ASEAN provides a working framework for Central Asian states to engage in comprehensive regional cooperation to neutralize internal conflicts and survive great power competition.
A New Saigon
After years of fighting a rural insurgency, a rushed American withdrawal leads to the collapse of a Washington-backed government and the desperate, mass evacuation of former American allies. The resulting fall of the capital ushers in the establishment of a militant, authoritarian regime with a revisionist foreign policy, upsetting the regional balance of power.
The above is a description of the fall of Saigon in 1975. While the establishment of a unified Vietnam ended the civil war plaguing the country, it soon threatened to transform the political architecture of Southeast Asia. Endowed with a battle-hardened army, a rising Soviet-aligned Vietnam installed allied governments in Laos and Cambodia and looked poised to support Communist insurgents on Thailand’s northeastern frontier.
Facing this threat, Vietnam’s neighbors banded together to form an institution to foster regional cooperation in order to stabilize Southeast Asia. First established in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an international organization designed to foster collaboration and consensus on politico-security, economic, and sociocultural issues. The end of the Vietnam war in 1975 served as a formative experience for ASEAN that shaped the organization’s institutional framework.
Since the dramatic fall of Kabul in August, it appears the same story is now playing out in Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Afghan government, news cameras broadcasted harrowing images as thousands of expatriates and American allies attempted to flee the country. Over the course of two weeks, the United States and its allies airlifted an estimated 122,000 Western expatriates and Afghan refugees as NATO forces withdrew from the country, bringing an end to the twenty-year war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has changed the geopolitical map of Central Asia. With American power in the heart of the region now vanished, the question remains: what will fill this power vacuum? Already China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf monarchies are eyeing potential cooperation with the Taliban. So far, the former militants have made assurances to rein in terrorism and focus on economic cooperation. The United States and Europe are also watching the Taliban closely as they determine whether to renew Western development aid for Afghanistan’s beleaguered economy and social institutions.
But what about the interests of the smaller states in the region—the former Soviet republics of Central Asia? For months, the neighboring republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have had to face the reality of Taliban authority after the militants seized control of border crossings in June. Each nation has pursued its own approach; while Tajikistan looked to Russian military support to shore up its border defenses, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan opened diplomatic channels with the Taliban even before their victory.,,
Rather than waiting for the great powers to set the tone for engagement with the Taliban, the collective challenge posed by the fall of Kabul offers a unique opportunity for the Central Asian republics to chart their course for the region. Learning from ASEAN, the smaller states of the region can leverage the return of Taliban rule to institutionalize their regional cooperation and stabilize the historically fractious region by balancing the great powers circling Central Asia.
As the leaders of the Central Asian republics watch the ignominious conclusion of America’s War in Afghanistan, they are left with a stark choice. They can resort to calling on their former colonial power Russia and the rising economic and military power of China to defend their security interests. Or, the Central Asian republics can follow in the steps of ASEAN and use the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan as a catalyst to spur on greater cooperation within their region. The following outlines in detail the theoretical principles and historical precedent relevant to forming an ASEAN model for cooperation in Central Asia.
The Problem of Regional Unity
Currently, there is a growing realization of the need for greater regional cooperation among leaders of the Central Asian republics, spurred on by the growing interest in Central Asian trade. In 2018, former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev organized the first summit of regional heads of state in more than ten years in Astana, followed by a second summit in 2019. The 2019 summit resulted in a joint statement by all the Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan), recognizing and supporting the trend towards greater regional cooperation, calling on regional states’ leaderships to hold regular consultation with each other, and acknowledging the pressing threat of conflict in Afghanistan.
While an important step, the process of forming an effective institution for regional cooperation has eluded the Central Asian states. First proposed as an economic union in 1994, the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) was the most recent regional institution formed by the Central Asian republics. Yet, CACO is now mostly inoperative because the organization never successfully emerged from beneath the Russian-led union of former Soviet republics, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), due to internal rivalries and Moscow’s grip on the region.
CACO had numerous structural problems. Firstly, it did not include all states in the region. Secondly, it failed to establish a comprehensive consensus relationship among member states. Third, CACO lacked any strong institutional framework, such as a foundational charter or treaty. Finally, CACO’s primary focus was on economic prosperity, rather than a stable regional political order, which exacerbated the competition between regional economic elites. Without a strong regional, political, and cultural orientation, CACO could not bind the parties together and lacked any weight to balance against Russia or China and was ultimately rendered defunct by Moscow. Therefore, it is no surprise that the organization has all but faded into obscurity.
