Regional integration speeds up in Central Asia as outsiders depart

By George Voloshin Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-2 20:23:02

Next month the Russian city of Ufa, in the Republic of Bashkortostan, will host two major political events: the annual gathering of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.

Founded in 2001 on the basis of the Shanghai Five informal group of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the SCO (which also includes Uzbekistan) currently remains one of the few forums where both Russia and China can sit at the same table in a small setting. It is also the only organization that allows the two Eurasian powers and their Central Asian partners to elaborate common policies and approaches to the many challenges they face together.

Since 2001 when the US launched an international operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the geopolitical context in Central Asia has undergone considerable change. From a region of strategic significance, it has gradually morphed into a backwater, at least in the eyes of US policymakers.

The international coalition's withdrawal from Afghan battlefields and the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" have largely done the job of shunting Central Asia off the agenda of US diplomats and military planners. Unlike Washington though, neither Beijing nor Moscow can afford disengagement from the region, especially as its security and stability are continuously threatened by terrorism and religious extremism.

The rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria since mid-2014 is a potent reminder of how fragile the situation remains in the wider neighborhood. Thus, it is quite likely that a large chunk of upcoming SCO discussions in Ufa will focus on regional security. Yet, despite its limited share of global and Eurasian GDP, Central Asia represents an arena for economic cooperation in the first place.

In January, Russia launched the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) whose founding treaty was signed last May in Astana. The bloc also includes Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan and will soon see neighboring Kyrgyzstan join. It represents an upgraded version of a customs union in which the free movement of goods, services, workers and capital is expected to yield higher trade flows and more dynamic cross-border contacts.

Meanwhile, China has devised the Silk Road economic belt, which together with the 21st century maritime Silk Road constitutes Beijing's long-term vision for a prosperous and peaceful Eurasia. Contrary to the Russia-led EEU, Central Asia is not the focus but just one of the elements of China's Silk Road economic diplomacy. The Chinese model is, therefore, global in scale as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank fully demonstrates.

While some experts have predicted the inevitable clash of Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia, recent developments indicate that each side understands that cooperation is a far better option. This is especially so in light of the ongoing rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, which started two years ago. In June 2013 and May 2014, China National Petroleum Corporation successfully clinched two major oil and gas supply contracts with Rosneft and Gazprom.

Since Russia's spat with the West over Ukraine, Russian-Chinese ties have further intensified. Chinese President Xi Jinping was the key guest at the latest Victory Day parade in Moscow and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, even mentioned the need to build the EEU and the Silk Road economic belt into a single regional framework.

At a time when Central Asia's relationship with its powerful neighbors is entering a new developmental stage, its ties with the West remain ambiguous, to say the least. The US government earlier put forward its own vision of the new Silk Road. It was, however, heavily focused from the outset on the Afghanistan-India-Pakistan triangle, with little or no mention of post-Soviet Central Asia and the Russia-China partnership.

The EU's approach has been even more allusive. Following the expiration of its 2007-2013 regional strategy, the EU has not yet adopted a new framework program for the region. The unresolved Greek debt crisis and the political and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine have further pushed Central Asia deeper into the background.

All these changes mean that while globalization is still the overarching reality, Central Asia will experience increasing regionalization, with Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation, particularly on economic and security issues, at its very core.

The author is a Paris-based international affairs expert who writes for the Jamestown Foundation and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
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