Blinken wraps up Central Asia tour before G20 talks in India

Feb 28, 2023, 8:30 AM | Updated: Mar 1, 2023, 12:06 pm

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, foreground, and Uzbekistan Acting Foreign Minister Bakhtiyo...

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, foreground, and Uzbekistan Acting Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov walk for the talks after posing for a photo during their meeting at the National Library in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up a brief tour of Central Asia in Uzbekistan on Wednesday before heading to India for what is expected to be a contentious Ukraine-dominated meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20.

Blinken met in Tashkent with senior Uzbek officials a day after warning his counterparts from all five Central Asian nations about the dangers posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Blinken told reporters after his talks in Tashkent that the invasion had “fostered deep concern across the region.”

“After all, if a powerful country is willing to try to erase the borders of the sovereign neighbor by force what’s to stop it from doing the same to others,” he said.

“Countries across Central Asia understand this. So does the United States and so do partners and allies around the world. And that’s exactly why we’ve been committed and remain committed to standing for the sovereignty and territorial integrity, the independence not only of Ukraine, but for countries across Central Asia and indeed around the world.”

Speaking at a meeting with Uzbekistan’s acting foreign minister, Blinken said he believed the United States and Central Asia shared those concerns even though the former Soviet states have toed a delicate line when it comes to condemning Russia for the war.

“I think there was a tremendous sense of both common challenge and common purpose among the C5+1 countries,” Blinken said in reference to his meeting Tuesday in the Kazakh capital of Astana with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Blinken repeatedly referred to U.S. support for the five countries’ “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” in a not-so-subtle warning to the former Soviet republics that Russia’s value as a partner has been badly compromised by its year-old war against Ukraine, another ex-Soviet state.

Acting Uzbek Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov thanked Blinken for U.S. support for his country and its neighbors. “I want to underline that we share common priorities for a prosperous, stable and peaceful Central Asia,” he said.

None of the five Central Asian nations, traditionally viewed as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, have publicly backed the Russian invasion. Yet none of them have condemned it and all of them passed on a chance to do so again last week when they abstained in a vote at the U.N. General Assembly on the first anniversary of the war.

Blinken later saw Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to applaud an ambitious packaged of domestic reforms before leaving for New Delhi, where he will attend a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers from the Group of 20 largest industrialized and developing countries, including China and Russia.

The G-20 talks come as tensions have soared between the U.S. and Russia and between the U.S. and China over Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. All three countries are competing fiercely to outdo each other in influence, particularly at venues like the G-20.

The U.S. and its Western allies in the G-20 will be pushing for the group to adopt a firmer position on the war, while Russia and China will likely be pressing for broad endorsement of a Chinese peace proposal for Ukraine that Beijing unveiled last week. That plan has been largely dismissed by the West.

Blinken said Wednesday that there were elements of the Chinese plan that made sense but that its stress on the principle of sovereignty rang hollow while it is supporting Russia economically and diplomatically and now considering, according to Western officials, supplying Russia with weapons.

He reiterated that the Biden administration would impose sanctions on Chinese companies that support Russia’s war effort and accused Beijing of acting in bad faith.

“If China was genuinely serious about this … it would have been spending all of the last year working in support of the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty,” Blinken said. “And of course, it’s been doing the opposite.”

“China can’t have it both ways,” he said. “It can’t be putting itself out as a force for peace in public, while in one way or another, continues to fuel the flames of this fire that Vladimir Putin started.”

U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about the prospects for Blinken sitting down with new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang or Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New Delhi. Blinken said he had no plans to meet with either, but added that he expected to be in multiple group sessions with both.

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