WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration plans to publish a new U.S. strategy for Central Asia as China and Russia fight for influence in the energy-rich region and militants from Afghanistan threaten to destabilize it, a senior State Department official has said.
The United States has "intensified" its bilateral diplomatic engagements with the five Central Asian countries this year, the State Department official said during a background briefing on December 13, following a meeting the day before with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi.
A U.S. delegation traveled to Kyrgyzstan in July for the first time in four years while the State Department hosted Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in November. The State Department will host Tajik and Uzbek government delegations for annual consultations in the spring, he said.
"This regional and bilateral engagement reflects the objectives and priorities embedded in the Trump administration's new Central Asia strategy, which we hope to brief publicly soon. The strategy will highlight our commitment to deepening our political, economic, and military engagement with Central Asia," the senior State Department official said.
The increase in U.S. diplomatic contacts comes as China's economic and political influence in Central Asia grows and it seeks to strong-arm those countries to return asylum seekers from Xinjiang, a major concern for the Trump administration. The greater interest also comes as the United States seeks to exit its 18-year war in Afghanistan, which borders several of the countries.
China is pumping billions of dollars into Central Asian infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which some U.S. officials and analysts have said is burdening the countries with debt loads that they cannot pay back. Russia continues to maintain significant influence over the former Soviet states as well.
The desire of Central Asian states to pursue closer relations with the United States and the West may be driven "by a feeling of pressure from these other larger neighbors and a desire to have a counterweight," the State Department official said. That pressure is also pushing the five countries to promote more projects that enhance their connectivity and economic ties, he said.
"There's a recognition on the part of these countries that they are stronger -- and more independent -- if they're able to kind of cooperate and trade and do business more effectively with one another," the State Department official said.
The senior State Department official said Washington was concerned about China using its economic leverage over the Central Asian states to force them to return Chinese citizens of Uyghur ethnicity seeking asylum.
UN experts and activists say at least 1 million Uyghurs, and members of other largely Muslim minority groups, have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang region, which borders Central Asia. Beijing insists the detention sites are "vocational centers" aimed at training and skills development.
"The officials in these countries have, generally speaking, not been publicly critical of what's going on in Xinjiang. But at the same time, there are certainly a number of people in their population who are aware of what's going on and are concerned. These governments are just trying to navigate a very difficult position vis-a-vis their relationship with their neighbors and their obligations," he said.
The State Department official said the United States was tracking the cases of Uyghur asylum seekers and has no knowledge of Kazakhstan having forcibly returned any individuals. However, a couple of cases are still pending in the country's courts, he said.
"We're waiting to see how the judicial process plays out, and meanwhile continuing to remind Kazakhstan of its international obligations," he said.
The official said the United States was working with the Central Asian states to reintegrate Afghanistan -- where U.S. troops have been fighting militants since 2001 -- into the region.
However, he said the embattled country remained a source of instability for the region and that the Central Asian states needed to step up their border security to prevent threats.
"I think the main concern that we have -- and certainly the countries of the region have -- is, of course, their border with Afghanistan. And there is certainly concern about the flow of terrorist fighters from Afghanistan, and there's concern that instability in Afghanistan could adversely affect the stability of the countries of the region," he said.
The official said a November attack on the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appears to have been the work of terrorists connected with Islamic State. However, he said it was still unclear if the attackers came from Afghanistan or Tajikistan.
The senior administration official also said the Central Asian states had made progress on repatriating hundreds of citizens from Syria and Iraq. Kazakhstan, he said, had returned more than 600 citizens, including dozens of fighters.
The United States assisted with the transportation of some of the citizens back to Central Asia as well as with rehabilitation and reintegration, he said.