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Central Asia: All Together Now

Bilahari Kausikan, S. Frederick Starr and Yang Cheng

The American Interest, June 16, 2017

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After a quarter century of independence, the fragmentation of Central Asia is evident to all. A senior official there might justifiably complain about how each country “[is] pursuing its own limited objectives and dissipating its meager resources in the overlapping or even conflicting endeavors of sister states.” He might conclude that such a process,” carries the seeds of weakness in [the countries’] incapacity for growth and their self-perpetuating dependence on the advanced, industrial nations.” One can also imagine that another Central Asian official, seeking an alternative, might propose that “we must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests: That is a new way of thinking about our problems.”

These words were spoken not by a Central Asian but by ministers from the Philippines and Singapore at the opening ceremonies for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Prior to the founding of ASEAN, no one considered Southeast Asia a single region. Yet over forty years ASEAN has grown from five to ten members and become a model of intra-regional cooperation and coordination. And it has done so without diminishing the sovereignty of its members.

ASEAN was not the first such regional entity on the Eurasian land mass. Back in 1953 five northern European countries formed the Nordic Council, actually a council of councils, which organized inter-parliamentary consultations on energy, labor, finance, culture, business, and legislation, among other topics. While they share many cultural values, the Nordic countries differ on important issues like membership in NATO and the European Union. Nonetheless, the Nordic Union remains a model of collaboration built on strong sovereignties.

Against this background, the absence of such a purely regional entity in Central Asia is all the more striking. Indeed, the only two initiatives that come close are the 2011 declaration by five states there of a Nuclear Free Zone and the Aral Sea initiative. But both are limited to a single topic, and the Aral Sea project has lapsed.

This is not to say that the regional heads of states never get together. They do, but always under the sponsorship of an outside power. Russia has led the parade of outsiders seeking to impose their order on the region. Its Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Economic Union, and Collective Security Treaty Organization all have Moscow-based secretariats but provide venues for at least sidebar discussions of purely regional needs. In 2001 China moved to catch up by establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to deal with security and economic affairs. This can be very useful, but the sheer might of the large members tends to marginalize Central Asian concerns.

Beyond these conclaves, the Presidents and key Ministers of the five former Soviet countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) meet at least annually with their counterparts from Japan, the European Union, Korea, and, since 2016, the United States. They also convene at the annual United Nations meetings in New York and other venues. But there is no entity of any sort that exists solely to foster areas of intra-regional cooperation and to coordinate Central Asians’ responses to the main issues of the day.

Bilahari Kausikan is Ambassador at Large and Policy Advisor for Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. Yang Cheng is professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University.

Image attribution: accessed on June 17, 2017

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