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The Great Game 2.0 in Asia: Central and South Asia

"Si vis pacem, para bellum" ("If you want peace, prepare for war") – Cornelius Nepos

Amid noticeable enhancement of multi-format global peacekeeping initiatives in Afghanistan, broad efforts of regional players, such as Uzbekistan, on this vector, and signs of a certain relaxation in Kashmir on the disputed Indian-Pakistani border, the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report published on April 7 in Washington, looks very contrasting.

Forewarned is forearmed

The document (more than 150 pages) is published every four years. A similar instrument of the Obama Administration in 2017 warned of a pandemic and widespread economic upheavals as its consequences. In assessing this forecast from the present day point of view, "Global Trends 2021" looks like an ominous prophecy. Although both Afghanistan and Kashmir themselves have long been a "seething cauldron" of systemic controversies and conflicts ready to explode at any moment on the slightest, even minor, reason. In this regard, therefore, the prediction of American analysts clearly doomed to "success", though doubtful, from the humanitarian point of view.

"India and Pakistan may stumble into a large-scale war neither side wants, especially following a terrorist attack that the Indian government judges to be significant", the document says.

The report considers the probable trigger of a potential war in the next five years, namely, the ability of some militant outfits to conduct attacks, New Delhi’s resolve to retaliate against Islamabad after such an attack, and Islamabad’s determination to defend itself (which has been the case so far). Authors warn than “miscalculation by both governments could prompt a breakdown in the deterrence that has restricted conflict to levels each side judges it can manage”. It is stated that a full-scale war could inflict damage that would have economic and political consequences for years.

“US actions in Afghanistan during the next year will have significant consequences across the region, particularly in Pakistan and India,” the report says. This would be “especially true” if a security vacuum emerges in Afghanistan that results in a civil war between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents, expanded freedom of manoeuvre for regional terrorist networks, or criminals and refugees flowing out of the country.

The report concludes that such events in Afghanistan would exacerbate political tensions and conflict in Pakistan and sharpen the India-Pakistan rivalry. In the light of recent declarations by Washington and the Taliban on compliance with the Doha Agreements (regarding deadlines for American troops withdrawal from Afghanistan), the events seem to develop exactly by this sad scenario.

Uzbekistan as a regional integrator and peacemaker

Shifting the focus away from American forecasts and actual realities, special attention should be drawn to Uzbekistan's diplomatic activity in the region of South and Central Asia.

In his address to the Parliament on December 29, 2020, Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared the country's foreign policy priorities for 2021. The brand new dimension was the focus on the southern direction - forging cooperation with South Asia and promoting peace in Afghanistan were pointed out as priorities.

A systemic event of such efforts should be the high-level international conference "Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities" announced by Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly and to be held in Tashkent this July. The event, according to the organizers, should give an impetus to the integrated development of the interregional cooperation, create a solid conceptual framework for closer interaction between the two regions and filling the interregional agenda with specific strategic initiatives that could unlock the massive unrealized potential for cooperation.

Tashkent's vision of the Afghan settlement and its impact on regional processes, including in the SCO region, was outlined in February by Eldor Aripov, Director of the Institute of Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan. In his opinion, the prospects for stable and sustainable development in Central Asia are integrally connected with the attainment of peace in Afghanistan. Without resolving the Afghan conflict, the prosperity of the Central Asian region will be impossible.

It is particularly emphasized that for many centuries, Afghanistan has been an important link in regional trade, cultural, research and intellectual exchange, while performing the role of a bridge for Central and South Asia. Peace in this country, which is also called the Heart of Asia, will therefore open up unique strategic opportunities to revitalise and further develop the system of interconnectivity between these subregions.

The use of transit and infrastructure potential of Afghanistan will provide the Central Asian countries with the shortcut to to seaports of Pakistan, which would be beneficial not only to Uzbekistan, but to all Central Asian republics, South Asia and the Middle East as well.

Strengthening of interconnectivity, Eldor Aripov stresses, will contribute to formation of favorable internal and external prerequisites for the development of both interregional trade, cultural and scientific exchanges, and maintaining peace and stability in the vast field of the two regions.