The failure of previous regional institutions is also a product of the region’s history under Russian rule. Since Moscow’s conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century and until the final dissolution of the USSR, the entirety of the region stood within the confines of Russia’s strategic orbit. In that sense, there existed real institutional unity across the region albeit under Russian rule. The introduction of the Soviet autonomies allowed Central Asian party bosses, like the infamous Sharof Rashidov, to negotiate with each other and Moscow for the control of national resources.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left an immediate power vacuum across Central Asia. Suddenly regional party bosses were now true national leaders, and their states were not a façade of autonomy but sovereign powers in the international system. The Chairman of the Central Asian Caucus Institute, S. Frederick Starr, noted that it has taken the Central Asian states almost thirty years since their independence to establish themselves as sovereign states. Unlike the Baltic or Caucasus republics, the Central Asia states did not advocate for their independence from the Soviet Union and instead were gifted independence when the USSR collapsed. Kazakhstan for example trailed behind as the last to formally declared its independence, even after Russia all but dissolved the Soviet empire.
Since then, each state has pursued its own path towards consolidating its political system. While Tajikistan resolved its political divisions through a bloody civil war, Kazakhstan did so with the liberal disbursement of oil rents, and Kyrgyzstan employed weak democratic institutions. However, all states are kleptocracies and oligarchies, ruled by former party elites who are chiefly focused on consolidating power while extracting wealth from the region’s abundant natural resources. To this day, their stability remains fragile.
Given this fragility, Russia has continued to reintegrate the region into its strategic orbit. Recognizing that it cannot simply reestablish the Soviet Union without the framework of a universalist ideology like Communism, Moscow now seeks the formation of a federation with the Central Asian states that maximizes Russia’s influence. This was first made apparent with the establishment of the CIS in 1993. Since, Russia has succeeded in leveraging its close security ties to form a collective military alliance in the CSTO with all the Central Asian states except isolationist, non-aligned Turkmenistan. However, Russia has had little success forming a common trade market in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and even less success coaxing Central Asian states to join the Russian Union State with Belarus.
Then, there is the disjointed nature of Russia’s approach to Eurasian unity. The CIS offered a clear political framework for a successor federal state, but while it has strong institutions, it is a shell organization that lacks the consensus diplomacy vital to effective cooperation. As such, Russia was forced to pursue separate security and economic cooperation through the CSTO and EAEU. This has created a patchwork arrangement whereby Russia has different relations with different Central Asian states rather than the states forming a comprehensive framework for regional cooperation. This framework exacerbates conflict in Central Asia as the smaller states of the region attempt to either leverage their alliance with Russia, or with competing powers like the United States and China, against each other and Moscow.
The return of Russian rule through federation is also insufficient in part because modern Russia lacks the institutional capabilities or resources of the Soviet Union. With its declining population and limited financial resources, it seems unlikely that Russia can assume the awesome responsibility of managing some 72 million Central Asians across five separate states, not including Afghanistan. Moscow already struggles with controlling its autonomous republics from Chechnya to Tatarstan and is also invested in integrating Belarus, Crimea, and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria into the Russian state.
Today, Russia is no longer the region’s largest trading partner, falling to third behind the European Union and China. Beijing has made the region a major focus of its larger Belt and Road Initiative designed to build infrastructure across Central Asia to connect the landlocked states with the markets of Asia and Europe. It has also looked to strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a Sino-centric diplomatic forum focused on security and counter-terrorism cooperation. Yet, China too is still unready to take responsibility for managing the region’s security. In fact, it had previously looked to preserve the American presence in Afghanistan to prevent the emergence of new threats emanating from Central Asia. Furthermore, China’s brutal crackdown on its citizens in Xinjiang and Tibet demonstrates that Beijing is already fully preoccupied with controlling its Western frontiers rather than managing the region.
Crucially, CACO lacked a common vision for the region. For any ASEAN model of regional cooperation to succeed, cooperation must come from a shared vision and consensus on the vision and strategy. When the first ASEAN member states formed the organization in 1967, that vision was clear: to use regional cooperation and consensus as a means of ending interstate conflict and competition within Southeast Asia. They used that mechanism to escape the Cold War-era strategic competition between the US and USSR that threatened the survival of the region’s nascent smaller states throughout the 1960s and 70s, which then allowed the states to focus on economic development.
