What role can Britain play in Central Asia?

On a sunny, warm afternoon in May 2023 I was invited to a garden party organised by the British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan to celebrate the coronation of King Charles III. Thanks to a seemingly bottomless supply of Pimm’s and a veritable smorgasbord of Eton mess, Yorkshire puddings and roast beef sandwiches, the guests, consisting mostly of British expats and Kyrgyz government officials, were kept undeniably well-fed and lubricated throughout the afternoon. During the many hours of mingling and feigning interest in the staggered arrival of minor royals to Westminster Abbey, I reflected not only on how badly suited my linen jacket was for schmoozing in high temperatures, but also upon the surreal nature of the whole affair: here we stood, behind the high walls and armed guards protecting the British Ambassador’s residence, celebrating one of the most quintessentially British traditions in a country whose location and unique geopolitical dynamics often seem to highlight its physical and metaphorical distance from the United Kingdom.  

Indeed, whilst living in and travelling around Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, I witnessed a certain microcosm of the power dynamics in Kyrgyzstan and the wider Central Asian region. To hijack a well-known proverb, don’t judge a book by its cover, but do judge a country’s influence by the size of its embassy. Whilst the barbed wire fences and towering blocks of the centrally located Russian and Turkish Embassies appear unmissable to even the most distracted of passers-by, and the sprawling campus-style complexes belonging to the United States and China loom large to those driving along the city’s southern bypass, the United Kingdom’s Embassy covers a single floor of an unassuming city-centre office block, shared also with the German and Swiss Embassies. Whilst our diplomats can most certainly stake a claim to the largest stock of Pimm’s in the country, their physical presence betrays a significant lack of resources in comparison with global superpowers. And this is not mere conjecture: former British Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Charles Garrett recently reported to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the British diplomatic operation in Kyrgyzstan was run on a shoestring.  

Whilst this relative lack of resources, as seen through the modest scale of our diplomatic operation, is hardly a new development, it can be viewed as part of a wider degradation of the United Kingdom’s reputation as a global superpower in the face of a rapidly growing Chinese economy and the United States’ continued status as a leader among Western democracies. Brexit, the detrimental economic effects of which have naturally been most acute in our trade with European markets, has left us with a damaged economy, hobbled by a significantly devalued currency, which was slowest to recover out of all those in the G7 following the pandemic.  

Such is the context in which a renewed interest in Central Asia from the British government has appeared. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, fresh from a visit to various Central Asian capitals, recently produced a report with 28 recommendations for the government in order to be, in the words of the report, ‘a reliable long-term partner and critical friend of Central Asian countries’. The motivations behind this interest could perhaps be viewed as reactionary, part of a thinly veiled scramble for new trading partners and opportunities within the widely derided “Global Britain” strategy to save face following the previously mentioned worsening of our reputation. Whilst this may seem too sceptical for some, it would sadly not be the first time that the United Kingdom approached Central Asia as a means through which to further its own interests. In the 1840s, Britain was locked in a geopolitical competition with the Russian Empire for control of the region, which would later become known as the Great Game.   

Taking into account this history of colonialist intervention and the potentially questionable motivations behind today’s foreign policy towards Central Asia, it is clear that engagement in this region, which is becoming increasingly contentious as powers such as Russia, China and Turkey compete for influence, must be approached with nuance and a deep understanding of our own capabilities. When asked how to reestablish British international clout, British foreign policy experts and idols of centrist Dads everywhere, Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart spoke on their podcast ‘The Rest is Politics’ of the need to use our strengths to promote Britain as a cultural superpower. Although an ambiguous term, they expanded on this, highlighting the great influence of a properly funded BBC World Service in line with the development of other English language initiatives. Such sentiments were also expressed by the Foreign Affairs Committee who observed the growing spread of the English language in Central Asia, particularly among young people and those employed in business. Whilst such observations should be tempered firstly by the assumption that these parliamentarians, who presumably do not speak any of the region’s native languages, would have been entertained mostly by English speakers when visiting Central Asia, and secondly by anecdotal observations from those of us who have spent time in the region that English remains rarely spoken by the vast majority, the recognition of our cultural influence is a prudent one. Enhanced British support of English-language media and independent local media will provide an important counterbalance to the often censored and biased information available in Central Asian countries. This potential is matched, if not surpassed, by the opportunity for young people from these countries to study at British universities through the Chevening Scheme, which has proved enormously successful in the past. According to Charles Garrett, the scheme should be expanded, as ‘doubling the number of places available would significantly extend our ability to shape the future of these countries.’ In harnessing the internationally renowned quality of our media and educational establishments, we can play a crucial role in shaping a more democratically minded younger generation in Central Asia.  

The promotion of democratic values is something that the United Kingdom should take extremely seriously in Central Asia as the region slides towards increasing authoritarianism, and deep-rooted corruption stubbornly inflicts damage on the social and economic development of these countries. Whilst we may question the motivations of our foreign policy towards Central Asia in the context of our own international decline in status, one must commend those who recognise not only our relative weakness in terms of resources, but also our great strength drawn from the soft power of our linguistic, media and educational heritage. In simpler terms, if the seriousness of our approach to the furthering of democratic values in Central Asia were to rival that of our approach to the British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s stockpile of gin-based liqueur and fresh fruits, then we might start to see things change for the better in this region.