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Noemi M. Rocca

From Connectivity and Security to Regional Integration? The “Central Asian corridor” region1

(2/2021 - Special issue Western Balkans, European Union and Emerging Powers)
Open Access


This article argues that the “Central Asian corridor” – a region including Iran, China, and the five Central Asia (CA) post-Soviet states, that is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – is experiencing an informal process of region-building. Its internal drivers are represented by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and an Iranian renewed Eastward attitude. Although the BRI’s main goal is that of constructing a wide transports infrastructure for connecting Chinese goods with Western markets, it also has the potential of enhancing connectivity and economic growth in CA. Iran can make its huge gas and oil reserves available as well as its already existing transports network capable of connecting land-locked Western China and CA to the Persian Gulf. Together such drivers could increase energy self-sufficiency of the region and lead it to economic interdependency. Moreover, given that all of these seven states share regional stability and security as main policy concerns, their mutual engagement can help to avoid inter-state and intra-state conflicts within the region. The first part of the article is devoted to the theoretical debate about regionalism, in particular in CA. The second one deals with the main features of the integration process under construction in the “Central Asian corridor”.

Index by keyword : Central Asia, regional integration, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)


1The research problem this article intends to address is represented by the existence of processes of regional integration different from the institutionalized ones as represented, for instance, by the process of integration experienced by Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. Its research question is the following: is a kind of informal, not completely institutionalized regionalism arising between the seven countries belonging to the “Central Asian (CA) corridor” region, that is the region made up by the five CA post-Soviet states plus Iran and China? The first hypothesis on which this article is based is that every process of regional integration represents an historically determined experience and that consequently different empirical forms can emerge in different political, social, and economic environments. According to the second hypothesis, the internal drivers of such “loose” kind integration process can be represented not only by commercial and economic commonly planned objectives, but also by the de facto economic and infrastructural interconnections which empirically arise between a group of states. Finally, another hypothesis is the one according to which common and shared security concerns also can contribute to pushing states towards informal forms of regional integration. The steps which this article will follow to answer its research question can be summarized in the following ones. Firstly, a review of the theories regarding the “new” forms of regionalism. Secondly, an analysis of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in CA, and of the implications of the Iranian renewed “Eastward attitude” in terms of economic and political relations with China and the five CA states. Thirdly, an analysis of the security policies bilaterally or multilaterally developed by the states of the “CA corridor” for addressing common security concerns.

Regional integration as an historically determined experience

What regionalism

2Regionalism appears as increasingly questioned. From a theoretical point of view, the problems that social scientists face in studying regions and regionalism don’t seem completely solved (Hettne, 2005). Concerning in particular the European Union (EU), critical “stand-by” situations abound. The Turkish assertive behavior versus the EU after many years of “courting” for accessing it, and the slowdown in the Western Balkan states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) process of EU access, are just two striking cases. However, it is within the EU itself – so far still one of the most successful examples of regional integration – that an increasing number of disconnecting phenomena are challenging its model of regionalism. In fact, the “Brexit breakout” concluded in 2020, the ongoing political tensions between the EU Commission and some members’ governments (as the Hungarian and the Polish ones), the rise of populist anti-EU parties calling for Brexit-like national referendums, and, finally, institutional crises inside the member states (as the one between the Spanish central government and its Catalan regional parliament and government which dramatically erupted in 2017) can be seen as disintegrating forces at work inside the European regional integration process. Yet, drawing ultimate conclusions about the future of regionalism by focusing on the European case can be misleading. As Shaun Breslin argued “the EU as an exercise in regional integration is one of the major obstacles to the development of analytical and theoretical comparative studies of regional integration” (Breslin, 2002, p. 11). The reason why the EU can no longer represent a model of integration is represented by the absence, in the current international context, of two of the main features which characterized the political and economic context within which the European integration process took place: bipolarity and a limited internationalization of industrial production. Western regional integration empirical cases and the so-called “old” regionalism theoretical framework were indeed deeply linked to bipolarism (Ethier, 1998). Whilst the so-called “new regionalism”, with its minor emphasis on institutions and causal relations, is related to multilateralism and economic liberalization. In addition, in Europe, “conditions of democracy and pluralistic representation” had represented a necessary factor for spill-over effect and, therefore, for processes of increasing integration (Schmitter, 2019). In other words, it is important to contextualize the European highly institutionalized, “hard” form (Fawcett, 2004) of regional integration. This contextualization means to acknowledge that the European process of regional integration represents an historically determined experience and that other empirical forms can emerge in political, social, and economic environments which are different from the European one. For instance, Peter J. Katzenstein pointed out the differences between Western and Asian processes of regional integration, the former characterized by formal and exclusive patterns, the latter by informal and inclusive networks (Katzenstein, 1996). Alisher Faizzullaev, by considering in particular interstate relations in CA, argued that:

[…] neighboring states with underdeveloped institutional ties but common culture, tend to enter into informal interactions by using cultural codes and patterns. […] Institutional based interstate interactions can be verifiable for external observers, but cultural based international interactions require knowledge of that cultural. In other words, those who are not familiar with a particular culture may have difficulties even in noticing the cultural based interactions (Faizzullaev, 2014, pp. 17-18).

