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b5+1 forum held in almaty, cpc board member reports back on the milestone event

B5+1 Forum Held in Almaty, CPC Board Member Reports Back on the Milestone Event

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Mar 27, 2024

Image source: CIPE

From March 13 to 15, officials representing 10 countries and over 400 private businesses gathered in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for the Business 5+1 (B5+1) Forum. The forum, sponsored by the United States, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, is the business-oriented spin-off of the C5+1 diplomatic forum that seeks to increase connectivity between Central Asia and the United States. Coming a few months after the high-profile meeting between the Central Asian heads of state and U.S. President Joe Biden, and after a year that generally saw increased economic and diplomatic activity between the five C5 countries and outside powers, the B5+1 forum appears to be continuing a push towards outreach and connectivity. 

At the culmination of the event, which saw networking, speaker panels, and side events on a variety of topics, the B5+1 issued a final communique. In this communique, the forum organizers noted areas of interest for Central Asia and made policy recommendations that would streamline intra-regional commerce and grow Central Asia’s economies. The areas of interest identified included Transport and Logistics, Agribusiness, E-Commerce, Tourism, and Green and Renewable Energy Transition. Lastly, the communique recommended building on current momentum by holding the B5+1 forum on a yearly basis and creating two subgroups on Central Asia – one on US connectivity and another on women's issues.

The Caspian Policy Center’s Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland, Security and Politics program chair at the CPC, attended the forum where he spoke as part of a panel discussion on economic integration. 

Starting with a question relating to some recent major headlines, certainly one of the largest pieces of news surrounding Central Asia in recent months was the January announcement of a European Union investment package of €10 billion going towards Middle Corridor development. Do you feel that announcement made an impact on the forum? Was it discussed?

Well, that’s a good question. I think it made an impact of course. 10 billion dollars is 10 billion dollars. But to my surprise, it wasn’t a major topic of discussion. The businesspeople and the government people referred to it occasionally, but it didn’t dominate any of the conversations at all, whether it was about investment or doing business or the problems of doing business. I’m not sure if it was simply because the focus was on inter-regional connectivity in a way or what it was, but it did not make major, major headlines in the discussions themselves. It was quite interesting for a reason.

Maybe the fact of there being a long-running drive [towards development or investment] makes announcements like this, while very important, not always central?

Well, I think that’s possibly true. I think something else is that – there are two things first. It’s unclear exactly how this money will be used yet, and secondly, and probably more importantly, it’s not really 100% all-new money. It’s redistributed funds that are already on the ground. So, it makes a very nice headline package, but when it comes right down to it, it’s not exactly 10 billion new dollars or new euros or whatever. It’s money. Some of the money is already on the ground. Some of it is being used. Some of it is coming from regional banks. Some of it is coming from investment banks. So, it still remains to be put together 100%.

What did forum participants view as the major obstacles to improving regional connectivity and how did forum attendees imagine working through them?

Another good question. I think from my observation sitting in the two days of panel discussion and hearing the various speakers giving keynote addresses, the big topic, whether it was, it was not on the agenda, but the big topic that arose was that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to bring the five countries together and their businesses. Because some of the businesspeople from ‘country A’ talking to businesspeople from ‘country B’ in the region - not naming the whole countries - were surprised that they had the same issues that they were dealing with. And it indicated they hadn’t been talking very much among themselves before across the borders. So, I think breaking across the borders and developing something regional is what’s going to be much, much more important in the long term.

B5+1, based on C5+1, is a U.S.-backed format. How do you think it compares in attention or in potential to Chinese-backed programs in Central Asia – BRI, SCO, etc.? Given China’s size and proximity, are Central Asians looking to the US for different things than China? 

I would say the C5+1 with the United States and the subsequent B5+1 is almost 100% different from what China does. Because what China does as an immediate neighbor to the region is trying to build for the future so that that part of the world will be very much in China’s political circle, let’s put it that way. I don't think that, again, I was surprised during the whole two-day session that China was not a dominant part of the discussion. Likewise, Russia was not a dominant part of the discussion. But under the surface, both of those countries are major, major players, and they influence very strongly the policies of the countries of the region. 

What was happening in this particular session was that I think everyone was being a little bit careful about what they said in public because that’s normal in that part of the world. That’s the way that the governments work. That’s the way the private sector works. You have to be a little bit careful because you need to look over your shoulder to see who’s listening. In this case, they were focusing on what this forum was about, and that was business and how to get business done and what needs to be done to make it easier to do business in the region, through the region, and outside the region. Now, did China play a role in any of this? As I said, behind the scenes, certainly. They are playing a role in building the Belt and Road Initiative, for example. Although, that has caused problems in a few countries like the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, because of the huge debts that those countries then have built up with China. So, it’s all very complicated. But in the end, what really matters is how the people get along. And what this particular B5+1 forum did was bring people together so they could, in private, essentially, share their points of view and find ways to work together better.

What are your hopes for the future after returning from this forum? The final communique recommends making the B5+1 an annual event. How much potential do you think this format has?

Well, you know what? I think it’d be fine to have an annual event like this because what it does is bring people together into a forum where they don’t have the chance to speak otherwise. So, they speak with each other. Ultimately, what’s going to be much more important, if this forum really continues, is that they find ways to influence their governments to make the region much more business-friendly as a region. To make the region much more politically friendly as a region. And what that will ultimately require is that the five countries of the region, the five Central Asian republics, form some sort of association. Now, other countries have done that throughout history, recent history. We can think of the Nordic Council, which involves part of the former Soviet Union. We can think of ASEAN, Southeast Asian nations. They were all very different countries, but they came together first under an economic umbrella to work together. And I would certainly hope that is where the five Central Asian nations are moving right now, that they will find that umbrella and open it to give them a business circle among themselves that will then lead to greater connectivity, greater trade within the region, and greater trade outside of the region. That would be the ultimate goal.


Ambassador Hoagland, thank you for you time today.

You’re most welcome. Thank you for your good questions.

 

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