China’s push toward unity in Central Asia is paying dividends for region

By Casey Michel Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-12 20:38:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In late July in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, something unexpected came to pass. Under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, the Uzbek foreign minister held talks with his Tajik counterpart.

On its face, there shouldn't have been anything surprising about the meeting, which after all was intended for just such conversations. While no resolutions came from the conversation, the discussion was nonetheless a welcome development.

This year has not been kind to accord in the Fergana Valley. Along with Kyrgyz threats to shut off water access to Uzbek crops, Uzbekistan's decision to withhold gas from southern Kyrgyzstan, and continued violence and growing casualties along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, 2014 has seen a decided uptick in acrimony in the region.

Toss in sudden concerns about Russian intentions, the realities of dwindling NATO presence in Afghanistan, and the inter-state tensions in Central Asia have only swelled.

As such, the fact that Uzbekistan was willing to at least discuss matters with Tajikistan was a positive sign. Moreover, it points to a larger trend: China's ability to not only help craft regional organs for successful dialogue, but also give Central Asian nations a reason to cooperate.

Instead of pitting Central Asian states against each other, Beijing has used its deep pockets and developmental expertise to attempt to tie Central Asia together. China chooses to push cooperation, not confrontation, in the region.

The finest example of such method of regional collaboration can be seen in China's rising Central Asian gas network. The multiple pipelines, planned to stitch all five former Soviet states in the region, will not only provide China with the plurality of coming gas needs in the future, but will also force the Central Asian states to work in conjunction to a far greater extent than any other extant project.

While the pipeline network, still under expansion, presents the most obvious Chinese attempt at threading the region, other infrastructural projects are also contributing. For instance, the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway seemed to be on its last legs, until relations between Ashgabat and Dushanbe warmed considerably on the backs of Chinese investments.

Then there are the regional organizations, which not only bring further Chinese investments apace, but also, as we saw recently, foster much needed dialogue among the regional rancor. Between the SCO and the suddenly important Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia gatherings, it is the regional structures incorporating China that have suddenly turned the most influential, and most significant, in Eurasia.

Of course, the recent Uzbek-Tajik interaction was but a single move. And unfortunately, it was followed a few days later by another flare-up, when Tashkent released its scathing response to the World Bank's recent report on Tajikistan's construction of the Rogun Dam. After the World Bank offered a positive assessment on the dam's construction, Tashkent belittled the "totally unacceptable" report, dismissing its contents out of hand.

But because of the SCO, Uzbek President Islam Karimov will be visiting Tajikistan next month for the first time since 2008. The dialogue will, theoretically, continue.

China prefers to foster the discussions necessary to regional development. While it's too early to deem the positioning an outright success, China's continued push for regional cooperation may yet provide the strongest means for decreasing the tensions before they swell any further.

The author is a Bishkek-based journalist and a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel

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