3The EU, in some of its foreign and security policies documents devoted to its relationship with external areas as the CA, stated that:

[v]oluntary forms of regional governance offer states and peoples the opportunity to better manage security concerns, reap the economic gains of globalization, express more fully cultures and identities, and project influence in world affairs. […] Regional orders do not take a single form. […] Cooperative regional orders […] are not created only by organizations. They comprise a mix of bilateral, sub-regional, regional and inter-regional relations. They also feature the role of global players interlinked with regionally-owned cooperative efforts. Taken together these can address transnational conflicts, challenges and opportunities (Mogherini, 2016).

4Such statements are important since they indirectly recognize that informal, loose patterns of regionalisms do exist in CA, that they can be effective for addressing social and political issues, and, therefore, that they deserve to be supported by the EU. For Chinara Esengul, the main characteristic of the East Asian regionalism is the fact that planned and formalized actions finalized to regional integration overlap with informal ones which are market-driven instead of being politically planned (Esengul, 2011). This article argues that it is such a form of regionalism that can potentially emerge in CA. The importance of considering informal institutions as drivers of political behavior was already argued by Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky (Helmke and Levitsky, 2004). Moreover, Anna Grzymala-Busse and Pauline Jones Luong stressed that informal institutions, together with external pressure and historical speed, represent key-concepts to be taken into account in the assessment in particular of the post-Soviet states’ state-building process (Grzymala-Busse and Luong, 2002). This article emphasizes that such a theoretical frame should also be applied for investigating processes of region-building which take place within the CA post-Soviet space. In fact, “most international relations scholars analyze regional cooperation and integration through the prism of institutional engagement. […] However, regional institutions’ role in interstate relations may vary, depending on different political, economic and social factors” (Faizullaev, 2014, p. 18). Similarly, although the five CA post-Soviet states – that is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – can be said as being at a “pre-negotiation situation”, a regional integration process is nevertheless taking place among them in which China and Iran play a crucial role. A process which has the potential to develop furtherly, even with an only partial institutional engagement.

Regionalism and CA: a debated issue

5This article does not intend to prove nor to contest the effectiveness of the many regional organizations which have been established between all or some of the five CA post-Soviet states with or without external actors – as the Central Asian Commonwealth (CAC), the Central Asian Economic Union (CAEU), the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC), the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) – some of which have already ceased to exist2. Such complex dynamics of appearances/disappearances of regional groupings can indeed be considered as symptoms of a potential capability of integration which, so far, could not take advantage of favorable contextual conditions. Rather, by looking at the increasing diplomatic, military, economic, industrial, infrastructural and commercial ties between the countries of what herein is defined as the “CA corridor” – consisting of the CA post-Soviet states plus Iran and China – this article argues that a “loose regionalization” process (Anoushiravan, 2015a) is currently under way. According to academic literature on regionalism in CA, the concept of regionalism itself can hardly be used in all senses (Esengul, 2009). In fact, according to that literature, regional cooperation in CA, although potentially attractive, would be negatively affected by various factors. Among them there are leadership rivalry as well as dissimilarities in the distribution of resources and in the political and economic strategies chosen by the five states’ governments. Additionally, CA political elites are supposed to perceive a deep dichotomy – influenced by their former Soviet experience – between statehood and regional security as well as between nationalism and regionalism (Esengul et al., 2015). Such and other constraints would obstruct top-down state-centric forms of regionalism as well as informal regionalist processes “from below” (Bohr, 2004). From a different perspective, Roy Allison underlined that the only regional integration experiments between the five CA post-Soviet states which until now have been effective were those aimed to security (Allison, 2004). Therefore, for that author, the CA regionalism is a virtual one, finalized only to regime security (Allison, 2008). John Heathershaw and Alexander Cooley made a critical assessment of the poor results obtained in the process of regional integration of the CA post-Soviet states by comparing them with the high level of their elites’ global integration (Heathershaw and Cooley, 2017). This article makes a departure from such a literature. In fact, it argues that since 2013 an informal, loose process of integration has been taking place in the region made up by the five CA post-Soviet states plus China and Iran, which here is defined as the “CA Corridor”. In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his One Belt One Road (OBOR) project which envisioned the participation, among other states, of the five CA states and Iran3. In addition, in July 2015, the nuclear dispute between Iran and the international community ended (yet followed, three years later, by its dismissal by the Trump administration).

Regionalism in the “CA corridor”

The “CA corridor”