This is a very different model than the previous approach to cooperation pursued in Central Asia. Firstly, CACO was largely focused on economic advancement whilst ASEAN encompasses political, security, cultural, as well as economic cooperation. Secondly, CACO failed to form a consensus of all the region’s smaller states, whilst consensus diplomacy is the cornerstone of ASEAN’s form of cooperation. But most of all, CACO lacked the strategic vision to unify the region and balance external powers. As such, it never rose above the petty regional politics that ultimately allowed Russia to co-opt the organization.
As such, an organization of the region’s smaller states along the lines of ASEAN seems to have the greatest prospect for establishing a stable regional architecture. Such an institution must seek to preserve the status quo of the current arrangement of nation-states through regular diplomatic engagement with all the states of Central Asia and the regions beyond.
Learning From ASEAN
ASEAN provides Central Asia with both a theoretical and a practical model to follow. The key to make this regional cooperation a reality is to mimic ASEAN’s actions as it dealt with the parallel to the Taliban takeover today—the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam.
The fall of Saigon was a formative moment for the organization. The member states quickly responded to the changed strategic environment by furthering regional cooperation as a means of stabilizing the region. The following year at the 1976 Bali Conference, the member states agreed to strengthen the institutional framework of the organization by defining the principles of the “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy. Those principles first outlined by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) include the non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the equality of all member states regardless of size or stature, and the acceptance of agreements by consensus.
However, while the threat of the Vietnamese regime spurred on this cooperation, ASEAN was not an alliance opposed to Vietnam as a Communist state. Even throughout the depths of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, the organization maintained its willingness to engage with Hanoi provided it altered its revisionist foreign policy and embraced the regional status quo. When Vietnam looked to diversify its foreign relations and reform its economy after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ASEAN members welcomed Hanoi into the organization with open arms. Vietnam joined as an equal partner and remains one of ASEAN’s most active member states today.
This highlights why ASEAN remains a unique organization in the international system. It is an alignment of smaller states that uses their collective cooperation to neutralize competition within the region to balance between competing powers external to the region. This leaves ASEAN with an unparalleled unity and an ability to articulate a strategy that preserves both the national interests of the individual member states and the collective interests of the larger body. The result is a stable regional balance of power that upholds the status quo regional architecture of Southeast Asia, preventing interstate conflict in the region for more than fifty years.
The mechanism is, of course, regular and comprehensive diplomacy on political, economic, and cultural issues to establish a regional consensus on even the most benign matters affecting the member states. Once an organization led by foreign ministers, ASEAN now includes hundreds of regularly scheduled meetings between national leaders, cabinet ministers, military and security branches, specialized agencies, non-governmental organizations, and eminent persons. This creates a strong culture of diplomacy that helps bind the states together to pursue peaceful methods towards resolving regional disputes ranging from issues of borders to trade. Moreover, it allows the organization to overcome the wide diversity of its member states in their political systems, religion, ethnicity, economies, and even the overall nature of their societies.
In other words, ASEAN is an example of realism at its finest. This modern interpretation of political realism is not the historical realpolitik, whereby the strongest states use coercion and naked power to dominate the international system. Rather it is a modified conception of classical realism, predicated on the need for diplomacy that leverages all the elements of a state’s national power to establish a stable balance of power, ultimately achieved through the formation of an elite culture of diplomacy. ASEAN has proven with its consensus diplomacy that this process is not only the purview of great powers from 19th century Europe but is also available to smaller states in the international system.
This is also pragmatic rather than cultural. The contemporary academic and public discourse that justifies ASEAN cooperation as derived from a unique Southeast Asia culture is a useful means to add a sociological weight to what is simply collective pragmatism informed by realism. While vital to the organization, it is, as I would argue, not the root of ASEAN’s cooperation. Therefore, culture is certainly not a barrier to the adoption of the ASEAN model in Central Asia. There is no reason why the Central Asian states cannot pragmatically pursue cooperation, and later justify such cooperation in sociocultural terms, such as a legacy of an inherent pastoral nomadic tradition of negotiation and consensus between competing tribal interests.
From Southeast Asia to Central Asia
The current crisis in Afghanistan provides a rare opportunity. Just as the fall of Saigon forced the ASEAN states to regularize their cooperation, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban can catalyze the regularization of cooperation in Central Asia. The dramatic images of Taliban fighters marching into Afghan cities with white flags may incite formalization of the emerging consensus of the 2019 Astana summit, likely in the form of a treaty or the signing of a charter for a new Central Asian regional organization. The Taliban’s resurgence also provides an opportunity for the Central Asian states to obtain external buy-in for their cooperation. An effective institution for regional cooperation can fill the power vacuum left by America’s withdrawal—that is good for Moscow, Beijing, Washington, and all the other foreign capitals currently fretting about the future of the region.