Regional context

In turn, the SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov said the swiftest possible settlement of the situation in Afghanistan is one of the most crucial factors for maintaining and enhancing security and stability in the SCO region. In his opinion, the political basis for the start of the Afghan peace process, was the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan in March 2018, as well as Shavkat Mirziyoyev's initiatives to adopt a plan of practical measures for the socio-economic recovery of Afghanistan in the SCO-Afghanistan contact group.

An increasing role of the SCO, representing all of Afghanistan neighbors, in maintaining intra-Afghan dialogue and involving it in regional ties is supported by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi. In his view, attaining peace and stability in the country opens up new strategic opportunities for bringing trans-regional interconnectivity between Central and South Asia to an unprecedented level.

Regional experts believe that in the context of the Afghan case, there is no need to talk about peace but rather about the hidden opportunities once it is achieved. Even relative stability and peace in Afghanistan would, from the economic point of view, foster cooperation between Central and South Asia; sharing the potential of Afghanistan strategic location and rich natural resources; expanding cultural and humanitarian relations, etc.

The full realization of the transit and infrastructure potential of peaceful Afghanistan would, in particular, reduce the time of goods transportation from Uzbekistan to Pakistan from 35 to 3-5 days. That would entail the export of Uzbek products to grow by 3 times – from 100 to 300 million US dollars.

In this connection, rapid establishing peace in Afghanistan is an "ideal recipe" for strengthening the interconnectivity between the Central and South Asia countries. In this context, Uzbekistan's trans-Afghan transport corridor project, as well as other projects with regard to Afghanistan promoted in the SCO framework, are logic and understandable.

The plans to strengthen interconnectivity between Central and South Asia are a logical extension of of the Tashkent's regional policy, through which it proclaims itself as a driving force for regional transformation. Uzbekistan is pragmatically aimed to transform the challenges in Afghanistan into strategic opportunities for own development and socio-economic recovery of this country.

It is clear that efforts of Uzbekistan alone are not enough. Expansion of foreign policy priorities implies support (at least formal) for the entire Central Asian region. A diplomatic surge of Tashkent, therefore, is intended to strengthen its role as a voice of all Central Asian countries in the neighboring region. The recent tour of the Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to the countries of the region (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) with a view to seek support from neighbors, was dedicated to facilitate this goal. In negotiations with the heads of states, apart from bilateral agenda, there was a discussion of developing economic ties with Afghanistan and the South Asian countries.

It is very critical for Tashkent especially that its plans receive encouragement from Nur-Sultan, given the hidden competition for regional leadership.

In the pursuit to ensure the broader international consensus, the Uzbek authorities have already invited delegations from UN, SCO, Afghanistan, Iran, India, China, Pakistan, Russian Federation, and other states to take part in the International Forum in July.

The American Factor

It is clear that in the context of the Afghan settlement, Uzbekistan will receive some support from the United States. However, apart from Uzbekistan, in the US strategy for Central Asia adopted in 2020, Washington also focuses its interest on Kazakhstan. American strategists will also appeal to the Central Asia Investment Partnership, created under the auspices of the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). This platform is an element of the "C5+1" project (the region countries plus US), but in fact ignores Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The decline in US interest in the other three regional republics means, perhaps, focusing on the most critical vectors to achieve prompt results.

On this point, it should be recalled that the "Greater Central Asia" concept put forward in 2005 by the US and subsequently transformed into the idea of a single region of South and Central Asia, the project "New Silk Road" with Afghanistan as its center in order to strengthen the "least integrated region of the world", ultimately failed.

The ongoing war in Afghanistan and Washington’s inability to achieve at least relative security and stability even at the peak of its military presence made it impossible to implement priority transport and energy projects, and significantly undermined trust in this project.

Peace in Afghanistan is, therefore, necessary for the full fostering of interregional cooperation, to say nothing of a breakthrough in the development of interregional ties. The past US initiatives have not stood the test of geopolitical realities.

