In this handout photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a high-level international conference 'Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities,' in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP

At the high-level regional conference last month in Uzbekistan (“Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity: Challenges and Opportunities”), which I attended, it was clear that diplomats across Asia prefer a multipolar approach to development and conflict resolution. That is good news for inter-regional connectivity, economic development and, ultimately, security.

I am hopeful that this fresh approach to engagement – a principled realpolitik – will replace the one that has prevailed until now, namely the effort to establish geopolitical predominance in a futile game of one-upmanship within a seemingly endless scramble for limited natural resources. 

Despite the best efforts of naysayers and disgruntled supporters of unipolarity, smart diplomatic engagement should strive to embrace an impartial, rules-based international order respectful of various models of development and where minority shareholder rights in foreign relations are legally enshrined and guaranteed.

Within this framework, socio-economic development has a better chance to succeed. That is the main takeaway from the Tashkent Conference held on July 16. 

Asian and Middle Eastern countries in the main have come to recognize that an inter-connected Eurasian geo-economic landmass crisscrossed by rail, roads and air routes is taking shape and is good for long-term stability despite different geopolitical interests, some of which verge on the intractable.  

Conference participants were unanimous in the view that for North-South inter-connectivity to become a reality, the Afghan war must be solved peacefully. It was noted that belligerent fire-first policies of recent years have failed to bring peace while trillions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of lives ruined or lost for no discernible good purpose.  

Afghanistan is fraught with complexity. But the larger process of Eurasian integration seems unstoppable. The states involved recognize that balanced, mutual dependence is more in their interest than yielding to the power of self-righteous globalists keen to throw monkey wrenches into promising diplomatic efforts to improve regional cooperation.  

Importance of dialogue recognized

It was encouraging, therefore, to hear US President Joe Biden’s homeland security adviser and deputy national security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, address the conference on the importance of dialogue and connectivity.  

Her statement was laudably emphatic: “Although some have lost faith in the power of international cooperation to solve the world’s most pressing problems, we have no choice but to work together…. Our vision includes the realization of Central Asia’s potential as a transit, trade and energy hub connecting Europe to India and China and Central to South Asia. Afghanistan’s integration into this region is an essential aspect of this vision.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s address to the conference seemed to express some congruity with the American view as expressed by Sherwood-Randall: “The issue of connectivity between Central and South Asia primarily through the prism of the integration processes have picked up high dynamism throughout the Eurasian region. 

“Russia has been consistently in favor of forming the Greater Eurasian Partnership, a united and integrated framework in the entire space from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, one that is maximally free for the movement of goods, capital, the workforce and services and open, without exception, to all the countries of our common continent, Eurasia, and the integration unions created there, including the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”

US policy in question

But in a not-so-veiled reference to US policy, Lavrov went on to decry “the general military and political trends in Asia, where new strategies and concepts are emerging, aimed not at uniting efforts towards collective work but at the containment and isolation of rivals. Such strategies are unlikely to help create a favorable atmosphere for achieving the high goals set before this conference.”

A recent article by M K Bhadrakumar in Asia Times, though critical of US policy, indicates the obstacles to a parallel US-Russian approach to the region. “Russia, China and Iran are in the US crosshairs and Washington’s future agenda is principally oriented to blocking Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, promoting regime change in Central Asia, using militant Islam as a geopolitical tool and consolidating a long-term presence in Afghanistan as a template of its Indo-Pacific strategy.”

If this is an accurate description of US policy, how does that policy square with Sherwood-Randall’s statement? Does her statement indicate a reassessment of policy is under way in the foreign-policy establishment? If so, what form will it take? Will the countries of the region have the political and diplomatic scope to form their own geo-economic alliances? Time will tell.

Obsolete strategy

Meanwhile, one would hope that the intellectual descendants (their numbers are not few) of Sir Halford Mackinder, the turn-of-the-century English founder of geo-strategy who warned of the dangers of Eurasian integration, will come to appreciate the folly of his modus operandi of stoking conflict to keep the region divided. Today, such a policy is reckless.