In a fluid environment, the Central Asian states’ most effective approach to make this cooperation a reality will be top-down direction based on a political process resulting in a consensus. This process will primarily focus on individual state sovereignty and a consensus approach to regional cooperation that is comprehensive. As ASEAN did when it agreed to the TAC in 1976, this can be delineated with formal treaties, charters, and documents setting up the institutions of the organization and strengthened by a summit that invites the signatories to publicly observe their newfound cooperation. Importantly, the process and intentions of states must remain transparent and clear, as to prevent any attempts by external actors to play spoiler.
While a strong institutional framework is vital for cooperation, effective cooperation is less about establishing specific institutional agreements and more about establishing institutional norms that regularize regional diplomacy. There must exist a top-down political will from each country’s political elites to form genuine bonds and to encourage cooperation. That constant engagement with fellow member states sets apart ASEAN from other theoretically consensus-based organizations like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. But without national leaders and diplomats willing and able to engage with each other, effective regional cooperation is impossible.
For this process to be effective, such an organization must focus solely on regional cooperation—not integration. While cooperation uses diplomacy to find areas of mutual interest between equal partners, integration entails the merger of national institutions. That remains a difficult bridge to cross for the young independent states of Central Asia. Nor should they necessarily desire integration considering the threat federation may pose towards the carefully cultivated nationalism of the Central Asian states, let alone to their continued independence from Moscow. Cooperation does not require the enmeshment of domestic institutions provided the arrangement respects the autonomy of each member state.
Respect for the autonomy of member states is the hallmark of the “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy, made a reality by strict adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other member states. Non-interference allows ASEAN states to engage with each other regardless of differences in religions, ethnicities, and political systems. In Central Asia, states have tried to define their concepts of nationhood despite sharing in many ways a common history and culture. Therefore, an effective institution must allow Turkmenistan to remain an isolationist neutral nation, Kyrgyzstan a fragile democracy, and Tajikistan the only non-Turkic state, simultaneously. Without that guarantee of non-interference, national governments will remain suspicious of their neighbors and unable to cooperate.
Central Asian republics must also remain open to engaging with and including Afghanistan in the regional security architecture, especially with the Taliban victory. Since ASEAN took a neutral approach to Vietnam’s domestic political system, the Central Asian nations should mirror that behavior as long as the government in power in Kabul accepts the regional political status quo. So far, the Taliban’s stated acceptance of the national borders of the Central Asian republics is promising. The integration of Afghanistan into a stable regional balance of power is a necessity to permanently neutralize the threat the country has posed to Central Asia since the 1970s.
However, the goal of regional cooperation is not to form an alliance dedicated to ousting the Taliban. As reprehensible as the Taliban may be, their control of Afghanistan means the Central Asian states will need to engage with the new rulers of Kabul. Even those republics most opposed to the Taliban, like Tajikistan, will find that with the fall of the Panjshir Valley, there is currently no significant bastion of organized resistance to the militants. Nor is there enough trust present among the Central Asian republics for such close security cooperation, certainly not enough to lead to the formation of any effective military alliance considering the complex web of Soviet-era border disputes that continues to entangle the regional states. The goal of Central Asian unity is not to embroil the member states in the problems of Afghanistan, but rather to provide a pathway towards cooperation that fills the power vacuum left by the American withdrawal.
Moreover, cooperation between Central Asian nations does not replace engagement with Moscow, let alone Beijing. Russia will remain the favored security partner of the Central Asian republics as the only state ready and willing to deploy military forces to defend their regimes from internal or external threats. China will also continue to grow as a trade partner as part of its larger Belt and Road Initiative to expand infrastructure connections across Eurasia. Rather, cooperation between the Central Asian republics is a means of augmenting the Russian security presence so that the Central Asian states can rely less on external powers for regional stability.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN never forced the Philippines or Thailand to sever their alliances with the United States. Rather it used consensus to gradually build up a “security community” of the regional states that relied on regular diplomacy and cooperation as a means of neutralizing regional threats. This ultimately gave Bangkok and Manila the confidence needed to shutter the American bases stationed on their soil, at least temporarily. A similar model in Central Asia would allow those smaller states to maintain their security ties with Russia while prioritizing cooperation to ultimately reduce their current dependence on Moscow. The goal is to balance the interests of the great powers, not to reject their regional influence.