6Svetlana Gorshenina described in detail the complex historical genesis of the notions which have tried to define CA. At the same time, her research demonstrates the difficulties still existing in achieving an univocally accepted definition of CA (Gorshenina, 2014). In this article, the “CA corridor” region is intended as including the territories of the five CA post-Soviet states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) plus Iran and China. Such a “stretching” of the definition of CA is possible by relying on new regionalists’ argument according to which regions – as well as definitions of regions – are not territorially defined in absolute terms, but are socially and politically constructed (Hettne and Söderbaum, 2000; Hurrel, 1995). Björn Hettne summarized new regionalism’s approach by stating that regions are “created and recreated in the process of global transformation” and acknowledges that, although a region is a territorially based subsystem of the international system, there are “many varieties of regional subsystems with different degrees of ‘regioness’, that is the degree to which a particular region in various respects constitutes a coherent unit” (Hettne, 2016, p. XVIII). The definition of the “CA corridor” as a region is also justified from a geopolitical and geoeconomic point of view. In fact, Iran represents the easiest accessible coastal terminal for the long landlocked corridor constituted of the five CA states plus the China’s Xinjiang region, where China’s export-oriented industrial activities are concentrated. China has indeed to turn to its CA neighbors for land-transport corridors, and then to Iran for a maritime hub. Additionally, it is along this corridor – more precisely, in Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan – that a relevant part of the gas and oil reserves needed by Chinese economic growth and industrial production are situated. In the recent years China has indeed been increasingly engaging with the hydrocarbons reach states of the region for assuring its energy security (Chow, 2010; Paramonov and Strokov, 2015; Madiyev, 2017; Xinhua, 2017a). This article adopts Paul Evan’s definition of regionalism as an “expression of increased commercial and human transactions in a defined geographical space” (Evan, 2005, p. 196) which overcomes the dichotomy between regional integration and cooperative regionalism existing in functionalist and neo-functionalist approaches. Additionally, such a definition doesn’t necessarily frame a region-building process as a linear, incremental, and automatic one. Therefore, it can be applied to cases like the one considered in this article which, although characterized by a defined territorial dimension, nevertheless have an institutionally “loose” form and a rather discontinuous evolution along time. What the “CA corridor” is experiencing is indeed precisely such a kind of regionalism. In fact, it is made up by the various bilateral/multilateral agreements and the bilateral/multilateral formal as well as by the informal relations, mainly of economic and security nature, put in place by the region’s seven members between them, under both bilateral and multilateral frameworks. Most of such relationships have been initiated under the umbrella of the Chinese BRI4 or as a consequence of the Iran’s post-Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA)5 engagement in the region. The extension and the complexity of these ongoing relations are such that they are not merely connecting the involved states with the world economy, but they also have the potentiality to inflate a region-building process. For example, it has been demonstrated that the BRI and Kazakhstan’s “Bright Path” economic policy are underpinned by complementary ideas and projects, and consequently they are potential forces of integration (Kassenova, 2017; Satke and Galdini, 2016). Additionally, the development of deeper economic relations between China and the five CA post-Soviet states are “relatively easy because Chinese and Central Asian economies are complementary” (Indeo, 2016, p. 4). The entities at play in this process are state actors. This fact is due to the peculiar features of the institutional, economic, industrial and financial systems of the seven states involved, in which the state plays a prevailing role and, consequently, the sub-state actors’ agency is heavily bounded. Arguably, the whole process is going to be a long-term and uneven one because of the same constraints suffered by the previous experiences of CA regional integration. Nevertheless, its development is worth of being investigated.

Economic and political factors at play

7The loose regionalism which is growing in the “CA corridor” is the consequence of two main external and interrelated forces acting on a global level. The first one is of political nature and is represented by the gradual shift from a unipolar, US-led world towards a multipolar one (Santander, 2016) within which various global – as China – and regional – as Iran – actors coexist and interplay. The second one, of economic nature, is what Anoushiravan Ehteshami defines the “Asianization of globalization” (Ehteshami, 2015a), that is a change at the core of the world economic system. Such a structural and long-term shift has given rise to the Middle East-East Asia (ME-EA) nexus (Ehteshami, 2015b), that is an entanglement of the industrial and economic systems of the states belonging to these two areas. In other terms, notwithstanding an overall and irreversible process of globalization, regionalism in the ME-EA is growing since some economic activities, as well as energy and mining resources, are geographically localized and “clustered” (Ehteshami, 2015b). This means that the ME-EA nexus is a product of globalization and, as such, confirms Shaun Breslin, Richard Higgott, and Ben Rosamond’s argument for which regionalism and globalization are “mutually reinforcing and co-constitutive rather than contending processes” (Breslin et al., 2002, p. 8). Political multipolarity plays a key role in making regionalism and globalization two complementary instead of antagonistic processes (Santander, 2018). In a way, the peculiar regionalism that the “CA corridor” is experiencing can be seen as a result of the adaptation of CA to globalization (Laruelle and Peyrouse, 2015). Concerning the internal drivers of the “CA corridor” process of regionalization, they bear both political and economic features. Regarding the former, a crucial role is played by the Chinese ambition to play a leading role in CA (Laruelle and Peyrouse, 2012).

