Kazakhstan and the United States have agreed to elevate their relationship to the level of enhanced strategic partnership through engaging in closer political and economic cooperation to the benefit of both nations. This has become a major outcome of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s January 16-18, 2018 official visit to the United States, his first since 2006 and seventh overall. The previous visits were under different U.S. presidential administrations – of George H. W. Bush in May 1992, of Bill Clinton in February 1994, November 1997 and December 1999, of George W. Bush in December 2001 and September 2006. There were no official visits under President Barack Obama, but Nazarbayev visited Washington twice, in April 2010 and March-April 2016, to participate in the nuclear security summits, and once he traveled to New York to take part in the UN General Assembly plenary session in September 2015 (U.S. Department of State, n.d.).
The United States was among the first countries to officially recognize independent Kazakhstan, establish a diplomatic mission, and direct companies to invest in the young state’s economy, thus contributing to the subsequent transformation and growth of Kazakhstan. Astana considers Washington as a strategic political, trade and economic partner, and continued cooperation is seen as an important guarantee of Kazakhstan’s national security. In addition, Kazakhstan regards the United States as a superpower with special responsibility for ensuring global security. The United States, which initially focused its attention on Kazakhstan to assist with addressing the legacy of the Soviet weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, now views Kazakhstan as an important partner in dealing with international security issues and intensifying regional economic cooperation in Central Asia. It is therefore not surprising that President Nazarbayev has become the first leader of a post-Soviet Central Asian state to be invited to the White House by President Donald J. Trump. Nazarbayev and Trump first met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on the sidelines of the Arab Islamic American Summit in May 2017 and held a telephone conversation in September 2017.
Opening the talks, President Trump voiced his deep appreciation of the ongoing U.S.-Kazakh cooperation praising Nazarbayev for the way he managed to withstand challenges experienced by Kazakhstan. In his turn, President Nazarbayev congratulated Trump with the first year of his presidency and current economic successes, saying that he highly values 26 years of U.S. friendship and support for Kazakhstan’s independence and territorial integrity (White House, 2018a). During their face-to-face negotiations, the presidents focused on the most urgent matters of international concern and issues of bilateral relations. Trump thanked Nazarbayev for his full support of Washington’s South Asia strategy, particularly the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, including by providing humanitarian and technical assistance to Kabul. As Kazakhstan pledged additional support for the Afghan peace settlement process, the parties agreed to continue their close collaboration to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan (White House, 2018b). It also appears that the United States is interested in partially reviving the Northern Distribution Network which previously served to supplement the unreliable Pakistan route for non-military supplies to the International Security Assistance Force should difficulties arise in implementing the updated U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan.
Another international issue that was in the spotlight of the discussion was the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. Referring to the history of cooperation between the two countries regarding WMD nonproliferation, President Trump called Kazakhstan a “valued partner” in the efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. President Nazarbayev agreed that as a country that had voluntarily given up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal Kazakhstan had a moral right to invite the nations seeking deadly weapons to follow its suit. According to Nazarbayev, a diplomatic pressure that worked in the Iranian case can be applied to Pyongyang to persuade it to abandon its aggressive pursuit of nuclear arms. In his opinion, the standoff over the North Korean nuclear issue can be solved jointly by the United States, China, and Russia. In this respect, President Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan, being Russia’s neighbor, was concerned with the worsening dynamics of the U.S.-Russian relations. It is also worth mentioning that speaking on behalf of all five Central Asian countries Nazarbayev conveyed their shared interest in strengthening U.S.-Central Asia cooperation in the “C5+1” regional format (White House, 2018b).
