Central Asia looks to ramp up regional co-operation with Afghanistan

By Kanat Altynbayev

Central Asian leaders hold a consultative meeting in Tashkent on November 29. [Nursultan Nazarbayev official website]

Central Asian leaders hold a consultative meeting in Tashkent on November 29. [Nursultan Nazarbayev official website]

TASHKENT -- Enhancing regional security and trade were identified as top priorities at a recent meeting of Central Asian leaders in Tashkent.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Kazakh president, participated in the high-level talks on November 29.

Plans include involving Afghanistan in regional trade agreements, and establishing economic and infrastructure projects to promote the peace process, according to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.

Tashkent also called for strengthening joint policies on regional security.

"At the same time, the current conditions of the rapidly changing global situation, aggravation of security threats and strengthening factors negatively affecting stable development, necessitate the strengthening of partnerships based on mutual trust and co-ordination of efforts," the Foreign Ministry said in a November 29 statement.

"Thanks to the Almighty, we are neighbours," said Mirziyoyev, according to the Foreign Ministry. "The history and fate, the future of our people are closely intertwined. And this is a great unifying force of the entire region."

Boosting economic ties with Afghanistan

The format of the consultative meeting called for no decision-making or the establishment of agreements. However, the joint statement by the participating countries offers a clear picture of the priorities and prospects for co-operation within the region.

In the document, the Central Asian leaders stress giving "particular importance to deepening co-operation on combating international terrorism, religious extremism, illegal drug trafficking, illegal migration, cross-border organised crime and cyber-threats".

The Central Asian states announced their intention to "continue multilateral efforts to involve Afghanistan in regional trade, economic and infrastructure projects that are meant to facilitate advancement of the peace process".

In particular, Mirziyoyev underscored the importance of Afghanistan's economic recovery for establishing peace in the region.

The Central Asian leaders also noted that they had increased work as part of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ), a commitment their countries undertook in 2006 not to manufacture, acquire, test or possess nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the countries are planning closer co-operation with the international community and harmonisation of their policies with global priorities.

"We intend to continue reinforcing co-operation under the umbrella of the [United Nations] and other international organisations; to jointly develop and advance new initiatives and projects focused on strengthening peace, stability and security; and to support sustainable development in Central Asia," the joint statement said.

Drivers of peace and security

Bilateral co-operation is already happening on security issues.

In April, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan concluded several military agreements during a visit to Tashkent by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The parties bolstered their co-operation on an air defence system and on aircraft maintenance and storage of military aircraft at military airfields. In July 2018, the two countries held their first-ever joint exercises on a military testing ground in Zhambyl Province, Kazakhstan.

During the exercises, Kazakh and Uzbek special forces practiced performing tasks related to nighttime combat using drones, air power and ground vehicles.

The partnership between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the most populous countries in the region, is central to regional security, said Farhad Tolipov, director of the Tashkent-based think-tank Caravan of Knowledge.

"It is now important to take such regional meetings to a whole new level with the goal of strengthening the regional unity of the Central Asian countries and consolidating their policy in all areas, including regional security," he said.

"[It is important] to work together to come up with initiatives to create a regional system of collective security in Central Asia through talks involving all five states," he said.

Without 'Big Brother'

Co-operation among the region's countries effectively began when Mirziyoyev took the reins after the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov, in September 2016.

Mirziyoyev radically shifted the course of the country's foreign policy from isolation to integration, including in terms of security.

At the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Mirziyoyev said that Uzbekistan was interested in seeing "the region become an area of stability, sustainable development and good-neighbourliness", and that it was primed for dialogue and constructive co-operation.

Mars Sariyev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, said that he had high hopes for close internal co-operation among the Central Asian countries without meddling by superpowers.

The Central Asian states "have a good understanding of their own regional problems and are capable of efficiently solving them through discussion", he said.

For many years Russia has been trying to bolster its waning influence over the Central Asian countries through various alliances, including the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Under the CSTO, Moscow opens military bases in member states, which, in fact endanger the host countries rather than protecting them, say many local analysts.

The next consultative meeting of the Central Asian heads of state will be held in 2020 in Kyrgyzstan.

The regional leaders first took part in such an event on March 15, 2018, in Kazakhstan.

The parties discussed matters relating to expanding political, economic and humanitarian co-operation among the region's countries; working together to combat terrorism, religious extremism, and drug and weapons smuggling; and strengthening security and stability in Central Asia.

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