Conference participants seemed to grasp this. Proponents of Mackinder’s notions should rethink their attachment to “Great Game” brinkmanship, which, in any case, is unlikely to prevent Eurasia from becoming a single inter-connected geo-economic region. 

Veering from his script, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan captured the view held by many in the room: “What is happening in Afghanistan is over two decades of conflict. Deep divisions. Unfortunately, the United States was seeking a military solution when there wasn’t one.”

His candid (and critical) assessment of US policy surprised many of the delegates whose governments were, even before the conference, increasingly opposed to the use of military force to break the Afghan impasse. For many of them, geo-economic connectivity and integration is the preferred approach.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, referencing Great Power competition, said: “It is now time for the modern Silk Road … [to recognize that] connectivity between Europe and Asia has increased thanks to this ‘Middle Corridor.’ … Without peace in Afghanistan, we cannot speak of peace on our continent….

“In the past, Central Asia was an area of Great Power competition. We shouldn’t let it fall back into this. The region needs an interconnected ecosystem. And the only way for that is to promote inter-regional cooperation through enhanced connectivity.”

Turkey’s position is key in the region.  

Present-day “Mackinderites” should rethink the wisdom and practicality of exploiting asymmetries between Asian states and take an approach to engagement that is more pragmatic than ideological. Such an approach might even help alleviate the nightmare that colonial powers created by drawing irrational land borders in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

For example, the Durand Line, created in 1893, separating Pakistan and Afghanistan was the source of many problems for much of the 20th century. In any event, the countries of Asia increasingly question the confrontational approach to statecraft that harks back to Mackinder. 

No matter how you slice it, improved connectivity from Berlin to Seoul through Vladivostok or from Tashkent through Mashar-i-Sharif to Gwadar, or from Istanbul through Tehran to Delhi is becoming a reality.

Toward greater connectivity

The Tashkent Conference confirmed that most countries now believe that greater connectivity leads to stronger integration, and thus, to more resilient and inclusive socio-economic development.

As Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister, Shahin Mustafayev, said (minute 1:37:35): “Azerbaijan gives particular importance to the development of regional projects.… Azerbaijan is one of the first countries that supported the PRC’s One Belt, One Road initiative. 

“In 2015, our two countries signed a memorandum of cooperation on the economic expansion of the Belt and Silk Road initiative. And we are actively working to achieve our objectives.”

Translation: We’ve got options and believe in a multi-vector foreign policy, as do other countries in the region. 

In Tashkent, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi weighed in on Eurasian integration and the Belt and Road Initiative, first announced in 2013 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. He said: “Connectivity has been an unremitting pursuit of human society since ancient times, and it acts as a key impetus to development and prosperity in today’s world.….

“China stands ready to join hands with Central and South Asian countries to forge a closer regional connectivity partnership through high-quality cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

Be that as it may, countries in the region have other financing options; they can choose to fund infrastructure from sources other than China, although they will have to be competitive.

Connectivity means more than hard infrastructure, as Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the foreign minister of Kazakhstan, underscored in Tashkent, while indicating (minute 1:46:10) that Kazakhstan pursues multipolar engagement with all countries: “We highly appreciate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s positive role in deepening relations between neighbors and strengthening security and stability in the region….

“Considering the economic potential of the Eurasian Economic Union, which is more than US$2.2 trillion, I encourage the countries of South Asia to build multi-faced cooperation with the Union, including through the establishment of free-trade zones.…

“Of great importance will be the elaboration of a program for Central and South Asian interconnectedness. Multilateral consultations between representatives of transport administrations, financial institutions, freight forwarders and suppliers should be intensified, including engaging with Iran.”

The landlocked countries in Central Asia demand non-adversarial relations with neighbors to get their goods in and out. An idea: Why not add language to the 1958 Convention of the High Seas to include freedom of movement “across the Eurasian landmass”? 

