leaves the five countries in the throes of a dilemma. Note that long before the emergence of the Russian “5 + 1” format, Russia’s relations with these countries have already deemed, so to speak, multi-format. For instance, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the EEU; Uzbekistan decided to join the organization only as an observer; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan remain aloof from it.
Lately, the EEU diverges from an organization that benefits all the members and arises for Russia as a geopolitical goal in itself. Washington is known to be critical of the EEU and even openly expressed its reluctance for Uzbekistan’s accession to the Union. Meanwhile, all five Central Asian states recommenced Consultative Meetings – their regional, five-sided cooperation format (see below). This phantasmagoric situation pushes these countries to either constantly maneuver or improve intraregional coordination.
It is aggravated by the fact that the Russian media and expert circles often provoke rather apprehensive and evasive perspective towards the European Union and the United States, whilst Central Asian countries have built a strategic partnership and unswervingly develop cooperation with the latter two, which undoubtedly meets the national interests of these five countries.
The Russian “C5 + 1” formula, hence, is more likely Russia-centered than region-centered.
On July 16, 2020, China held its first 5 + 1 meeting at the level of foreign ministers of Central Asia and China. The parties mainly discussed efforts to overcome the adverse consequences of the pandemic and recover the economies of the region. It is indicative that Beijing has also taken a great interest in the newfangled format, despite the fact that China-centric formats, such as the SCO and the Belt and Road Initiative, that already exist.
On the one hand, the Chinese variant of the format seems to recognize the region as a given. But on the other hand, it does not yet declare a detailed vision of its development prospects. Belt and Road’s slogan “community of common destiny” recently proposed by the Chinese leader obscures the future implications of an all-encompassing Chinese involvement in Central Asia. This ambiguity is due to two factors: a) slogan is put forth by an emerging superpower, whose rising role in the world order evokes different associations and expectations; b) this superpower is a neighbor of the Central Asian region.
That is precisely why there are ambivalent assessments of China’s growing presence both in the countries of the region and among international experts; they range from sinophobia and Sinophilia. The geopolitics of China in the 21st century has not yet been adequately studied, as opposed to the geopolitics of the United States and Russia. Both local and international experts point towards the concealed risks the Belt and Road Initiative may bear. The caution and fear of Central Asian states are often attributed to the following factors: mounting nationalist reactions to the transfer of land to the Chinese (as was the case in Kazakhstan in 2016); trade competition; non-transparency of contracts of Chinese firms and their non-compliance with local environmental regulations and laws; failure to comply with the requirements for recruiting local workers, etc. 
Besides, it is still intricate how China is going to play the Central Asian card in its geopolitical game. We know that the US and the USSR endlessly sought to play the China card in their confrontation during the Cold War. Now, an independently acting China is wedging into the current Russian-American global rivalry.
China’s 5 + 1 equation, therefore, is completely confusing compared to the country’s geopolitical rivals. It is as eclectic as the SCO and the Belt and Road frameworks are contradictory and vague.
“Central Asia’s Five”
Meanwhile, the five Central Asian states have their own format – Presidential Consultative Meetings. These countries have been building on this format since 2018. Presidents met in this format two times – in Astana in March 2018 and in Tashkent in October 2019. The third meeting was expected to take place in Bishkek, but recent protests, riots, and a change of power related to the last parliamentary elections will ostensibly postpone the timing of the Bishkek meeting.
Regardless of that, the foreign ministries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan issued a joint statement on October 9, 2020, on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. This statement in fact reflected the immutability of the policy of further developing regional cooperation. In the statement, along with expressing concern about the situation in Kyrgyzstan, states also recalled the unity of the peoples of the region. “We, as close neighbors, bound by centuries-old ties of friendship, good neighborliness, common cultural and spiritual values, call on the people of Kyrgyzstan in these difficult days to show their inherent wisdom in order to maintain peace and restore stability in the country,” the statement reads.
