Asia Needs a ‘Great Rise’ Instead of a ‘Great Game’
Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The 2nd day of the 10th Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club was dedicated to the challenges that the countries of Central Asia face and to resolving the issues affecting regional cooperation. The discussion was held on condition of anonymity, in accordance with Chatham House rules.

The topic of the first session was the place that Central Asia and Eurasia occupy in the modern world. Its participants agreed that these territories form a single region, so they cannot exist without one another. This fact determines the importance of cooperation between the countries of the region, which may face challenges together.

Discussing the situation in the region, experts often referred to the term “great game”, which appeared precisely in Central Asia in the 19th century. In the conventional sense, the “great game” refers to confrontations between major powers seeking to pursue their interests on the global stage, but now it is hard to understand what their interests are. Even the notion of a zero-sum game that is common to classical geopolitics, where one side wins and the other loses, does not work any more: now, as a rule, everyone loses. So far, there are only rare exceptions – for example, the recent situation in northern Syria. It began with a dangerous escalation, but in the end, all the players acquired something valuable for their vital interests, though not precisely what they wanted initially.

The general aggravation of competition increases the potential for conflict, which is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. According to one speaker, Central Asia provides opportunities for cooperation, and the initiative to establish peace in Afghanistan is an excellent example of all the interested parties sitting down at the negotiating table.

One has to remember that although every country in Central Asia has its own strategy, they all share goals as regional actors. First of all, we must take into account the systemic security challenges emerging from Afghanistan. The movement of ISIS militants from Syria and Iraq could lead to the deterioration of security, not only in a single country but throughout the region. For 40 years, the Afghan knot became so tight that despite the efforts of the UN, individual countries and organisations, it is extremely difficult to unravel. However, the Afghan conflict can be resolved only by diplomatic and political means.

Experts also discussed the organisation of regional communities in Asia. They agreed that a single leader, such as the United States in the transatlantic community, cannot appear there. In Eurasia, there are three large countries, India, China and Russia, and none of them cannot play the leading role. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which takes the decisions by consensus, can probably take the lead in Asia.

Instead of a “great game”, Asia needs a “great rise”, which can be resourced from within the region. An era is coming, the panellists noted, when it will be time to deal with one’s problems, as they arise from within, not from outside.

The second session addressed regional security issues. A speaker drew attention to the fact that the world remains global, but has lost its ideological integrity, which created a dilemma: in order to interact with the outside world, one must become a significant actor. That makes the position of small and medium enterprises complicated. After all, one can become such a player only at the expense of domestic and regional resources, but they are often scarce. The regionalisation process might be a proper solution. Countries that are not individually successful can unite in larger groups and become noticeable in the global market. Here, the question arises of how to combine regionalisation and globalisation, balancing between security and economic growth. In order to be economically competitive, one has to introduce new technologies and robots that lead to job cuts. According to an expert, increasing unemployment will inevitably lead to radicalisation and marginalisation within some public areas and create a social base for the development of Islamist ideas. What must Central Asia do in this case, the experts asked, abandon progress? If so, the region will face severe challenges related to demographics and water resource scarcity, relying on outdated technology.

A reasonable way out can be expanding and reinforcing the regional ties, so the economic development and security of one country will lead to prosperity and security in neighbouring countries.

According to the forecasts of one of the speakers, Central Asia could become a leading supplier of labour and will help to alleviate Russia’s personnel shortage. To achieve this, the residents of the region need to develop a knowledge-based economy and skills related to socio-cultural adaptation.

The third session was dedicated to co-development of the countries of the region, so the experts identified its critical internal and external factors. Among them are the features of national elites, low-quality government, corruption, the social structure and foundations, as well as the policies of external players such as the US, EU, China, and Russia.

The participants of the session paid attention to the fact that Russia had addressed the countries of the region with a positive agenda that combines many interests in Central Asia and harmonises its relations with the outside world. To support this point, an expert referred to the changes in Japanese policy. Previously, Tokyo was wary of cooperation in Central Asia, but now it is reflecting on joining forces with China to work there.

The most heated debate was on the issue of Uzbekistan joining the EAEU.

At the fourth session, the experts focused on approaches to a shared future. They admitted that despite its geostrategic position between East and West, Central Asia was outside the key global processes, transport corridors, and trade hubs. A meridional corridor from India to the Central Asian republics could be a way out of the situation. However, its opening requires a stable situation in Afghanistan, which has yet to be achieved. According to the speakers, this route can complement the latitudinal transport corridor of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which is already in use

Besides, if Uzbekistan joins the EAEU, the customs border of the union will move from the Kazakh-Uzbek to the Uzbek-Afghan border, which will not only open new markets for the republic but also provide resources for broadening its transit potential.