A Steadily Tightening Embrace: China’s Ascent in
Central Asia and the Caucasus
By: Raffaello Pantucci
Chinese engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been on a steady ascent. China accords considerably more importance to Central Asia than to the Caucasus, and the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement is Xinjiang. Still, the economic push into Central Asia has continued, in spite of a slowdown in investment lately. Among outside powers, Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor, and even then that relationship is seen through the lens of cooperation at the larger, strategic level. China does faces challenges in Central Asia: one is the refocusing by various militant groups that now treat China as an adversary. Another is the risk that Beijing may inadvertently clash with Moscow’s interests in the region.
The narrative of China’s engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been one of steady ascension and embrace. There is a clear difference between the two regions from Beijing’s perspective, with Central Asia a region which is intimately tied to China, while the Caucasus remains at one remove. The Central Asian relationship was initially marked by concerns and instability, but it has over time developed into an increasingly close relationship. As time has passed, Central Asia has also played an interesting role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, providing an environment in which Beijing can test out new foreign and security policy approaches in a relatively pliant environment. For example, the first international security organization outside UN structures that China was instrumental in creating, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), focused on Central Asia. And even more importantly, President Xi Jinping chose to inaugurate his keynote foreign policy concept, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in then-Astana (now Nursultan), Kazakhstan.
Japan as no “other”: Decolonizing Alternative for Central Asia?
By: Timur Dadabaev
Over the past 30 years, the Japanese approach to Central Asia has been to secure the Japanese presence in the region by offering Central Asian nations an additional option of an international partner among traditional choices, such as Russia, and, in most recent history, China. The schemes offered to facilitate engagement between Japan and Central Asia were vibrant and diverse, reflecting the changing realities of the Central Asian region and the changing role and perception of the “self” in Japan. (1) As is well documented in previous studies, the search for engagement schemes started with the 1996 Obuchi mission to Azerbaijan and Central Asia, spearheaded by the Member of Parliament and later Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, which produced a strong endorsement of wider engagement of Japan in the region. It resulted in P.M. Ryutaro Hashimoto’s 1997 Eurasian/Silk Road Diplomacy speech, in which the concept of the Silk Road was first used as a geopolitical concept, embracing Central Asian states, China, Russia and Japan in an imagined net of interdependence(3). While the administrations of P.M. Obuchi (1998-1999) and P.M. Yoshirō Mori (1999-2000) did not proactively engage with the Central Asia region, it was P.M. Junichiro Koizumi’s administration (2001-2006) that aimed to aggressively shake up the Japanese approach to this region by announcing the Central Asia + Japan Dialogue Forum, a set of annual inter-ministerial and high-level talks to support Central Asian regional integration and to facilitate a larger corporate presence for Japanese corporate interests, in the face of growing Chinese and Russian pressures. The particular importance of the Central Asia + Japan forum is that it offered an alternative option of a distant yet powerful external economic partner to the region, which did not display a neo-colonizing tendency or strive for domination, as was widely feared regarding China and Russia.(3)
Most recently, PM Shinzo Abe (2013-2020) attempted to further dynamize Central Asia-Japan relations when he visited all Central Asian states and lobbied for larger participation of Japanese corporations in Central Asia. In his approach to strengthening Japanese competitiveness, PM Abe introduced the notion of high-quality infrastructure by arguing that Japanese infrastructure projects based on high-quality and sustainability standards(4) offer more sustainable and reliable alternatives (as compared to Chinese projects, for example) for developing countries inclusive of Central Asia states.
Visions of the Region and Japanese Foreign Policy
In approaching Central Asia, the Japanese government utilizes both multilateral and bilateral channels, which include extending its support to individual state-building efforts and encouraging regional cooperation through Central Asia + Japan, as described above. In doing so, the Japanese government aims to display a certain degree of sensitivity toward disparities between regional states while facilitating long-term regional consolidation in light of growing pressures by other large players, such as China and Russia. In this sense, Japanese support for Central Asian states can be likened to Japanese support for nation- and regional-building in the ASEAN region.
Human Rights Reform in Kazakhstan
By: Svante E. Cornell
Kazakhstan’s leaders have long expressed ambitious goals for the country’s development, and worked to make the country a force in international affairs. To a considerable degree they have succeeded. Kazakhstan has played an important role in international organizations, including chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and obtaining a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The country has also played an important role in international peace and security, including through its support for nuclear non-proliferation and its mediation of a number of international disputes. These many steps on the international scene have provided Kazakhstan with considerable goodwill and respect. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s leadership have set ambitious goals for the country’s future. These include a closer partnership with the European Union through an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the goal of obtaining membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and most potently, for Kazakhstan to be part of the world’s 30 most developed nations by 2050.
Kazakhstan’s international image, and its ambitious development goals, have one thing in common: their biggest challenge arises from certain aspects of Kazakhstan’s domestic situation, particularly those relating to individual rights and freedoms. As became clear during Kazakhstan’s candidacy for the OSCE chairmanship, international concerns regarding individual rights and freedoms in the country constituted a significant challenge that led to reservations from influential member countries and, fairly or not, delayed Kazakhstan’s chairmanship. More broadly, while Kazakhstan’s contributions to international peace and security are widely recognized, criticism concerning human rights issues in the country continue to emerge both from partner governments, international organizations, and non-governmental bodies.
Uzbekistan's "System Reset"
By: Eldor Aripov
On January 24 Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, delivered his third annual report to Parliament. This address marks an important step in Uzbekistan’s reform effort.
As he has done before, President Mirziyoyev emphatically stressed the need to replace old, ineffective structures and work methods with market-based management of the economy and democratic political practices. This time, however, he laid special emphasis on the urgent need to strengthen representative forms of governance at each level. To this end, he strongly urged members the newly elected Parliament to participate actively in the reform process. He pleased for them to act bold and decisively on their own, and not to wait for guidance from the executive branch
of government. Instead, he said that their positions should reflect the views and interests of their constituents.
In his effort to enhance the effectiveness of the national Parliament, President Mirziyoyev appears to be seeking a stable system based on checks and balances. He clearly realizes that the alternative – to construct a system based on a rigid "power vertical" would be counterproductive.
But the alternative is not possible if the country has only "a puppet Parliament." Instead, he envisions an independent Parliament or Oliy Majlis. His goal is to develop an independent Oliy Majlis that has the will and skills required to initiate and adopt laws based on the interests of citizens and the nation as a whole. Hence the call to enhance the status and authority
of parliamentarians. To this end, also, he sharply broke with tradition by proposing a law that will oblige ministers to respond personally to requests from members of parliament.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.