8For Beijing, the BRI represents indeed a unifying frame for the different initiatives it has undertaken or planned to carry out with the members of the “CA corridor” in various fields: cultural exchanges, direct investments, financial assistance, and security cooperation. Additionally, Tehran’s willingness to reassess its regional role – which was earlier precluded by the long nuclear dispute (Rocca, 2017a), and, later, by the US Trump administration decision to withdraw from the JCPOA by imposing a new, tough round of sanctions (BBC News, 2018; Sullivan, 2018)6 – has to be considered. Yet, such reiterated assertive American stances are pushing Iran to furtherly strengthen that “Eastward posture” which it had already developed during the thirteen years of the “nuclear impasse” (Guldimann, 2007) for escaping diplomatic isolation and internal economic stalemate (Al-Monitor Staff, 2018). In fact, since 2015, and even more actively after the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions, Tehran has been establishing strong diplomatic and economic relationships with all the five CA post-Soviet states. For example, in less than one year, from April 2018 to January 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister met Taajik President and reportedly conferred on bilateral relations as well as regional and international developments; on May, he met his Turkmen counterpart and conferred about bilateral, regional and international issues. Finally, in January 2019, he met Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Wafa Hajjive and reportedly said that “Iran always calls for expansion of relations and cooperation with Turkmenistan in various fields, and hopes to take advantage of all our capabilities in broadening such cooperation and friendship relations” (The Iran Project, 2019a). Concerning bilateral agreements, in March 2018, Iran and Turkmenistan signed 13 cooperation documents and memoranda of understanding in cultural, artistic, scientific and educational fields. In August 2018, the Iranian First Vice President reportedly said that Iran is ready to enhance cooperation with Uzbekistan in all fields of mutual interest noting that “Iran and Uzbekistan are two key players in the region which share common interests and threats. Cooperation between the two countries in security areas can help regional stability” (The Iran Project, 2019b). In November 2019, Iran and Uzbekistan drawn up a roadmap for industrial, technical, engineering and tourism cooperation. In December 2019, the Iranian First Vice-President reportedly proposed the idea of using national currencies in trade transactions between Iran and Kyrgyzstan in a bid to broaden mutual economic exchanges, whilst Iran and Tajikistan agreed to use local currencies for bilateral trade to increase economic and energy cooperation despite American sanctions. On January 2020, Tajikistan Ambassador to Iran, Nizzamudi Mahedi, reportedly said that his country is interested in using high capacities and potentials of Iranian Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf (The Iran Project, 2019b). With China, during and after the end of the nuclear deal, Iran has increasingly been deepening a cooperative relationship which has grown without interruption since the Iranian Islamic Republic’s birth in 19797. In August 2019, during an official trip to Beijing, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that he has proposed a 25-year roadmap for bilateral cooperation – beyond the BRI framework – finalized to “consolidate the comprehensive strategic partnership between Iran and China” (Faghihi, 2019). The pragmatism Iran has showed in its CA foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Prifti, 2017; Shaffer, 2016; Hunter, 2003; Koepke, 2013; Rocca, 2017b), coupled with the support assured to Tehran by China for avoiding economic crises and financial isolation8, can enhance Iran’s role within the region-building process. The inner economic engine of the “CA corridor” regional integration consists in the interdependent needs of its seven states. In fact, whilst all the five CA Republics and Iran lack financial resources, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and, especially, China – which imports oil from Kazakhstan and Iran, and gas from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and has increased its energy connections with them (Shustor, 2017; Bisenot, 2018; Chen, 2018) – need energy resources. Moreover, all of them have an urging need of infrastructural connectivity for their industrial and economic development.

The role of security concerns and of cultural sedimentation

9Arguably, such mutually interdependent needs are not going to produce what Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye have defined as a “complex interdependence” leading to regional integration – which consists basically in multiple channels of communications, absence of hierarchy among issues, and a diminished role for military force (Keohane and Nye, 1977). This is because all the “CA corridor” states share a quest for regional stability conceived as a “pre-condition” for economic development and growth. Such an exigency is mainly pursuedthrough national security policies and bilateral/multilateral agreements and informal relations carried out between the seven states. For instance, in 2019, China deployed paramilitary forces in Tajikistan (Tanchum, 2019) and signed an agreement of military cooperation with Kazakhstan (Defence Azerbaijan, 2019). Already in 2014 China and Iran started to hold joint naval drill in the Strait of Hormuz (Panda, 2014) which they repeted in June 2017 (IRNA, 2017) and, joined by the Russian Navy also in 2019 (Reuters Staff, 2019a). In June 2018, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif met the Secretary of the National Security Council of Uzbekistan Viktor Makhmudov and agreed to boost cooperation, finalized to stability and security in the region (The Iran Project, 2018). In August 2018, Abdulla Aripov, the Uzbeck Prime Minister, reportedly said that Iran and Uzbekistan should continue bilateral and multilateral cooperation to uproot extremism in the region and in April 2019, the Defense Ministers of Iran and Uzbekistan, Amir Hatami and Bahodir Qurbonov weighed plans for close cooperation between the two countries’ defense and security forces, particularly in the fight against terrorism (The Iran Project, 2019b). In September 2019, Iran and Kyrgyzstan signed a security deal, according to which, reportedly, they “will boost cooperation in the fight against illicit drugs, terrorism, extremism, and organized crimes, and exchange information and training in operational fields” (Tasnim News Agency, 2019a). In October 2019, during a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, reportedly said that “Iran is fully prepared to work with Kazakhstan in the battle against terrorism and narcotics and in the establishment of sustainable security in the region” (Tasnim News Agency, 2019b). In other terms, security concerns and policies do not allow that minor role reserved to military issues in the region’s agenda which constitutes a pillar of the Keohane-Nye’s “complex interdependence”. The security concerns that Iran, China and the five CA states share, although at different degrees, consist mainly in the contrast, first, to Islamic terrorism (Belek, 2016; Idrees, 2016), whose real dimensions are difficult to disentangle from what some analysts consider a politically manufactured threat (Heathershaw and Montgomery, 2014; Standish, 2015)9. Second, to transnational organized crime, especially that one dealing with drug trafficking10 and potentially entangled with terrorism (Reyes and Dinar, 2015; Omelicheva and Markowitz, 2019)11. For Iran, in particular, the fight against terrorism in the Caucasus and in CA represents the basic condition for its internal security and the survival of the regime (Tabatabai, 2017; Esfandiary and Tabatabai, 2015). Concerning China, it considers the “regional security-regional stability” equation as fundamental and necessary for its plans of long-term economic growth (ICG, 2013; Peyrouse et al., 2012; Indeo, 2015). Additionally, through the BRI, China is continuing with its CA neighbors12 a security strategy initiated after the fall of the Soviet Union which appears as aimed at containing the Islamic radicalization of its Uighur13 population in the Xinjiang region, which it perceives as a threat to its territorial integrity (Zhuangzhi, 2007). Some authors even argue that the BRI is actually a long-term China’s strategy for integrating its Xinjiang region (Clarke, 2016).