The joint statement furthermore revealed the proactive position of other countries of the region, which refused to stay indifferent to the situation in the brotherly neighboring country. It is pertinent to recall that notion of brotherhood, age-old ties, and good neighborliness of the peoples of this region have been cited since the early years of independence in official documents, statements of leaders, speeches of politicians. This normative dimension of regional development is something that appreciably distinguishes Central Asia from many other regions in the world.
To some, protrusion of this normative dimension looks like a lyrical digression from the actual practical tasks and a kind of romantic overindulgence in resolving major political, economic, trade, infrastructural, and other issues. This view, however, neglects the fact that it is exactly this special normative quality of regional relations that has in many ways contributed to surmounting tensions, settling problems, and promoting integration efforts.
Hence, “Central Asia’s Five” is gradually finding its identity in the international system. One must consider this identity while scrutinizing the modality of different formats like “5 + 1”. Often in their analysis, experts shift their focus to the number on the right of a math equation, whilst underestimating or even deserting the number on the left.
Conclusion and recommendations
The format we discussed is also promoted by Japan, South Korea, and India. Each of these countries recognizes not only the importance but also the integrity of the region. Their Central Asian policy is mainly focused on supporting regional development and contains little or no overt or implicit geopolitical intention. In this article, I have limited myself to three world powers, the geopolitical presence of which prevails in this region.
It appears that the Great Game in Central Asia flares up again in a much vigorous and quite peculiar manner. The Game is reflected in the mathematical model of geopolitics: it is “5+1=5” for the US, “5+1=6” for Russia, and “5+1=x” for China, so to speak. In these conditions, the Central Asian countries need to advance their own strategic bold “5 + 0”, meaning the position dictated by the principle of independence and the idea of the region’s intrinsic value in the composition of five. This, principally not new, the approach becomes all the more urgent and critical the further the five countries drift away from it – either on internal tensions or under pressure from an external geopolitical factor.
The 5 + 0 concept implies:
- Central Asia is structurally integral and closed to the entry of other states; structurally closed but functionally open. This equation should become the guiding principle for intraregional development.
- It is essential to accelerate the institutionalization of Consultative Meetings of the Presidents of the Central Asian states to in one form or another restore the CACO.
- While evaluating the policy of the United States, the Russian Federation, and the PRC in Central Asia, scholars often consider it through the prism of these powers’ interests. Today it is extremely important to give prominence to the interests of the Central Asian states, especially their common interests as a single region.
- It is vital that the two states’ membership in the EEU does not contradict and does not interfere with intraregional relations (as in the recent incident in the Sokh enclave, where the movement of Sokh residents to Uzbekistan along the highway was blocked, in particular, because of Kyrgyzstan’s EEU membership).
In the long run, the concept “5 + 0” calls our attention to the number “5”. In other words, before pondering various options for this format, we must first become a real and solid “five”.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.
 Заявление министров иностранных дел государств Центральной Азии и Российской Федерации о стратегических направлениях сотрудничества, 15 октября 2020 года. https://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4390973
Tolipov, F. New Strategy, Old Game: The Realigning Geopolitics of Central Asia
 Joint Statement for the Press on C5+1High-Level Dialogue, July 9, 2020, https://uz.usembassy.gov/c51-fact-sheet-central-asian-u-s-forum-to-enhance-regional-economic-environmental-and-security-cooperation/
 The U.S. Congress Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999. https://www.congress.gov/bill/106th-congress/house-bill/1152
 Eugene Rumer, Dmitri Trenin, and Huasheng Zhao, eds., “Central Asia: Views from Washington, Moscow, and Beijing” (N.Y.: M.E.Sharpe, 2007), p. 63.
 Umida Hashimova. “China Launches 5+1 Format Meetings With Central Asia”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/china-launches-51-format-meetings-with-central-asia/ , July 20, 2020.
 См. например: Stephen Blank. “China’s Silk Roads and Their Challenges”, 01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst, http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13119-chinas-silk-roads-and-their-challenges.html
 Laruelle, M. China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Quo Vadis? In Marlene Laruelle edited “China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its impact in Central Asia” (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, 2018 www.centralasiaprogram.org ) p.xii.