Peace in Afghanistan as a regional tie

It is quite logical that in the last decade, transport corridors developed bypassing Afghanistan. One of them, North-South, was opened in November 2018 with the participation of Russia, India, and Iran. The route from Mumbai to St. Petersburg should pass through the Caspian Sea, however, it is adjacent to the Central Asian transport infrastructure and can be used to develop interaction with India.

The 2011's Ashgabat agreement between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, aims to implement a transport corridor project that could also potentially link Central and South Asia. The key role in the project is played by Iran and the port of Chabahar which was renovated with Indian funds and opens the way to India.

One more direction bypassing Afghanistan is to reroute communication through the People’s Republic of China. The key transport route is the Karakorum highway that connects China and Pakistan. Back in 2004, there was an Agreement on Karachi – Kashgar – Bishkek – Almaty transport corridor which actually started working since 2008. In October 2017, a new transport corridor, Tashkent – Andijan – Osh – Irkeshtam – Kashgar opened with the prospect of entering South Asia.

However, bypass distances are long which offsets the main advantage of the southern direction. They deprive Central Asia of the main thing – the option of a shortcut to the World Ocean, and the region itself is considered as part of larger projects. For these reasons, none of the logistic plans had resulted in strategic changes. In addition, the Trans-Iranian route connects Central Asia only with India, and the Trans-Chinese route – with Pakistan.

The uncertainty of the future of Afghanistan, therefore, still detracts trans-Afghan transport and energy projects from the cherished goal.

However, in such situation, Uzbekistan's tenacity and pragmatism should be given credit: despite the protracted Afghan conflict, Tashkent does not refuse to develop transport projects in the southern direction. The initiated project for constructing the Mazari – Sharif – Kabul – Peshavar railway will provide an access to seaports of Pakistan (Karachi, Qasem and Gwadar) and is designed to connect the South Asian railway network with the Central Asian and Eurasian branches. The trans-Afghan railway project at a cost of over US$ 4 billion has been approved by Prime Minister Imran Khan and is scheduled to launch in September 2021.

The Kashmiri Factor

To fully “open” South Asia and enter the market of India and other South Asian states east to Pakistan, there is a more significant obstacle to overcome apart from Afghanistan factor – the Indo-Pakistani conflict, which is essential for both countries.

The Kashmiri issue has resulted in a “zero-sum game” across the entire spectrum of bilateral relations, with regional and global implications. Pakistan and India deny each other transit through their territory. It is no coincidence that transport corridors bypassing Afghanistan connecting Central and South Asia, lead only to one of these states.

In general, the prospects for resolving the conflict in Kashmir, same as the entire set of relations between India and Pakistan, seem even more uncertain than the conflict in Afghanistan despite the parties' agreements on a ceasefire along the line of contact.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

The expansion of interregional ties between Central and South Asia and implementation of their transit potential due to the complementarity of markets and economies seem natural and logic, but this process is stuck in the vortex of geopolitical turbulence and has become a hostage of the Great Game 2.0. The security situation in Afghanistan, coupled with the vague prospects for a peaceful resolution, leaves each of the trans-Afghan projects just as declarations of good intentions, whereas the Indo-Pakistani conflict further blocks the corridor of opportunities for full interregional integration.

The lack of visible progress in the Afghan and Indo-Pakistani conflicts, especially through the prism of the US Global Trends 2021 "optimistic" forecast, the limited own resources of Tashkent to influence these processes and other factors are still making the Uzbek initiatives only a good resource base for the future real transformation of interregional relations.

If we still dream a bit and imagine that, thanks to some fundamentally new innovative approaches and solutions, the Afghan and Kashmir conflicts will one day be resolved and removed from the international agenda, the geopolitical landscape of Central and South Asia will be reshaped in a fundamental and qualitative way, which would entail its explosive growth and development for decades to come.

In this context, Uzbekistan's diplomatic efforts to bring representatives of the main conflicting parties to the table with other related actors in July and try to replicate the success of the 1966 Tashkent Declaration 55 years after, should be commended and supported.

The Great Game 2.0 in Asia is continuing...