Central Asia’s Multilateralism in Surge

July 2024

Murad Nasibov

Research Fellow at Justus Liebig University Giessen 

The Diplomat (magazine) has recently documented the record of high-level bilateral interactions among Central Asian states, showing a surge in meetings from 60 in 2015 to 158 in 2023. Similarly, the number of phone calls among the high-level officials in the region tripled over the same period. The Diplomat’s post contrasts the surge in bilateralism against the comparatively lower number of multilateral interactions, suggesting that bilateralism remains the prevailing mode of regional cooperation in Central Asia. Although in terms of the suggested figures this may seem true, such a verdict may do injustice to the growing multilateralism in the region.
In the same period, particularly in more recent years, Central Asia has hosted an unprecedented number of summits of regional organisations, namely the Economic Cooperation Organization (Ashgabat, 2021; Tashkent, 2023), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Samarkand, 2022; Astana, 2024), and the Organization of Turkic States (Astana, 2015, 2023; Cholpon-Ata, 2018; Samarkand, 2022). Additionally, the last decade has seen Central Asia more frequently hosting the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (Burabay (KZ), 2015; Bishkek, 2016, 2023; Dushanbe, 2018; Ashgabat, 2019, 2022) than before. The “C5+1” format introduced with the US in 2016 has been replicated with the EU, China, India, and Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, as well as with Germany at the ministerial level.

The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) programme of the Asian Development Bank, which was launched in 2001 and includes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, Mongolia, and Pakistan in addition to five Central Asian states, adds to the record of multilateralism of the last decade at the ministerial level (Tashkent, 2019; Ashgabat, 2018; Dushanbe, 2017). Last November saw a new summit introduced in Baku – the Summit of the participating states of the UN Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), which brought together the heads of state of Central Asian nations, except for Turkmenistan (represented at a lower level) and Azerbaijan.

Of course, the Central Asian Summits (re)launched in 2018 have been the core platform where Central Asian states could meet exclusively for Central Asian matters and coordinate their participation in different multilateral platforms. The 2022 Central Asian Summit held in Bishkek saw Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan signing the Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the XXI Century, with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan suggesting they would join later after completing internal procedures. No less often, Central Asian states have also come together in trilateral formats to address issues directly concerning only part of the Central Asian states, as in the August 2023 meeting of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to address the potential consequences of the Qosh Tepe canal currently being constructed in Afghanistan.

Central Asia has managed to set itself at the heart of an ever-growing, dense network of regional multilateral formats in the wider region of Eurasia.”

In the last decade, as the examples above suggest, Central Asia has managed to set itself at the heart of an ever-growing, dense network of regional multilateral formats in the wider region of Eurasia. The rise of bilateralism should be seen as the outcome of the growing tendency toward multilateralism. As loosely institutionalised settings, the multilateral formats mentioned above provide a site or “playground” (“ploshadka” as often referred to in Russian) where the sides meet. Often, the initiatives made on these platforms are advanced through bilateral interactions, or bilateral interactions serve to prepare the ground. One recent brilliant example of this is the technical assessment of the railways linking China to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which were agreed upon in the 2022 Samarkand summit; the projects have formally nothing to do with the SCO.

Hence, the surge of bilateralism needs to be seen as at least partly a function of growing multilateralism in the region, while bilateralism does drive multilateralism, too, as in the example of the Gulf-Central Asia Summit, which resulted from the increased bilateral engagement of the Gulf states with Central Asia.

Not only has multilateralism been reviving in Central Asia, but the Central Asian Five have also entered into two inter-regional cooperation formats: the EU-Central Asia Summit and the Gulf Cooperation Council-Central Asian Summit, with Central Asia-ASEAN set to become the third such inter-regionalism case involving Central Asia. Even though both current inter-regional frameworks were initiated by the other side—the EU in the former and Saudi Arabia in the latter—they demonstrate how close regional cooperation in Central Asia can have wider effects beyond the region.

Although Azerbaijan’s joining the Central Asian Summit in 2023 might sit uncomfortably as an example of inter-regionalism, it similarly shows the outreaching effect of Central Asian multilateralism. When Russian and Chinese foreign ministers announced in their press conference in Beijing on April 8 that they wanted to synchronize the agendas of the SCO and the BRICS and enrich the institutional affiliation the latter offers beyond the full membership status, they counted on Central Asia, unquestionably, among others.

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