10Although a mechanism of “threat construction” as well as a diversion of the perception of threats from outside to inside (as predicted by the Job’s “insecurity dilemma” paradigm (Job, 1992)) could have taken place (Fumagalli, 2010), nevertheless security needs finalized to counter Islamic terrorism and organized transnational crime are leading the “CA corridor” states towards a growing security cooperation. Their process of integration can also rely on the social and cultural sedimentation produced by millennial interactions between the populations of that area. It was indeed on this pre-existent, ideational context that China could insert and formalize its BRI by evoking the ancient Silk Roads which connected China to Europe through CA for more than seventeen centuries. Significantly, the former OBOR initiative was publicly exposed for the first time by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, in a speech to CA leaders at Nazarbayev University, in Astana, during his first trip to CA. From then on, in all the official Chinese documents that have developed the BRI project there have been reiterated references to ideological sources different from liberalism and neo-liberalism, the political economics thoughts which have underpinned Western democracies experiences of regionalism14.

11In fact, the Chinese leadership seems to be offering the five CA countries not just material resources, but also a well-defined political economy and an ideological model finalized to economic development and growth which are not tailored on liberal democracies. Moreover, China’s emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs can enhance its appeal to Iran and CA states. The former, in fact, has made such principles the two pillars of its international policy stance; the latter have always rejected international organizations’ criticisms and interferences about their poor results in combating corruption and improving human rights situation. However, for historical reasons related to the Russian empires and Soviet Union’s past dominance, all the five CA states share a rejection of an eventual neo-imperialist influence – or what can be perceived as such by them. This attitude can negatively influence the popular and the elites’ perceptions of Iranian and Chinese roles in the region. The strained Iran-Tajikistan relations are a reminder of such possibility15. Similarly, the attacks to the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in August 2016 (Phillips, 2016), as well as the popular protests in Kazakhstan (Reuters Staff, 2019b) and in Kyrghyzstan against Chinese presence (Reuters Staff, 2019c; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2019), are symptomatic of how problematic could become the eventual China’s leading role in the CA corridor regionalism. It has been noted that popular fear of China can be an obstacle for the reception of BRI in Kazakhstan (Kassenova, 2017), and that, meanwhile CA elites generally welcome Chinese investments, large parts of the population are suspicious of Chinese penetration (Peyrouse, 2016). Chinese political influence in the region can indeed be an unavoidable by-product of its huge investments in critical infrastructure as energy and transports. According to Joseph S. Nye, China’s foreign behavior still relies more on hard power – which is related to military capabilities – than on the soft one – which is defined as “the ability to affect the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants” (Nye, 2007, p. 389) without using coercion and is based on a state’s cultural attractiveness. Consequently, “as China’s hard military and economic power grows, it may frighten its neighbors into balancing coalition” (Nye, 2017, p. 2). However, “[i]f it can accompany its rise with an increase in its soft power, China can weaken the incentives for these coalitions” (Nye, 2017, p. 2). In other terms, a stronger, better conceived Chinese soft power can weaken the incentives for disintegrating forces which could arise within the “CA corridor” because of the unbalanced distribution of power and resources within it16.

12However, economic strength is a precondition for exerting soft power (Nye, 1990), then, the promise of delivering economic growth through investments and loans represents indeed the ultimate source of China’s soft power (Barker, 2017). Given that social cohesion represents a key-resource for achieving long-term regionalism’s sustainability, the economic progress in the CA corridor related to its region-building process could enhance the Chinese soft power and therefore the “CA corridor” regionalism coherence. Pragmatism, which has so far characterized Iran’s (Prifti, 2017; Shaffer, 2016; Hunter, 2003; Koepke, 2013; Rocca, 2017b) and China’s (Laruelle and Peyrouse, 2015) approaches towards CA, can mitigate the possible negative effects due to the eventual arising of Chinese economic and Iranian religious leadership17.


