The visit of President Berdymuhamedov to Uzbekistan, 23-24 April 2018, marks the start of a new era of regional harmony in Central Asia.
The media has picked the announcement of Uzbekistan to participate in TAPI as the lead news, and it certainly is, because TAPI is not just a gas pipeline; it is a complete corridor.
Nevertheless, the concept that will encompass everything else in due course of time is the proposal by President Berdymuhamedov that the heads of state in Central Asia should form a consultative council that should meet at least once a year.
Let’s look at the justification, urgency, and implications of this idea, and in doing so we shall see as to how this connects with TAPI, and a lot more.
First, a brief mention of some key members of the team Trump, several of them appointed quite recently:
- Director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow (app 2 April 2018) — Even though he has no formal qualifications in economics, Ludlow describes himself as ‘supply-side economist.’ He advocates tax cuts. He is a well known TV personality, and in 2002 he called for attack on Iraq.
- National Security Advisor, John Bolton (app 9 April 2018) — Bolton was instrumental in derailing a 2001 biological weapons conference in Geneva convened to endorse a UN proposal to enforce the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. In 2002, he called for the inclusion of Cuba, Libya and Syria in the ‘Axis of Evil.’ He has also urged preemptive strikes on Iran and North Korea. Throughout his career, whenever there was a choice between war and peace, he called for war, whenever there was a choice between conciliation and confrontation, he unwaveringly chose confrontation. His views on the United Nations: “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.”
- Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, (app 20 January 2017) — By far the most balanced member of the Trump administration, he considers Iran a bigger threat than Al Qaeda or ISIS. He advocated closer alliance with the Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan. He looks with suspicion at some of the policies of Russia and China.
- Director of FBI, Christopher A Wray, (app 2 August 2017) — During the senate confirmation hearing, his remarks implied that he considers the Chinese students and scholars in the USA as spies.
- Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (app 1 April 2018) — Even as director of CIA, he was doing some of the things that fall in the purview of the secretary of state, such as visiting Turkey and Saudi Arabia to liaise on Syria and ISIS, and visiting North Korea to prepare grounds for US-North Korea summit meeting. His views on Islam have been described as Islamophobia. He calls for rolling back the Iran nuclear deal and inducing regime change in North Korea.
- Director of CIA (pending senate confirmation), Gina Haspel — She was the chief of a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 where the prisoners were tortured. She was also involved in the unauthorized destruction of CIA interrogation tapes.
With such a team, Central Asia will not be in the front and centre in any of the major policy initiatives of the United States. However, the fallout could be sudden, possibly severe, from whatever they try to do to Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China.
By now, we also know that Trump has a known pattern of maneuvers: First he goes into aggressive posturing, trying to intimidate whosoever is at the other end, and then starts squeezing as much concessions as possible. In Trans Pacific Partnership, first he pulled out and now he is showing signs of returning to it, with more concessions than were previously agreed to. He tweeted fiercely against North Korea and yet sent Pompeo to do a backdoor deal. Expect the same in his threat to abandon thr Iran nuclear deal.
With this kind of president and this kind of team, Central Asia needs to keep its position finely aligned with each other and act as a united region. This is why the proposal of Turkmenistan merits urgent implementation.
Then there is the question of Iran, a country that is bent on maintaining confrontation with some countries. There is also the chance that if the nuclear deal gets disrupted, wholly or in part, Iran may make some sudden and unpredictable decisions. Also, there is the fact that Iran maintains a sandwich policy – keep relations tense with the neighbours and cordial with neighbour’s neighbours. If the region acts as a whole when talking to Iran, it will be useful for all sides.
The oil prices have risen considerably but this could be a temporary relief because some powers use the oil price as a strategic weapon. It is the race for Central Asia to shift their economies to non-hydrocarbon base as soon as possible. For this, there should be joint pursuit of cutting edge technologies and innovation. The energy-rich countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – should find a way to pull Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan along with them on the path of progress. This can be done if the heads of state meet periodically with a clearly defined agenda.
Now that Saudi Arabia claims to be moving toward the path of moderation, there is the need to deal with its legacy of yester-years when the extremist literature was being churned out by its scholars. Was the driving of vehicles by women actually forbidden by Islam or was it just the figment of some fevered mind? The female spectators in the stadiums were not allowed by Islam yesterday but they can be allowed today? Even just morning or evening walk by women, was it prohibited by Islam yesterday and can be allowed today? ——- The fact of the matter is that these and many other restrictions, and other extremist explanations, were inventions of the Saudi scholars or the scholars endorsed by them. Central Asia would need to deal with the fact that it is not Islam that they should be wary of but the brand of Islam that was exported to the world, including this region. The solution is not in shunning Islam. The way forward is to weed out the extremist literature and ideas, which don’t belong in Islam anyway, and encourage the local scholars to write the books that represent the true spirit of Islam. It is a job that requires close coordination among the Central Asia countries.
There is also the need to sustain balance in relations with the world and regional powers and that can best be done by maintaining a unified position on the key issues.
Additionally, there are a number of internal issues that require a permanent mechanism of consultation at the highest level. For example, the issue of shared water resources needs to be resolved with mutual consensus without damaging the interests of any country.
This can be done in many ways. One way is to provide Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with electricity in exchange of additional water. There can be many other ways, including the long-term support in building the industrial base of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Within the region, the countries can serve both as importer and exporter, meeting each other’s needs and thereby supporting each other’s economy.
Perhaps, now is also the time to consider creating ‘Made in Central Asia’ label for some of the products.
These are just some of the reasons that demand the creation of the consultative council of the heads of state in Central Asia.
To be continued . . .