Countries at crossroads: UK engagement in Central Asia – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Foreign Affairs Committee

Related inquiry: The UK’s engagement in Central Asia

Date Published: 10 November 2023

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The deepening of UK engagement in Central Asia not only has the potential to be mutually beneficial but also should be seen as a geopolitical imperative. The UK’s response to the manoeuvring of Russia, China and others can have a significant impact on the economic and political independence of Central Asian countries. There are also important implications for the economic resilience of the UK as well as the five countries of Central Asia. Relationships with each of the five Central Asian countries (CA5), Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, carry potential opportunities for mutual benefits. Each country is working to find solutions to the changing geopolitical, demographic, economic and ecological challenges we all face. For too long UK engagement has been characterised by reactiveness and short-termism. When immediate geopolitical preoccupations cease to be in focus, involvement has waned and Central Asian countries have been left unsure of the UK’s long-term commitment. Despite this, diplomats and organisations have managed to cultivate significant influence for the UK through responding to the needs of governments and the people. This influence can be invested in and capitalised on. We urge the Government to be considerably bolder and more ambitious in approaches to trade, human rights, regional cooperation, cultural exchange, and the environment.

The UK should aim to be both a reliable long-term partner and a critical friend. The UK’s high-level engagement with Central Asian governments has been woefully inadequate and needs to improve. A CA5+UK format would be an appropriate way of taking forward specific issues at a government level and should be backed up with the offer of practical support to make this happen. However, the UK Government should remain conscious that these are young countries with governments that continue to fall short of their international obligations to their own people and operate in an environment where their foreign policy is constrained to a varying extent by relationships with larger neighbours.

By its failure to stem flows of illicit finance through the UK’s financial system, the Government is complicit in the plundering of Central Asian economies by their elites. Solving this problem will require the political will and resources to take legal action against those involved, as well as capacity building for officials in Central Asia to tackle the issue at source.

The UK Government now needs to adopt a clear, values-led approach to engagement in Central Asia; one that does not attempt to supplant or out-compete China or Russia, but that provides different options to Central Asian leadership. In so doing it should forge a path in line with the aspirations of Central Asian people whilst remaining clear-eyed about the motivations and actions of their governments.