13The loose process of regional integration which is taking place in the “CA corridor” is a consequence of recent developments in global economy and global governance represented by the “Asianization” of the international economy and the evolution towards multipolarity in international politics. In addition, shared needs of regional stability – conceived as obtainable through security – and of economic interdependence – in terms of financial resources flows, infrastructural connectivity, energy supply, and wider markets for consumers’ and industrial goods – furtherly push the region members towards seminal, although partial, forms of integration. The final result is a de facto informal regionalism. Nevertheless, it is not characterized, as some authors would expect, by “complex interdependence” between the participants, since security concerns play an overwhelming role in the agendas of all the states of the region. Recent changes in Uzbekistan’s, Kazakhstan’s, and Kyrgyzstan’s leadership can represent an additional factor contributing to further developments in the regional integration. In fact, they could eventually remove that leadership rivalry which many analysts identified as one of the main constraints impeding an effective CA regionalism. China is playing the leading role in the integration process of the “CA corridor” not only from an economic, industrial and financial point of view, but also from an ideological one by providing the ideational source necessary for a long-standing success of the process. As long as this regional experience is capable of delivering the economic development it envisions, the process will gain traction and will become self-reinforcing. For example, a potential positive by-product of the increased connectivity and interdependence between the seven states could be that one of stopping the outflow of human resources from the five CA states.

14In turn, the precious human and social capital retained within those states can play a key-role in a further economic and cultural development of the region. Yet, a crucial aspect of the process is that represented by the internal relationships which will be forged between the seven states. In particular, how CA states will engage and interact with Iran and China depends on many elements. Among them – and apart from external players’ (Russia18, US and EU) influence – the elites’ and populations’ perceptions and misperceptions about possible gains and losses appear as factors which will play the most important role in determining the success or the failure of the “CA corridor” process of integration. Concerning the role of Iran and China, it seems that in order to make the “CA corridor” integration successful, Tehran and Beijing should be able to offer an enhanced version of their soft power instead of relying only on economic strength, natural resources availability, and a favorable geographical location. To conclude, the eventual success of this peculiar regional integration experience would represent a viable empirical and ideological alternative to the European one.



16Esengul Chinara (2009), The Politics of Regionalism in Central Asian, Bishkek: Ministry of Education and Science of the Kyrgyz Republic, The Jusup Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, Institute for Integration of International Educational Programs.

17Gorshenina Svetlana (2014), L’invention de l’Asie Centrale. Histoire du concept de la Tartarie à l’Eurasie, Paris: Librairie Droz.

18Griffiths Richard T. (2017), Revitalising the Silk Road: China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Leiden: HIPE Publications.

19Heathershaw John and Cooley Alexander (2017), Dictators Without Borders. Power and Money in Central Asia, New Heaven: Yale University Press.

20Heathershaw John and Montgomery David W. (2014), The myth of post-Soviet Muslim radicalization in the Central Asian republics, London: Chatham House.

21Keohane Robert O. and Nye Joseph S. (1977), Power and interdependence, Boston: Little.

22Laruelle Marlène and Peyrouse Sebastien (2015), Globalizing Central Asia: geopolitics and the challenges of economic development, London: Routledge.

23Laruelle Marlène and Peyrouse Sébastien (2012), The Chinese question in Central Asia: Domestic order, social change, and the Chinese factor, New York: Columbia University Press.

24Milani Moshe (2016), Iran in a reconnecting Eurasia, New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

25Nye Joseph S. (1990), Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs Books.

26Prifti Bledar (2017), US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: the Case for Continuity, New York: Springer International Publishing.

27Edited books

28Breslin Shaun et al. (eds.) (2002), New Regionalisms in the Global Political Economy, London: Routledge.

29Hettne Björn (eds.) (2016, first ed. 2000), The new regionalism and the future of security and development, London: Springer.

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31Chapters in edited books

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44Allison Roy (2008), “Virtual regionalism, regional structures and regime security in Central Asia”, Central Asian Survey, 27(3), pp. 185-202.

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47Cavanna Thomas P. (2019), “Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Implications for US Grand Strategy”, Texas National Security Review, vol. 2, Issue 3, pp. 11-37.

48Clarke Michael (2016), “‘One Belt, One Road’ and China’s emerging Afghanistan dilemma”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 70(5), pp. 563-579.

49Ehteshami Anoushiravan (2015a), “Regionalization, Pan-Asian Relations, and the Middle East”, East Asia, 32, pp. 223-237.

50Esengul Chinara (2011), “Comparing Regional Integration in East Asia/Southeast Asia and Central Asia”, Asian Regional Integration Review, 3, pp. 18-38.

51Esengul Chinara et al. (2015), “Prospects for regional cooperation in Central Asia as seen today”, Central Asia and the Caucasus, 16(3-4), pp. 82-92.

52Esfandiary Dina and Tabatabai Ariane (2015), “Iran’s ISIS policy”, International Affairs, 91(1), pp. 1-15.

53Ethier Wilfred J. (1998), “The new regionalism”, The Economic Journal, 108(449), pp. 1149-1161.

54Faizullaev Alisher (2014), “Institutions and Culture in Regional Interactions and Negotiations: The Case of Central Asia”, Cambridge Central Asia Review, 1(1), pp. 17-26.

55Fallon Theresa (2015), “The new silk road: Xi Jinping’s grand strategy for Eurasia”, American Foreign Policy Interests, 37(3), pp. 140-147.

56Fawcett Louise (2004), “Exploring regional domains: a comparative history of regionalism”, International Affairs, 80(3), pp. 429-446.

57Grzymala-Busse Anna and LUONG Pauline Jones (2002), “Re-conceptualizing the state: lessons from post-communism”, Political Theory, 30(4), pp. 529-554.

58Guldimann Tim (2007), “The Iranian Nuclear Impasse”, Survival, vol. 49, n° 3, pp. 169-178.

