Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is a regional policy

Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is a regional policy
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Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev formally announced Uzbekistan’s foreign policy priority at the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting when he said “Uzbekistan considers the region of Central Asia to be as the main priority of its foreign policy” and pointed to goals of “stability, sustainable development and good-neighborliness.”

As Uzbekistan borders all four of its Central Asia neighbors and has the largest population and the second largest GDP, its readiness to productively engage with its neighbors can propel the region forward or make it fall short of its potential. Its recent leadership transition may be the event that allows the region to start to escape the occlusion it entered in the Czarist and Soviet empires.

Central Asia is a buffer zone between regional hegemons Russia, China, and Iran, and perennially unstable Afghanistan, so the five “Stans” must act in a coordinated fashion to maximinze their negotiating position with the hegemons, and effectively work with their Afghan neighbors to roll back violent extremism and bring Afghanistan into the local trade and transport space.

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Up to now, the Central Asian states have been busy with state-building in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but now they need to face outwards as outside forces are interested in them: Russia sees Central Asia as part of its sphere of influence, and China needs it to accommodate its One Belt, One Road political-infrastructure project.

 

What should the Central Asian states focus on? 

One issue is economy. The economies of the region don’t broadly compete with each other and in many industries they may be complementary, ironically a result of Lenin’s and Stalin’s nationalities policy which included an effort to evenly spread economic development throughout the vast Soviet state. Currently, most trade is outside the region, and the low levels of intra-regional trade have not rebounded to pre-independence levels.

The states have taken steps in this direction spurred by Mirziyoyev’s personal engagement with the other leaders in the region, an example being recent Uzbek-Kazakh agreements on to cross-border security, taxation, and trade. These agreements and their smart execution will be watched by outside investors who know that countries that don’t get along are bad investments.

President Mirziyoyev highlighted a likely goal when he recently noted that “effective cooperation of the countries of Central Asia could increase the regional GDP by at least two times in the next ten years.”

After economy, another issue is regional cooperation structure. To act regionally and do it effectively, an intergovernmental arrangement will be necessary to prioritize and coordinate. A top-down, heavily-regulated structure like the European Union (EU) won’t work as the Central Asian states have had their fill of distant rulers making decisions about their lives. A low-impact arrangement like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which works by consensus and eschews interference in members’ internal affairs will likely appeal to local sensibilities, but will need to be robust enough to tackle challenges like the Aral Sea environmental disaster, fair use of water resources, narcotics trafficking, and cleaning up uranium legacy sites. 

As a first step, the states have agreed to a Program on Mutual Cooperation for 2018-19 with the twin goals of boosting security, trade and economic cooperation, investment, transportation, energy, tourism, and culture, and of cooperation in international activities and within international organizations, such as the U.N., the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). These cooperative efforts will signal to each country’s officials – and to outside investors – that cooperation, not confrontation, is the new norm.

It will also signal to Russia, China, and Iran that attempts at division will find slow going, and that the Central Asian republics have no interest provoking conflict among the external forces involved in the region. Partners like the U.S., EU, Japan, and South Korea will see that the region respects established norms in trade and human rights.

Central Asia can be more just a place name, but a center for trade, tourism, and culture. It can make rapid progress to President Mirziyoyev’s “2 x GDP” goal if it acts as a region, is attractive to outside investors and political partners, and participates in aspirational, rules-based orders, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Uzbekistan’s recent initiatives can be the starting gun for a renewed role for Central Asia, not as an appendage to other interests, but as a region in its own right.

James D. Durso (@James_Durso) is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).