As a result of the high-level negotiations, the parties adopted a political statement titled “United States and Kazakhstan: an Enhanced Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century” in which Astana and Washington committed to deepen their cooperation on political and security issues, trade and investment, and people-to-people exchanges. The statement acknowledges Kazakhstan’s global leadership in disarmament, nonproliferation and nuclear security, to be further advanced by its non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council in 2017-2018. According to the statement, Nazarbayev and Trump recognized that only an Afghan-led peace process would bring stability and security to Afghanistan and welcomed Kabul’s participation in regional infrastructure development projects under the C5+1 format. In relation to Syria, the two leaders expressed support for diplomatic initiatives that achieve genuine de-escalation of violence and provide a strong basis for a political settlement of the protracted civil war through the UN-led Geneva process. More importantly, Kazakhstan and the United States agreed to intensify bilateral defense and security ties based on the fourth five-year military cooperation plan signed between the Kazakh Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense and a number of related agreements to be concluded in the future. In addition, the presidents acknowledged the importance of activities to develop human capital, with the United States pledging assistance for improving English language proficiency in Kazakhstan (White House, 2018c). In this regard, it is worth mentioning that in 2015 Kazakhstan introduced a short-term visa-free regime for U.S. citizens, while since the end of 2016 the United States has been issuing 10-year entry visas to Kazakhstani citizens. During his visit, President Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan expects a reciprocity from the United States in the visa issue to facilitate mutual business and tourism links (White House, 2018b). In a separate meeting with President Nazarbayev, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence discussed, among other things, the need for Kazakhstan to strengthen its anti-corruption efforts and better protect civil liberties, including religious freedoms (White House, 2018d).
Strengthening bilateral economic cooperation has become a focal point of the enhanced strategic partnership agenda. As Washington promised to consider permanently exempting Kazakhstan from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Nazarbayev and Trump agreed to broaden win-win economic relationship in order to increase mutual investment and trade (equaling $1.9 billion in 2016), and create job opportunities in both countries. While the major U.S. companies, such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, General Electric (GE), and Halliburton, are among the leading investors in Kazakhstan, there is a scope for expanding investments given Astana’s ambitious plan to join the world’s top 30 states by developing a diversified and innovative economy. As the U.S. side pointed out, to improve the investment climate, Kazakhstan needs to implement its World Trade Organization obligations, respect contracts, protect intellectual property rights, and promote fair labor standards. Kazakhstan and the United States will also seek to interact more actively in such sectors as digital economy, healthcare, infrastructure, commercial aviation, finance and banking, agriculture, space exploration, environmental protection, and disaster response. The parties committed to continue energy cooperation, including on oil and gas, nuclear nonproliferation, and civilian nuclear development, under the U.S.-Kazakh Strategic Energy Dialogue, as well as further enhance multilateral collaboration under the Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. It is noteworthy that the presidents declared their intention to consult on sanctions-related issues to avoid any unintended consequences for Kazakhstan’s economy (White House, 2018c).
Following the negotiations at the White House, President Nazarbayev met with Ray Washburne, President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. government agency supporting American investments in emerging markets, and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and attended a roundtable with business executives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As a result, according to the officially released information, more than 20 commercial contracts and documents on investment, trade and economic cooperation worth about $7 billion were signed, including projects in the fields of aviation, space research, petrochemical industry, agriculture, and infrastructure development (Akorda, 2018). Specifically, SCAT Airlines ordered six Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, while Air Astana affirmed its commitment to purchase three Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which will strengthen Kazakhstan’s national civil aviation capacity. Besides, the United States and Kazakhstan showed interest in pursuing a bilateral civil aviation agreement, with a possible opening of direct flights between the two countries. GE Transportation was contracted to manufacture up to 300 shunter locomotives for Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZh) and provide maintenance services to KTZ’s 175 existing passenger locomotives. Further, GE Digital and Kazakhstan’s Samruk-Kazyna national wealth fund agreed to cooperate in accelerating a sustainable digital evolution of the fund’s portfolio of industrial companies (U.S. Department of State, 2018).
Overall, President Nazarbayev’s visit confirmed Kazakhstan’s active status as the most reliable U.S. partner in Central Asia, as well as a driving force of the U.S. strategy towards the region. This renewed recognition of Kazakhstan’s importance to Washington comes as a reward to Astana for its support in Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation and other issues of international and regional significance. While it appears that security and economic interests remain the cornerstone of the U.S. policy in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is interested in the continued U.S. commitment to the region as a stabilizing factor for maintaining the strategic balance with two other major powers, Russia and China, and for promoting regional integration in Central Asia. In its turn, the United States recognizes Kazakhstan as a potential engine of regional stability, economic development and political modernization.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Inst