The International Conference on Cooperation between Central Asia and South Asia in Tashkent highlighted regional geopolitical dynamics, international actors’ interests in Central and South Asia and possible future cooperation and alliances to face emerging socioeconomic issues.
International understanding and diplomatic negotiation processes require personal, confidential and direct exchange like hardly any other profession. The hardships of the pandemic forced most of these processes and tried-and-tested platforms to a standstill last year, and the gain in breadth through virtual formats could not outweigh the loss in depth of content, mostly in terms of results.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed an initiative to strengthen regional connectivity as part of his country’s new open foreign policy strategy, which against this backdrop received not only regional but the greatest international attention. The original idea aimed at further deepening economic and cultural cooperation between Central Asia and South Asia, two regions that are closely linked historically as well as in economic, social, cultural and civilisational terms.
The international conference entitled “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities”, held in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 15th-16th July 2021, laid the foundation for establishing a political and technical platform for multilateral discussion of the mutually beneficial strategic model of interregional cooperation in the fields of transport and logistics, energy, trade, industry, investment, technology, culture and humanitarian affairs. The opening ceremony was attended by the host and initiator Mirziyoyev, as well as the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. In addition, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Republic of India, the Republic of Turkey, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the State of Kuwait and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were each represented at foreign minister level.
Also, other European states such as Italy, Latvia and Belarus sent government representatives to the high-ranking forum, which was attended by a total of over 250 participants from more than 40 countries and international organisations. While the EU was present with the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, the absence of a State Secretary, Central Asia Coordinator or Minister from the German side did not go unnoticed by many conference participants. If Germany does not want to leave its strategic role, which is still potentially has in the region, to other shaping powers in the future, it will be unavoidable to make its presence felt more strongly here.
The establishment of the International Institute for Central Asia – a new milestone in the development of regional cooperation
The opening ceremony of the International Institute for Central Asia (IICA) took place on the afternoon of 15th July before the main session of the conference at the invitation of the government of Uzbekistan. Chair of the Uzbek Senate Tansila Narbayeva opened the solemn ceremony with the reading of President Mirziyoyev’s message of greeting. The head of state noted that the establishment of the Institute is demanded by life itself, by the realities of regional development and the historical moment. This is another confirmation of Uzbekistan’s firm intention to continue the course of deepening regional cooperation in foreign policy. This was followed by the speech of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. In it, he emphasised that the establishment of the International Institute of Central Asia reflects an important trend in international relations, the growing interconnectedness of regional political and economic processes. This trend is particularly evident in Central Asia. Historically, this region was a crucial link in the Great Silk Road and a common cultural and civilisational space of formative importance for global economic, knowledge and cultural transfer. The focus of the academic and practical activities of this research centre will be the study of regional processes and international relations in relation to Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s main foreign policy priority. The Institute’s declared goal is also to promote and strengthen close international cooperation, especially between Central Asian research centres.
In addition to numerous international experts, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance of the Kyrgyz Republic, Akylbek Japarov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Tajikistan, Sirojiddin Mukhriddin and the Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, Rashid Meredov, were present. Guests of honour included the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Sergey Lebedev, the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Vladimir Norov, the Secretary-General of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, Baghdad Amreyrv and the Executive Director of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Kairat Sarybay. The high-ranking guests toured the new building of the Institute, familiarised themselves with the working conditions created for the staff and expressed their confidence that the IICAS will serve as a platform for the technical discussion of regional cooperation perspectives, the elaboration of concrete and scientifically sound proposals on multilateral projects.
Hosting the world in Tashkent – Fundamental impact on revitalising international cooperation and strengthening multilateralism
The plenary session on 16th July was dedicated to the status and perspectives of interregional cooperation in Central and South Asia, successful examples of the same, as well as promising interconnected infrastructure projects. In the context of the conference, numerous bilateral talks also took place between the delegations. Of particular note was the exchange between the President of Afghanistan and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who, thanks to the mediation of the Uzbek side, were able to discuss current and fundamental issues of the regional security architecture.
The first working group, entitled “Trade and Transport: Connectivity for Sustainable Growth”, was dedicated to the prospects for modernising the economies of Central and South Asia in the context of strengthening interregional connectivity. In addition, new opportunities for the development of transport and communication connectivity in Central and South Asia, including projects to expand existing transport corridors and build new ones, were discussed. An important part of the debates included cooperation with foreign and international financial and investment institutions to realise such projects.
In the second working group session, “Reviving cultural and humanitarian relations as a way to strengthen friendship and mutual trust”, a no less broad range of topics was discussed. For example, it was about cooperation in researching, preserving and promoting the historical and cultural heritage of Central and South Asia. Likewise, joint projects in the fields of education, social support and protection of the interests of youth, health care, science and technology, ecology and tourism were discussed.
The third working group, “Regional Security: Challenges and Threats” dealt with the perspectives of regional coordination in combating new threats and challenges as well as ensuring the security of cross-border infrastructures. The new responsibility of the regional actors for the stabilisation of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the troops of the Western alliance took a central role here. It became clear that it will not be politically feasible in the foreseeable future to implement a foreign system in Afghan society. Instead, coordinated steps must now be taken to bring about peace within society, negotiations between the various factions and, in particular, to secure the basic humanitarian and social situation of the population in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s ambitious policy, which, in addition to domestic reforms, is also oriented towards a new foreign policy with regional aspirations, promises to continue to provide constructive impulses in the near future and thus to make an important contribution to global security.
In the closing plenary of the conference, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov summed up the central results of the meeting. In addition to the numerous concrete agreements, meetings and informal exchanges on the sidelines of the official events, this conference can rightly be called a milestone in the revival of international relations after the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. This high-level, world-class conference and the creation of the International Institute of Central Asia illustrate Uzbekistan’s willingness to promote close regional and inter-regional relations in all respects, to strengthen multilateral dialogue and to address the key issues of the day in a constructive and forward-looking manner. It will remain a key achievement of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in 2021 to have brought together the policymakers not only of Central and South Asia but also of wider global and regional powers, to the table to re-address the many other pressing policy issues beyond pandemic control.
The fact that this conference was not held in Washington or Brussels, but in the heart of Central Asia, also opens up a clear view of the reality of the polycentric world order and the preferences of the actors shaping it. China, Russia, India, the states of Central Asia and the Arab world together represent a solid majority of the world’s population in both demographic and economic terms. Germany and Europe are recommended to play a stronger role in such initiatives at the level of political decision-makers if they do not want to lose their cultural and economic capital in the region and continue to play a role in the new global policy-making centres of the multipolar world.
Author: Urs Unkauf