Regionalism and Regional Cooperation in Central Asia

Published date01 April 2019
Date01 April 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Regionalism and
Regional Cooperation in
Central Asia
Ajay Patnaik1
In the post-Soviet period, Central Asia has lost the cohesiveness it had in the
Soviet period. The states of the region have since been seeking outward link-
ages to pursue their economic and security interests. In the process, the rela-
tion between the Central Asian countries weakened and, in some cases, became
adversarial. The nation-building process undertaken by the national leaders
alienated ethnic minorities and neighbouring states. As a result, the regional
mechanisms or organizations that have come up in the region are led or initi-
ated by powers such as Russia, China and the USA. The competing interests of
these powers have not helped in promoting cooperation among the Central
Asia countries though some of these organizations are useful for member states.
However, a new trend is visible since 2016 when a new leader became president
in Uzbekistan. Improved bilateral relations and summits of leaders of the region
create hope for a new regionalism in Central Asia that is based on the internal
cooperative dynamics within the region. This may not replace the already exist-
ing mechanisms or organizations. However, the process itself is conducive for
intra-regional cooperation and would be helpful in keeping the region free from
the geopolitical competition of external powers.
Regionalism, regional cooperation, security complex, geopolitics, horizontal
cooperation, vertical integration
1 School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Ajay Patnaik, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India.
International Studies
56(2–3) 147–162, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719852567
148 International Studies 56(2–3)
Regions have been conceptualized in many ways. Some take the region as pre-
given or natural. Others, known as the constructivists or post-structuralists, look
at the region as socially constructed and hence politically contested. This view
focuses on how political actors perceive and interpret the idea of a region, notions
of ‘regionness’ and region-building. According to constructivists, Soderbaum
argues, ‘there are no ‘natural’ regions; all regions are (at least potentially) hetero-
geneous with unclear territorial margins’ (Söderbaum, 2011, p. 6).
emphasize on institutions, which are seen as the most effective means for solving
common problems. ‘These are, in turn, instrumental for the creation of functional
as well as political spillover, and ultimately lead to a redefinition of group identity
around the regional unit’ (Söderbaum, 2011, p. 10).
Regionalism can be understood from endogenous as well as exogenous per-
spective. According to the former, regionalization is shaped by local actors from
within the region, while exogenous perspective views regionalism as a result of
actions of external actors. The exogenous perspective is advanced by neorealists.
Regions and regionalism may occur ‘either through geopolitical reasons or
through the politics of alliance formation (especially in order to counter the power
of another state or group of states, within or outside the region)’. A central neore-
alist proposition, according to Söderbaum, is that a hegemon or ‘stabilizer’ can
stimulate the emergence of regional cooperation and regional institutions in a
variety of ways (Söderbaum, 2011, p. 11). Barry Buzan questioned neorealism to
argue that power theorists underplay the importance of the regional level in inter-
national relations. He advanced the notion of a ‘regional security complex’—
originally defined as ‘a set of states whose major security perceptions and concerns
are so interlinked that their national security problems cannot reasonably be ana-
lyzed or resolved apart from one another’ (Buzan, 1991, p. 190, cited in Söderbaum,
2011, pp. 11–12).
How does then one define Central Asia as a region? Is it a natural one given
the geographic, cultural and linguistic commonality among people there? Or it
is a region constructed by the actions and policies of external powers? Is it a
security complex, where states within the region face similar threats that call for
collective efforts?
It appears that the Central Asian region has all the elements mentioned above.
Central Asia came into existence as a political unit in the late nineteenth century,
when Tsarist Russia for administrative purposes created the Governor-generalship
of Turkestan. Before that there was no common political identity and the people
were divided into subjects of three different Khanates. At the same time, the peo-
ple in the region shared ethnolinguistic, cultural and religious identities even
before they were administratively united. In the Soviet period, another aspect of
regional identity came into being. The intra-regional economic cohesion was the
focus of the Soviet policy in Central Asia. Looking from a constructivist point of
view, the creation of regional identity by Russia and later the Soviet Union
resulted in contestation in the post-Soviet period, leading to the collapse of the
earlier regionalism.

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