ASEAN Serves as Ideal Model for a Central Asian Regional Organization
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the ensuing chaos underscore the importance of forming a consolidated regional bloc in Central Asia to manage multilateral challenges. Each of the five Central Asian republics has formulated its own unique policy to deal with the Taliban. The disjointed response, or lack thereof, from Central Asia did not prevent the Taliban from obtaining control of key border crossings. Countries worldwide have established regional organizations to streamline their decision making and resolve complex issues. For example, the African Union collectively suspended Mali from its ranks as a reprimand for its second coup in nine months, the Arab League pledged $100 million of funding to the Palestinian Authority, and the Organization of American States hosted a forum to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines amongst its member states. However, most applicable to Central Asia’s circumstances is the union formed in Southeast Asia.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Since its founding in 1967, the organization has been tasked with addressing a myriad of concerns, many of which mirror those dealt with in Central Asia. For instance, ASEAN member states have extensive experience in battling terrorism and combatting violent religious extremist groups, an increasingly relevant problem in Central Asia due to the resurgence of the Taliban, and violent Central Asian extremist groups on its borders.
Both regions are plagued by home-grown terrorist organizations with the goal of destabilizing legitimate governments. The largest terrorist organization in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), promotes the creation of an Islamic Caliphate spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the south Philippines, and south Thailand. The group has resorted to terrorist acts against civilians to advance its agenda. Similarly, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was formed to topple former Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s government in Tashkent in favor of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the country. Furthermore, the Central Asian countries have worked to deradicalize portions of their population repatriated from the Islamic State. ASEAN has granted Southeast Asia a platform to more impactfully stamp out religious extremism by setting up deradicalization programs, deepening cooperation among the country’s law enforcement agencies, and creating mechanisms to punish those supporting religious extremist groups. Member states agreed upon these solutions unanimously. ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making mechanism, as opposed to a constricting confederacy, would also prove fruitful in Central Asia because it would allow the five Central Asian governments to work together without binding them to a higher authority.
Moreover, both Central and Southeast Asia have been forced to balance the interests of larger powers. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has contributed to Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s growing external debt through China’s Export-Import Bank (Eximbank), which controls 43.4 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s debt and 36.6 percent of Tajikistan’s. Similarly, approximately half of Laos’ total public debt is owed to China. Smaller countries in both regions have struggled to balance China’s lucrative investment deals, such as the China-Laos railway and infrastructure projects crossing Kyrgyzstan’s mountains, while also retaining their financial independence. Despite China’s extensive influence in Southeast Asia due to its large investment portfolio, ASEAN took a concerted stand against perceived Chinese encroachment into their sovereign territory in the South China Sea. ASEAN provided smaller Southeast Asian nations a platform to safeguard their economic and political sovereignty against larger actors like China. Creating a similar platform in Central Asia could serve as a springboard for more combined regional efforts to counterbalance their looming neighbors.
Discourse about the establishment of a regional union in Central Asia designed to resolve internal conflicts often holds the European Union as the gold standard. However, the European Union’s constricting confederacy that binds member states to the organization’s decisions, even when the member state disagrees, would not work in Central Asia. The Central Asian republics have remained skeptical of acceding to such a regional organization to avoid losing their autonomy.
The ASEAN-model, however, is a better model for Central Asia. Its decentralized system of relying on consensus among member states allows for considerable flexibility in resolving internal and external conflicts while maintaining each state’s sovereignty. In any case, founding a regional organization in Central Asia should be a top priority for the five Central Asian republics. Indeed, during their summits in 2018, 2019, and most recently in August this year the issue is present. They have established study groups to look at ASEAN and also the Nordic Council as models, and plans are being considered to establish a permanent secretariat for precisely such a regional bloc in Central Asia.
Image Source: Asia Plus Tajikistan