59Helmke Gretchen and Levitsky Steven (2004), “Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda”, Perspectives on Politics, vol. 2, n° 4, pp. 725-740.

60Hettne Björn (2005), “Beyond the ‘new’ regionalism”, New Political Economy, 10(4), pp. 543-571.

61Hettne Björn and Söderbaum Fredrik (2000), “Theorising the rise of regionness”, New Political economy, 5(3), pp. 457-472.

62Hunter Shireen (2003), “Iran’s pragmatic regional policy”, Journal of International Affairs, 56(2), pp. 133-147.

63Kassenova Nargis (2017), “China’s Silk Road and Kazakhstan’s Bright Path: Linking Dreams of Prosperity”, Asia Policy, 24(1), pp. 110-116.

64Katzenstein Peter J. (1996), “Regionalism in comparative perspective”, Cooperation and conflict, 31(2), pp. 123-159.

65Madiyev Oybek (2017), “Why have China and Russia become Uzbekistan’s biggest energy partners? Exploring the role of exogenous and endogenous factors”, Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1, pp. 1-30.

66Nye Joseph (2017), “Soft power: the origins and political progress of a concept”, Palgrave Communications, vol. 3 (1), pp. 1-3.

67Omelicheva Mariya Y. and Markowitz Lawrence (2019), “Does drug trafficking impact terrorism? Afghan opioids and terrorist violence in Central Asia”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 42(12), pp. 1021-1043.

68Paramonov Vladimir and Strokov Alexei (2015), “China in the Oil and Gas Branch of Turkmenistan”, Central Asia and the Caucasus, 16(3-4), pp. 176-185.

69Peyrouse Sébastien (2016), “Discussing China: Sinophilia and Sinophobia in Central Asia”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 7, pp. 14-23.

70Reyes Liana Eustacia and Dinar Shlomi (2015), “The convergence of terrorism and transnational crime in Central Asia”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38(5), pp. 380-393.

71Rocca Noemi M. (2017a), “Iran’s geopolitics in Eurasia after the nuclear deal”, Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1, pp. 1-12.

72Rocca Noemi M. (2017b), “Regional Stability for National Survival: Iran’s Foreign Policy Towards the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia in the Post-Soviet Era”, International Relations, 5(9), pp. 544-553.

73Samokhvalov Vsevolod (2018), “Russia and its shared neighbourhoods: a comparative analysis of Russia-EU and Russia-China relations in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood and Central Asia”, Contemporary Politics, 24(1), pp. 30-45.

74Samokhvalov Vsevolod (2016), “The new Eurasia: post-Soviet space between Russia, Europe and China”, European Politics and Society, 17(sup.1), pp. 82-96.

75Santander Sebastian (2018), “Regionalism in a globalised multipolar economy”, Civitas-Revista de Ciências Sociais, 18(2), pp. 228-244.

76Tabatabai Ariane M. (2017), “Other side of the Iranian coin: Iran’s counterterrorism apparatus”, Journal of Strategic Studies, 41(1-2), pp. 1-27.

77Working papers

78Belek Ibraev (2016), “Addressing the Daesh Threat in the Context of Central Asia”, Working Paper, n° 31, Bishkek: OSCE Academy-Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, pp. 1-24.

79Idrees Muhammad (2016), “Radicalization and violent extremism in Central Asia and Afghanistan”, Working Paper, n° 41, Bishkek: OSCE Academy-Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, pp. 1-20.

80Indeo Fabio (2016), “The Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt: the impact of the Sino-Russian geopolitical strategies in the Eurasia region”, Working Paper, n° 5, Maastricht: Maastricht School of Management, pp. 1-18.

81Indeo Fabio (2015), “China as Security-Provider in Central Asia Post-2014: A Realistic Perspective?”, Central Asia Security Policy Briefs, n° 15, Bishkek: OSCE Academy, pp. 1-20.

82Peyrouse Sébastien et al. (2012), “Security and Development Approaches to Central Asia. The EU Compared to China and Russia”, EUCAM Working Paper, n° 11, Groningen: EUCAM, pp. 1-24.

83Satke Ryskeldi and Galdini Franco (2016), “Between East and West: Kazakhstan’s development along China’s new Silk Road”, Research paper, Bishkek: OSCE Academy, pp. 1-16.


85Chow Edward (2010), “Central Asia’s Pipelines: Field of Dreams and Reality”, in Chow Edward et al. (eds.), Pipeline Politics in Asia: The Intersection of Demand, Energy Markets, and Supply Routes, NBR Special Report n° 23, Washington: National Bureau of Asian Research, pp. 31-40.

86Human Rights Watch (2020), “Chinese Government Poses Global Threat to Human Rights”, Report, January 14, pp. 1-652, available at: (accessed 13 April 2021).

87International Crisis Group (ICG) (2013), “China’s Central Asia Problem”, Report, n° 244, pp. 1-30.

88Koepke Bruce (2013), “Iran’s policy on Afghanistan: The evolution of strategic pragmatism”, Report, Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, pp. 1-29.

89Rosen Liana and Katzman Kenneth (2014), “Afghanistan: drug trafficking and the 2014 transition”, Report, Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, pp. 1-22.

90United Nations Organization for Drug and Crime (UNODC) (2012), “Opiate flows through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia. A Threat Assessment”, UNODC Report, pp. 1-100, available at: (accessed 20 February 2021).


