US President Donald Trump and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump and then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

US President Donald Trump this week deftly used American business to woo Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to act as the “honest broker” in the new Great Game between the United States and rivals Russia and China.

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The Trump White House had the official state visit of Nazarbayev held under the auspices of US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) president and chief executive Ray Washburne rather than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Nazarbayev’s visit was rewarded with US$7 billion in commercial and bilateral deals at a reception and signing ceremony hosted US Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas Donohue with blue-chip companies such as IBM, General Electric, Pfizer, John Deere, W R Grace & Co, and Chevron Corporation.

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Nazarbayev prides himself on allowing his Central Asian nation to remain a “good neighbor” between an increasingly belligerent Russia under President Vladimir Putin and expansionist China under President Xi Jinping while at the same time remaining an ally and close friend of the United States.

Xi is aggressively expanding in Russia’s area of influence in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia through China’s “One Belt, One Road,” spending countless billions of dollars on state-financed infrastructure projects to re-create the ancient “Silk Road” trade route.

Russia, under international sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, has been primarily focused on containing domestic economic fallout and seemingly distracted from countering Chinese political-economic expansion into Central Asia.

While speaking at a conference on Chinese infrastructure investment hosted by influential Washington think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Bechtel chairman and CEO Brendan Bechtel noted that America’s largest construction group had been pushed out of the global top 10 such groups by Chinese state-owned companies.

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Lawrence Summers, economic adviser under former US president Barack Obama and former treasury secretary, said one needed to be concerned about how China expects ever to recoup its massive investment in the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

However, Trump and his pro-business administration have decided to focus their efforts on combating these disturbing geopolitical trends on the US export the whole world welcomes: private-sector investment from US companies.

Kazakhstan, a huge country with a highly educated multi-ethnic population of 18 million, is uniquely attractive to US and other foreign investment.

The country is especially interested in investments in strategic sectors such as agriculture, information and communications technology, and manufacturing as it attempts to diversify its economy from oil and gas.

Yerzhan Tutkushev, the co-managing director of new industries for Kazakhstan’s $70 billion sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, said the country already had a pipeline of initial public offerings for state-controlled companies such as its telecommunications firm. Tutkushev also said Samruk-Kazyna welcomed investment from US small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in all its sectors.

One US SME already seizing the day it Minneapolis, Minnesota-based DTN/Progressive Farmer, which specializes in providing farmers real-time weather and crop data via mini-satellite weather stations. DTN customers include food giants such as Minneapolis-based Cargill and Maryland-based Perdue Farms.

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DTN CEO Emeritus Ron Sznaider, who attended the US Chamber of Commerce CEO roundtable with Nazarbayev, said DTN’s Climate Smart satellites could increase farm yield by around 20%.

For Kazakhstan – the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union – DTN technology and innovation is just the type of US investment sought by Central Asia’s “good neighbor.”

Copyright Capitol Intelligence Group

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.

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