WASHINGTON — Dreams of linking land-locked Central Asia more closely to South Asia and the international trading system are coming to mind after a two-day conference in Tashkent last week hosted by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
About 50 countries and more than 30 international organizations participated, including China, Russia, the United States and the European Union. This gathering was perhaps the largest to promote economic integration. Still, experts caution that high-level engagements must be turned into tangible investments to deliver economic benefits.
Mirziyoyev said that strengthening ties with neighbors is a top priority for Uzbekistan, “a reliable, stable and predictable partner, willing and committed to constructive cooperation based on mutual interests.”
Invoking common history and values, Mirziyoyev urged closer participation. “Without tight ties and economic connectivity, we cannot turn this part of the world and the Eurasian continent into a stable and prosperous place.”
Edward Lemon of Texas A&M University says Mirziyoyev’s “activist foreign policy” could help expand trade by reopening borders and addressing “the challenging situation in Afghanistan, particularly regional problems”.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations would support these efforts, as connectivity is essential to trade, growth and sustainable development.
“But connectivity is not just about economics. It enhances regional cooperation and encourages friendly relations between neighbors,” Guterres told the conference during a video appearance.
“This places an even greater premium on the importance of proactive and collective engagement in support of Afghanistan’s peace and security.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is in an increasingly precarious position in the face of the Taliban’s march towards Kabul. But he went to Tashkent to emphasize that “the political solution to the conflict has been our national priority. A sovereign, united, democratic, peaceful and united Afghanistan has been supported internationally and regionally.”
Ghani called for immediate steps to build regional consensus. “Please approach Afghanistan from the perspective of our potential as an Asian roundabout, where for centuries we have served as a center for the flow of civilizations, cultures, goods, ideas and peoples.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan signed a $500 million agreement covering trade, transit, visa, security and cultural cooperation with Uzbekistan. “With large populations and rich natural resources, Central and South Asia can create a huge market for products and services,” he said.
Layman pointed to the potential benefits of new transport corridors, which facilitate energy exports, as well as provide Central Asia with ports of more than 1.5 billion people and access to the South Asian consumer market.
“Trade with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is still very low compared to trade with China, Russia and Central Asia with the European Union,” he said.
Tashkent and Islamabad have high hopes for a proposed rail line running from Termez in southern Uzbekistan via Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in Pakistan and its Arabian Sea port cities of Karachi, Gwadar and Bin Qasim.
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell also spoke, emphasizing the strategic position of Central Asia between Europe and South Asia.
“Connectivity, stability and security are prerequisites for each other. The EU strongly supports the new spirit of cooperation in Central Asia, which contributes to the shaping of its own connectivity agenda,” Borrell tweeted from Tashkent.
The Washington-led C5+1 Forum with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also reaffirmed its commitment to strengthen trade, transport and energy links in Tashkent on 15 July. The group also stressed the need for security and stability through Afghan peace talks.
Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment oversaw US policy toward Central Asia during the George W. Bush administration, a period when Washington actively promoted connectivity between the two regions. He praised Tashkent’s efforts but noted that earlier initiatives in the past 30 years often fall short. One reason, he said, was the Uzbek opposition, so Tashkent’s change of heart is a meaningful change.
But Feigenbaum sees other obstacles: Private capital flows fell sharply between 2015 and 2018, and few of those flows ever reached Central Asia. Foreign direct investment in developing countries has also declined in recent years.
Washington primarily seeks to raise private capital, but much of this cross-border finance is flowing to other sectors. This is one reason, he said, that China, which has invested billions in the region, mostly on a bilateral basis, is a big player.
Conference participant Frederick Starr, president of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, argued in a July 12 Wall Street Journal op-ed that “preventing any country from dominating the heart of Eurasia should be the goal of the American grand strategy.” “
He and Hudson Institute co-author Mike Doran write that China, Russia and Iran are taking advantage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to convince Central Asian leaders that the US and the West are a spent force.
“Central Asia is … a geo-strategic entity whose orientation will have a profound impact on the global balance of power. Washington’s goal should be to enable all states in the region, including Afghanistan, to maintain balanced relations between the major powers.”
In a July 9 excerpt in The National Interest, Starr and Uzbek co-author Eldor Aripov, head of the leading state think tank, called for a C6+1 to engage Afghanistan.
Jennifer Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh said that “the expected momentum for regional integration now comes primarily from regional countries, not external powers.”
For Murtazashvili, a true “new Silk Road” should be inspired not from within the region, but from within. Yet it is external forces that have the capital to invest.
For this reason, she said, “a credible commitment by Tashkent to deepen reforms is critical.”
A commitment from Kabul is also necessary, Layman said, because “with connectivity being seen as a means to stabilize Afghanistan, roads, rail and pipelines would not be built without stability as well.” Afghanistan is facing a chicken and egg problem: no sustainability, no investment; But investing can help bring stability.