A New Vision for Regional Cooperation
Ultimately, the real power of a truly relevant framework for regional cooperation is its ability to balance between competing powers in the international system. While Moscow continues to pursue exclusive security and economic arrangements with each state, the larger region is buffeted by growing Chinese trade and investment; American security cooperation; and the aspirations of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, the European Union, and Japan.
By virtue of their geography, Central Asian republics lie in between these competing powers. Their only hope to escape the threat of a new Great Game is to pursue regional cooperation, just like ASEAN did to survive the instability of the Cold War, in order to survive the newfound Sino-American great power competition over the Asia-Pacific. A stronger collective voice could moderate Russian security cooperation with Chinese trade and America’s renewed interest in regional security post-withdrawal. This is not to say that individual states will replace their bilateral ties, rather that regional cooperation is a means of prioritizing the needs of the Central Asian republics and reducing the influence of external powers.
While an ambitious goal, it remains within the realm of possibility. Therefore, the reestablishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan may have a silver lining, as it forces regional states to think about cooperation and strengthening regional institutions. It is only through the establishment of comprehensive partnerships and diplomatic consensus that the region can end this chapter of conflict and chaos and begin a new chapter of cooperation.
 Natasha Turak, “Chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as Afghans and foreign nationals flee Taliban,” CNBC, August 16, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/16/chaotic-scenes-at-kabul-airport-as-afghans-flee-taliban.html.
 Caroline Linton and Eleanor Watson, “Pentagon announces last U.S. troops have left Afghanistan,” CBS News, Aug. 31, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/afghanistan-withdrawal-united-states-troops-pentagon/.
 “Taliban invite Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar for govt formation event,” The Week, last updated September 06, 2021, https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2021/09/06/taliban-invite-turkey-china-russia-iran-pakistan-and-qatar-for-govt-formation-event.html.
 “Transcript of Taliban’s first news conference in Kabul,” Aljazeera, last updatedAugust 17, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/17/transcript-of-talibans-first-press-conference-in-kabul.
 Momoko Kidera, Tsukasa Hadano, and Moyuru Baba, “Aid for Taliban-led Afghanistan poses dilemma for West,” Nikkei Asia, September 15, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Afghanistan-turmoil/Aid-for-Taliban-led-Afghanistan-poses-dilemma-for-West.
 Akhal-Teke, “Turkmenistan: As Taliban arrives at the gates, diplomats and army scramble,” Eurasianet, July 13, 2021), https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-as-taliban-arrives-at-the-gates-diplomats-and-army-scramble.
 Gavin Helf and Barmak Pazhwak “Central Asia Prepares for Taliban Takeover,” United States Institute of Peace, July 20, 2021, https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/07/central-asia-prepares-taliban-takeover.
 “Tajikistan asks Russia-led bloc for help on Afghan border,” Reuters,last updated July 07, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/russia-says-afghan-situation-can-swiftly-worsen-pledges-help-if-needed-2021-07-07/.
 Pepe Escobar, “China, Russia are stage-managing the Taliban,” Asia Times, last updated August 19, 2021, https://asiatimes.com/2021/08/china-russia-are-stage-managing-the-taliban/.
 Moez Hayat, “Afghanistan and Central Asia’s ASEAN Moment,” The Diplomat, August 10, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/afghanistan-and-central-asias-asean-moment/.
 Bruce Pannier, “Why This Central Asian Summit Could Be Different,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 14, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/amp/qishlow-ovozi-central-asian-summit-astana/29099148.html.
 “Joint Statement of the Consultative meeting of the heads of states of Central Asia,” United Nations, last updated November 29, 2019, https://www.un.int/uzbekistan/news/joint-statement-consultative-meeting-heads-states-central-asia.
 S. Frederick Starr, “Is This Central Asia’s ASEAN Moment?” The Diplomat, December 05, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/12/is-this-central-asias-asean-moment/.
 “Central Asia: Is the Ménage À Trois with China and Russia Sustainable?” Coface, last updated April 18, 2019, https://www.coface.com/News-Publications/Publications/Central-Asia-is-the-menage-a-trois-with-China-and-Russia-sustainable.
 Roza Nurgozhayeva, “How Is China’s Belt and Road Changing Central Asia?” The Diplomat, July 09, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/how-is-chinas-belt-and-road-changing-central-asia/.
 Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Pawn or Queen? ASEAN on the Chessboard,” The Asia Chessboard, June 25, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/pawn-or-queen-asean-chessboard.