Central Asia, Global Terrorism & Asia-Pacific Security

(February 12-14, 2003)


Dr. Rouben Azizian
Dr. Elizabeth Van Wie Davis



Executive Summary:  On February 12-14, 2003, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference on the global war on terrorism, the momentous transformations in Central Asia, and the impact of these developments on Asia-Pacific security.  The conference brought together ambassadors, senior diplomats, prominent practitioners and  leading academics from 10 countries of the region. Discussions focused on regional cooperation against terrorism, domestic and external sources of Islamic militancy, nationalism and war, transnational crime and human security, Central Asia’s energy resources, geopolitical interests of the Great Powers and confidence building measures in the region.  The following is a summary of the key findings from the conference:


The War Against Global Terrorism Has United Most of the Major Powers and Regional Actors Around the Common Concerns but There Are Important Differences in Approach and Emphasis. The U.S. mission of restoring regional stability, supporting a lasting peace, and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is widely supported by the representatives from Russia, China, South Asia and the Central Asian republics.  There is some debate about how those goals can best be achieved.  The current focus on combat is seen as a prelude to a more fundamental and comprehensive approach to the terrorist phenomenon. There is both a concern that the United States may lose interest in the region and be distracted by events in Iraq as well as apprehension that the U.S. troops in Central Asia may be deployed indefinitely and be assigned tasks of a different nature, such as containment of China and Russia.   As for the duration of the war against Al-Qaeda, estimates varied from 5 years to indefinite. Pessimists believe that terrorism is a side effect of globalization and will continue to accompany it.


The Five Countries of Central Asia Have No Hesitation in Supporting the War on Terrorism and Eliminating Al-Qaeda and Taliban. From the mid-90s they have had to confront terrorist actions emanating primarily from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Their consent to the presence of international security forces was a calculated step meeting their own national interests and should not be regarded as a reluctant concession to great power pressure. The Central Asian states will continue their cooperation with the U.S. and other members of the antiterrorist coalition as long as they remain the target of extremist forces and do not become pawns in geopolitical rivalry. They regard the decline in militant activities in the region after the destruction of the Taliban as temporary and tactical. Some call it a pause before a bigger storm.


The Region Remains Vulnerable to International Terrorism due to its geographic location and the complexity of political, ethnic, social and economic factors produced by the painful transition of young Central Asian nations from their communist past to a more democratic future.  Central Asia is impacted by continued conflict and tension in Afghanistan and the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, as well as the Chechen Republic in Russia. It experiences the influence of radical forces in the Islamic world, which are trying to fill the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet communism. While the revival of Islamic religion and values after decades of suppression is a natural phenomenon and part of legitimate national self-identification, attempts to replace one (Communist) ideological dogma by another (Islamic) are recognized as harmful to the process of democratization in Central Asia.


Countries in the Region Have Much in Common from Historical, Cultural, and Political Perspectives But They Should Be Appreciated in Their Individual Capacity and According to Their Specific Societal Challenges.  The importance of democratization and good governance is recognized but should not be promoted in an abstract form. Tajikistan’s experience of incorporating Islamists into the government offers a useful example, but has to be tailored to concrete national circumstances. In principle the Central Asian experts agree that the best remedy to fight terrorism is to eliminate its social and economic roots and perhaps to integrate radical Islamic forces, such as the Hizb-ut Tahrir, in the mainstream political process before they turn to violence like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.    


Better Coordination Among the Regional States and More Understanding and Assistance from the Outside World in Fighting Transnational Crime and Arms Proliferation are required to neutralize the fertile breeding ground for extremist activities.  Drug trafficking in Afghanistan and Central Asia has even increased, and increased significantly, after the elimination of the Taliban. While the Central Asian states and Russia point to the lack of funding for border guard training and specialized equipment to stop well-financed narcotics smuggling rings, Western observers believe a major cause is also endemic corruption among government officials and others charged with fighting the drug trade. During the Soviet era, Central Asia played a key role in the development of weapons of mass destruction. The Soviet legacy makes Central Asia a potential terrorist “supermarket.” Many of the old biological, nuclear and chemical test sites offer opportunities for terrorists to obtain radioactive material for “dirty bombs” or spores for biological research and weaponization.


Poverty, Political Frustration and the Role of Pariah in International Relations Does Not Have to Be the Fate of the Region. The region is rich in mineral resources, particularly oil and gas, and is well positioned to meet the growing energy requirements of the Asia-Pacific region. It is not likely, however, to happen in the near future due to significant transportation costs and lack of trust between regional actors. The process could be expedited if the Middle Eastern oil supplies were interrupted or if the cost of the technology to build long-distance pipelines was dramatically reduced. 

The Interest of Major Powers in the Region has Substantially Increased Due to Concerns Over the Terrorist Threat as Well as Availability of Energy Resources.
Geopolitical aims and abilities of the major powers both coincide and diverge with particular regard to their changing strengths and status.  The Chinese interests in the region seem to exist on multiple levels:  an ambition to replace the former Soviet Union as the determining power in the region, desire to access the vital energy resources, fears of transnational crime and terrorism spreading into China’s Western regions, and an emphasis on trade and economic expansion.  The Russian aims are both more complex and more straight forward:  as the former cohabitants of the same country (the Soviet Union) as well as their own war in Afghanistan, the Russians are intimately familiar with the problems that exist within the region in addition to wanting to maintain their position as the preeminent power in the region often characterized as the “Russian backyard.”  For the newly independent states of the region, Russia remains not only a traditional partner but also a natural bridge to the West.  While Iran and India back Russia’s leading role, Turkey treats Russia as more of a rival. 


Confidence Building Measures in the Region Are Seen As Well Underway.  The unprecedented activity of all great powers in the region objectively requires formulation of rules of interaction and formation of institutions to support them. While confidence building measures have been widely promoted, the regional countries stick to their preferred diplomatic processes without much enthusiasm about better coordination between different regional groupings.  The Chinese seem to be the most interested in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) while the Russians refer frequently to the collective security obligations of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A Central Asian preference is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and promulgation of the region as a nuclear free zone.  The compromise focused on the concept of a “concert of powers” in the region with all sacrificing some interests to gain other larger objectives.


Asia-Pacific Security Is Increasingly Dependant on the Global War on Terrorism and the Great Power Interests in the Region.  As Asia is a world region of extraordinary diversity, it is extremely difficult to bring it under a single rubric.  The United States is involved everywhere in Asia, but that involvement does not provide a common denominator for the region. It, however, provides for great flexibility—and over the years the U.S. has been rather successful in defending and promoting its interest in Asia in ways that are advantageous to its local partners too—but it makes it extraordinarily difficult to make coherent policy for the whole Asian region.  The countries in the region seem to understand it and accept it. They, however, want to have a stronger voice in shaping Asian security and are disturbed by lack of consultation with them. Another issue is the consistency of the U.S. policy in view of policy divergence between the Republicans and Democrats, particularly on North Korea, China, and multilateralism. Asia is not only growing prosperous it is also susceptible to acute instability. It contains the most threatening sources of global terrorism, the most severe international territorial disputes, the largest militaries, and the potential to develop, acquire, use or export weapons of mass destruction.  The region needs a regular dialogue and a steady and inclusive confidence-building process.