BACKGROUND: Central Asia remains one of the few world regions without its own internally managed institutions for coordination and mutual cooperation. Never mind such impressive and admired models as ASEAN or the Nordic Council. Central Asia lags behind even the Caribbean islands and the Sahel-Saharan States in its institutionalization.
The Central Asian countries pay a big price for this, and so does the U.S. In the absence of internally controlled region-wide institutions, Central Asia is being organized by outside powers. The first of these was “Central Asia Plus Japan,” established in 2002 by Japan. This was followed by similar arrangements by Korea, the European Union and, in 2015, by the United States with its C5+1. Putin created his Eurasian Economic Union to institutionalize Moscow’s leverage over the Central Asian economies, and now China has launched its own ambitious joint body with the five formerly Soviet states of Central Asia. Turkey, too, joined this list, with its Organization of Turkic States.
Each of these entities may serves a useful function but none is controlled by the Central Asians themselves. This puts them as a region at a serious disadvantage in many areas, not least business and investments. The absence of region-wide border regimens, common visas, tax policies, communications, and news networks discourages both outside investors and domestic entrepreneurs.
Especially notable is the absence of regionally-based and managed security arrangements. This invites “divide and conquer” tactics from major powers, West as well as East. All of the external powers have played this card, adroitly and persistently. The U.S.’s method has been to reward those countries that State Department bureaucrats deem relatively democratic and to punish those that the same offices judge to be lagging.
IMPLICATIONS: So why haven’t the Central Asians themselves filled this glaring institutional vacuum? The fact is, they did, and proved to be too successful at it. Back in the 1990s they created the Central Asia Economic Union. Besides economic issues, this regionally structured body dealt with transport, communications and even security. So successful was it that Putin asked to join, first as an observer and then as a member. In the absence of any backing from the West, the Central Asians had no alternative but to accede to his request. Once Russia joined Putin closed the body down and created on its ruins his own Eurasian Economic Union, which he still fully controls. Stung by having been outplayed, the Central Asians decided not to court trouble by renewing demands for a locally controlled regional organization. Instead they’ve focused on developing bilateral ties with as many foreign powers as possible.
Washington has not addressed this issue. Its C5+1, which President Biden tried to revive by meeting with the regional presidents in September 2023, is a useful step but no substitute for the kind of regionally managed organization that every other world region enjoys.
Happily, there is a simple way to move this issue forward, and the U.S. is the key player. Back in 2006 the five Central Asian governments signed a treaty declaring their region a nuclear free zone. Even though both Russia and China approved the treaty, the U.S., France, and the UK refused to sign, In various muddled statements the U.S. and its partners worried that a nuclear free zone might conflict with other agreements dating to Soviet times, that it would prevent the transport of nuclear weapons across Central Asia and, curiously, that it might tempt Iran also to join the nuclear boycott. As a result, there is no internationally recognized structure in Central Asia for post-nuclear affairs or any other common regional interest.
If the U.S., the UK and France were now to sign the Nuclear Free Zone treaty, they would accomplish several important goals in a single stroke. First, they would place the West in the role of supporters of intra-Central Asian collaboration rather than as an impediment to it. Second, they would remove an issue that both Moscow and Beijing have effectively exploited to vilify U.S. intentions towards the region. Third, it would open a diplomatically solid path to further intra-regional institutionalization in Central Asia. Several years ago, at the Central Asians’ initiative, the UN General Assembly formally acknowledged Central Asia as a world region, comparable to Europe, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. This simple step by the U.S. would begin the process of translating that laudable affirmation into practice. By creating an internationally legitimized intra-regional structure in this one key area it will enable the regional countries to expand it through further region-controlled and region-wide institutions in such other areas as commerce, water management, hydroelectric power, the Aral Sea, transport, law, communications, and security.
CONCLUSIONS: Even if the U.S. takes this belated step, it will face further challenges. To cite but one example, the very definition of Central Asia has recently changed. As the east-west transport of goods and energy across the Caspian Sea gains in importance, Azerbaijan has come to be acknowledged as the sixth Central Asian state. American policy needs to embrace this reality, first by expanding the C5+1 to the C6+1 and then by building cross-Caspian coordination in all its institutions.
A further challenge is posed by Afghanistan. Like the U.S., no Central Asian state or Azerbaijan recognizes the Taliban government. However, they all consider Afghanistan an integral part of their region and an inevitable factor – whether negative or positive – in the region’s development going forward. If the Central Asians had their own regional organization comparable to ASEAN or The Nordic Council they would be far more effective in their joint dealings with Kabul, as well as with such other neighboring powers as China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Even now, though, the Central Asians as a group are taking cautious and tentative steps to test Taliban positions in a number of areas. This process is of inestimable value to the U.S., but for the time being Washington remains at best a distant observer on this issue, as on so many others.
Only if the U.S. puts its relations with the region on a more solid footing can this change. The essential first step in this process is for the U.S. to ratify the Central Asians’ treaty declaring their region a nuclear free zone. Clear indications from the regional governments indicate that this will empower the Central Asians to take further organizational steps on their own.