Lord Cameron visits countries wooed by Russia and China

Credit: PA

In the run up to the EU referendum David Cameron was mocked over his decision to focus on how cooperation in Europe had guaranteed peace in the decades after the Second World War.

“Which comes first, World War Three or the global Brexit recession?” joked Faisal Islam, then-political editor at Sky News, and the audience burst out laughing.

It would have been hard to imagine then how insecure the world would feel, just eight years later - not, I should say, anything to do with Brexit.

As PM, Cameron took Vladimir Putin to the judo at the London Olympics and visited his summer house, he hoped for a "golden era" of relations with China, and was a supportive partner in Barack Obama's Iran deal.

Now Russia, China and Iran pose a challenge like rarely before and it is into that context that he has returned as Lord Cameron - now foreign secretary.

This week he is visiting countries that have long been wooed by both Russia and China to try to bolster economic relationships with the West amid fears of both Putin and President Xi’s widening influence.

Cameron will be the first foreign secretary to visit Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the first since 1997 to go to Uzbekistan.

He is also expected to travel to Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

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He will push business links with the UK, promote the English language, and also announce £50 million to support the sovereignty and independence of these states.

Reading between the lines, the aim is to try to limit what some fear are deepening ties, with both Russia and China, despite these countries making efforts to diversify their links.

One concern is that Russia is using central Asian countries to avoid economic sanctions from the West by having those nations receive goods before moving them across the border into Russia.

In 2022 Kazakhstan increased their exports to Russia by $2 billion (£1.6 billion) and the number of Russian companies there rose from 8,000 to 13,000.

It is estimated that a tenth of sanctioned goods received by Russia went through Kazakhstan.

Despite a neutral position on Ukraine, the energy interdependence between Kazakhstan and Russia, which share a 4,500-mile border, is growing, according to independent think tank Chatham House.

Russia already controls Kazakhstan’s main oil export route, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, controls 25% of its uranium production, and has announced a $6 billion (£4.8 billion) deal to build three coal plants.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is being used to transport goods including remote control equipment for drones, heavy machinery and aircraft parts, mostly from the UAE.

British exports to Kyrgyzstan have risen by 1,100% according to Sky News.

This week’s visit is a sign of growing concern about the way in which geopolitical forces are moving - and a power shift to the East.

It is also an ongoing illustration of Cameron’s hugely active role as foreign secretary.

One important ambassador to the UK told me it’s been noted that Rishi Sunak is travelling much less than his predecessors.

Some would argue that it is an advantage for the PM to appoint a predecessor to the role of foreign secretary.

Sunak is facing plenty of pressure back home, and Cameron's visible presence abroad secures gravitas on the world stage.

When Cameron arrives in a country it is not unusual for the leader to want to meet the former prime minister.

But it does risk presenting a confusing picture of who is in charge and offending some world leaders.

The ambassador I spoke to also said they felt it was not uncommon for former chancellors to be less interested in the world stage aspect of the top job.

Sunak is travelling to Poland this week to discuss Ukraine, an issue sure to be raised in all of Cameron’s meetings.

And he has been thrown into difficult military decisions on three fronts: Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea, defending Israel against Iran and, of course, Ukraine.

“We live in a contested, competitive world. If you want to protect and promote British interests you need to get out there and compete,” said Cameron.

“Central Asia is at the epicentre of some of the biggest challenges we face and it’s vital for the UK and the region that we drive forward its future prosperity.”

Sources say there will be difficult discussions on sanctions circumvention, human rights and reform.

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