The New Silk Road and New Continentalism (1)

Emerging Geopolitics and Geoeconomics in Central and South Asia

On July 9, the day following the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan at which the international community pledged $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan under a new mutual accountability framework, the Tokyo Foundation and the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University co-organized a symposium attended by many of the senior government officials, international organization representatives, and scholars who took part in the Afghanistan conference.

The symposium at the Tokyo Foundation discussed a broad range of issues confronting the Central and South Asian region, including those pertaining to regional connectivity, energy and mineral potential, obstacles to private-sector investment, and areas for enhanced Japan-US cooperation. Japan has emerged as Afghanistan’s second biggest donor of official development assistance after the United States, while Washington has identified a vision—dubbed the New Silk Road—for this highly strategic area aimed at forging closer regional economic ties.

The symposium's first session focusing on the New Silk Road and New Continentalism—an emerging configuration in continental Asia driven by economic growth, rising energy demand, and the erosion of longstanding geopolitical divisions—was open to the public and held as the 50th Tokyo Foundation Forum. The following is a report of the Forum.

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Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto
Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto

Prior to the start of the session, brief opening addresses were made by Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Japanese government's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Jawed Ludin, deputy foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; and Michael Keating, the deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general for Afghanistan.

Ambassador Yamamoto described the ministerial conference on assistance for Afghanistan held the preceding day as a “satisfactory" meeting that will contribute to Afghanistan's development following the withdrawal of most international troops after 2014, but he pointed to the need to do much more.

It was the second such meeting hosted by Japan, the first being in January 2002 just after the collapse of the Taliban regime. This time, the conference attracted delegates from 55 countries and 25 international and regional organizations and was "far more strategic and political," Yamamoto noted. "The most important result of the meeting was that we succeeded in sending a strategic message that Afghanistan is capable of sustainable development toward self-reliance over the next 10 years." There has been an enormous improvement in people's livelihoods over the past decade, he noted, with GDP growing fivefold, access to public health services being dramatically enhanced, and human rights, especially rights of women and children making great progress.

The second message of the conference was that the international community will continue to support Afghan efforts, "led and owned by Afghanistan," to become a peaceful and stable state governed by the rule of law.

These messages were intended for three groups: the Afghan people themselves, the Taliban and other insurgent groups who will be marginalized as peace takes root and the economy develops, and the international community, which will be called upon to provide special assistance and cooperation over the next 10 years until political stability is achieved.

The message cannot be sent just with words, Yamamoto said. The Tokyo Declaration thus establishes a mutual accountability framework under which the government of Afghanistan commits itself to improving governance so that international assistance can be implemented effectively and with transparency and so that achievements are ascertained accurately and adjusted accordingly. The international community, meanwhile, commits itself to take concrete steps to follow through on its assistance by reviewing the progress made at regular ministerial- and senior-official-level meetings.

Another major agenda of the Tokyo meeting was regional cooperation with neighboring countries—a very sensitive and important area, Yamamoto said. Efforts like the Istanbul Process involving 15 regional countries have been led by Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin and other officials, who have been able to change the attitudes of some countries that were initially skeptical of region-led initiatives that were seen as overlapping existing efforts.

Unequivocal Message of Support

Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin
Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin

In contrast to Ambassador Yamamoto's "modest appraisal," Ludin, who was a panelist at the Forum, described the Tokyo conference as a "landmark event" leading to an "unequivocal message of support" for the next decade at a time of great financial hardship for many countries. The Tokyo conference was cause for optimism, he said, for not just Afghanistan but also the future of international intervention to strengthen the agenda of peace and security.

"We can prove the naysayers wrong," he noted, "by showing that the international community does have the ability to stay the course." With the mutual accountability framework, he added, "the ball is now in our court." He posited that in addition to the messages to the three groups laid by Yamamoto, a fourth group would be Afghanistan's regional neighbors, particularly those elements that have an interest in eroding security and stability: "Those who want to wait us out and test our patience got the message that the international community will be investing in Afghanistan and that the primarily beneficiaries of Afghanistan’s transformation will be other countries in the region through enhanced economic interaction and political stability. We're not just a historic crossroads but can be a modern land bridge for trade transit, exploring new outlets not just for our own country but for the entire region."

The Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan "rebooted the international community's collective efforts," noted Michael Keating, the deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general for Afghanistan. The conference, he said, focused on approaches to grasping Afghanistan's enormous modern possibilities.

"While successful economic development and growth in trade and investment will contribute to peace and stability," Keating said, "human development will be the real yardstick for the United Nations. What matters for us is converting investments and the country's rich natural resources into things that benefit people and improve their quality of life, such as educational opportunities, better health services, and new jobs."

Ambassador Tadamichi Yamamoto
Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan Michael Keating

Afghan ownership of the process is crucial, he added, as this will substantially enhance the likelihood of success; already, Afghanistan has hosted the Heart of Asia ministerial conference of the Istanbul Process, which has introduced important confidence-building measures, and the country is steadily emerging as "an agent of international cooperation—not a beneficiary—with a real sense of common purpose."

Drawing on the lessons learned over the past decade, though, the pursuit of development goals requires a realistic time frame and a "practical, doable agenda," Keating said. "There is a need to understand why things haven't worked in the past. Rather than seek the ideal, synergies must be created among the 'alphabet soup' of initiatives that are already in progress and working in the region—such as all the UN agencies, ADB, CAREC, and SAARC—to turn wonderful ideas into real benefits for people in the region."

Continued in Part 2.

Tokyo Foundation