Connectivity also involves having financial options and being able to make wise business decisions without fear of reprisal.

At the Tashkent Conference, there was palpable concern on the part of some participants – frequently expressed privately on the margins of the meeting – about the future value of the US dollar and the need to diversify away from single payment systems in the event unexpected economic shocks or extraterritorial measures were to obstruct the free flow of goods and capital. 

If the Tashkent Conference was any indication, Asian states see more upside in the flow of goods, services and ideas rooted in a rules-based order and responsible exchange mechanisms than in Chatham House guidelines that benefit some more than others, concerning which, see the statement issued by Chatham House after its 2015 London Conference.

An article by David Goldman in Asia Times titled “Wake up, America: The world just isn’t that into you sheds light on Asia’s (and Europe’s) increasing reluctance to go along with deals that contain lopsided benefits for one party. What I heard at Tashkent tends to corroborate the article’s title.  

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar pointed to India’s interest in developing the Chabahar port in Iran, which is a mere 93 nautical miles from Gwadar port in Pakistan, the end of the line for the proposed Trans-Afghan railroad project.

Jaishankar said: “India’s focus in the last few years has been to rebuild links that were diminished by the colonial period. We have progressed in the Indian subcontinent and eastward to the Indo-Pacific. Our horizons today extend from Vladivostok to the Gulf and East Africa.

“However, the challenges to Central Asia and Eurasia remain to be addressed. Since 2016, India has taken practical steps to operationalize the Chabahar port in Iran. This provides a secure, viable and unhindered access to the sea for Central Asian countries. Its efficacy is now clearly proven.

“We have proposed to include the Chabahar port in the framework of the International North-South Transport Corridor, the formation of the India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan quadrilateral working group. The joint use of the Chabahar port is a welcome development.”

One can infer from his statement a desire on India’s part not to allow Indo-Pakistani competition, including the interest both countries have of attracting Central Asian trade and investment, to spill over into violent conflict. And one can assume that Jaishankar’s use of the word “Eurasia” did not amuse diehard “Mackinderites.”

Tearing down barriers

The message coming from Tashkent is that peace, connectivity, and integration are preconditions for resilient and inclusive development over the long term. Peace must be built on something other than starry-eyed utopian ideals or power policies that aim to subjugate weaker states or create interstate divisions.

While fierce competition is part of normal, interstate relations, there are rules and norms of civility that must be adhered to lest chaos reign and outcomes be dictated by those wielding a larger club. 

The Tashkent Conference revealed that, with courageous leadership, it is possible to tear down barriers to engagement and put aside outdated and irrelevant ways of thinking. In my view, world leaders should continue to build on the momentum created at Tashkent and seek real breakthroughs to conflicts across Central and South Asia, particularly between Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

The president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in his opening statement at the conference, expressed the optimistic belief that rational people can find solutions to difficult problems:

“Today the world has entered the era of global geopolitical transformations, which bring both challenges and new opportunities. In these conditions, the revival of mutual ties between Central and South Asia, where about 2 billion people live today, is increasingly demanded, and objectively required for peace and prosperity.

“I think that the time has come, based on the huge historical, scientific, spiritual and cultural heritage of our peoples, the complementarity of economies, the availability of intellectual potential, to consolidate our joint efforts, which will undoubtedly give a powerful synergy effect.”

At the conference, hope, not despair, was the prevalent mood; it was this spirit that brought President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan along with the foreign ministers of some 30 countries to Tashkent.

Despite disagreements, rivalries and old grudges, a consensus seemed to emerge that smart engagement, connectivity, and a focus on geo-economics must supersede hard-nosed “neo-Mackinderite” approaches to foreign policy and conflict resolution.

As Jaishankar underscored: “All of us need more and multiple options, and this applies to the domain of connectivity most of all.” This, in my view and in the view of many of the conferees, is the path forward for regional peace, stability and genuine human development.

Javier M. Piedra

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.