92Mogherini Federica, EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, (2016), “A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy”, Strategy Matters, EU Key Documents, 2015-2016, Luxembourg: Institute for Security Studies, pp. 93-94.

93Media sources and websites

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95Barker Thomas (2017), “The real source of China’s soft power”, The Diplomat, November 18, available at: (accessed 10 January 2020).

96BBC News (2018), “Trump pulls US out of Iran deal”, available at:

97 (accessed 10 January 2020).

98Bisenot Naubev (2018), “Kazakhstan to double gas exports to China in 2019”, Nikkei Asian Review, October 28, available at: (accessed 10 January 2020).

99CGTN (2019), “China, Kazakhstan agree to forge permanent, comprehensive strategic partnership”, available at: (accessed 10 January 2020).

100Chen Jia (2018), “China Silk Road Fund to improve Uzbekistan oil and gas projects”, China Daily, June 9, available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

101Defence Azerbaijan (2019), “Kazakhstan approves agreement with China on military-technical cooperation”, May 22, available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

102Eurasia Staff (2017), “Tajikistan is stepping away from Iran to Saudi Arabia”, available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

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106Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) (2017), “Iranian, Chinese joint military exercices kick-off in Persian Gulf”, available at: (accessed 20 February 2020).

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111Panda Ankit (2014), “China and Iran’s historic naval exercise”, The Diplomat, September 23, available at: (accessed 20 August 2020).

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114Reuters Staff (2019a), “Russia, China Iran start joint naval drills in Indian Ocean”, December 23, available at: (accessed 20 August 2020).

115Reuters Staff (2019b), “Dozen detained in Kazakstan at anti-China protests”, September 19, available at: (accessed 20 August 2020).

116Reuters Staff (2019c), “Kyrghyz police disperse anti-Cina rally”, January 17, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

117Reuters Staff (2018), “China reiterates call to continue upholding Iran nuclear deal”, May 2, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

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119Standish Reid (2015), “Shadow Boxing with the Islamic State in Central Asia”, The Foreign Policy, February 6, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

120Sullivan Eileen (2018), “U.S. Imposes New Sanctions on Iran, Designating Head of Central Bank a Terrorist”, The New York Times, May 15, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

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123Tasnim News Agency (2019b), “Iran Ready for Cooperation with Kazakhstan in War on Terrorism, Drugs”, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

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128The Iran Project (2019c), “Iran, China about to launch own barter system: report”, November 24, available at: (accessed 2 July 2020).

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1 An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference The end of the region? The future of spatial constructs in the populist era” organized by the Centre for International Relations Studies (CEFIR) of the University of Liège (ULiège), Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and Columbia University (United States (US)), held at the ULiège, Belgium, on November 29, 2017. The author is grateful to two anonymous reviewers of this journal for key comments that significantly improved the article.


3 Later re-defined as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For a detailed description of the BRI and its significance for all of the countries involved, see Griffiths (2017). For an updated, insightful assessment of the BRI from a geoeconomic and geopolitical angle, see Cavanna (2019). During the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, in October 2017, President Xi Jinping’s political economy thought has been enshrined into the Chinese Communist Party charter (Xinhua, 2017c) and this decision represents a deeper, further support by Chinese political elites to Xi’ BRI.

4 At its core, it [the BRI] seeks to use trade and foreign direct investment, most of which emanate from state-owned banks, to build connectivity across Eurasia. […] As formalized in March 2015, Beijing intends to develop transport, energy, and telecommunication infrastructure to bolster commerce, financial integration, policy coordination, and ‘people-to-people bonds’” (Cavanna, 2019). Concerning in particular the BRI’s implications for CA, see Indeo (2016); Fallon (2015). Regarding, in particular, Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s relationship with China, see Samokhvalov (2016).

5 The JCPOA, signed on July, 15, 2015 by Iran, US, Germany, France, UK and EU, is the agreement which, by ending the sanctions regime against Iran and its diplomatic isolation, untapped Iran’s potential for an internationally acknowledged regional role. For an assessment of Iran’s role in CA and its relationship with China after the JCPOA signature, see Milani (2016) and Rocca (2017a).

6 As a reaction to the US’ assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleymani, head of the strategic elite Quds Force, on January 3, 2020, Iran itself decided to conclusively withdraw from the JCPOA and on January 5, 2020, it announced its fifth step away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal (MEHR News Agency, 2020).

7 On the strategic importance of Iran-China relationship after the US’ withdraw from the JCPOA, see Kaplan (2019).

8 Significantly, on November 2019, Iran and China were reportedly working out a barter system for trade whose aim was to bypass restrictions on dollar-denominated transactions imposed by US sanctions (The Iran Project, 2019c) whilst, one month later, the Chinese ambassador to Iran said the two countries had agreed on “new banking mechanisms that could facilitate bilateral trade, although he insists that the initiatives would remain confidential to avoid the American sanctions imposed on Iran” (The Iran Project,2019d). Concerning, in particular, China’s reactions to Trump administration’s assertive stances against Iran, see: Reuters Staff (2018); Noack (2018); Nseien (2020).

9 See the debate which took place in 2017 between the International Crisis Group (ICG) and a group of academicians (The Diplomat, 2017).

10 In 2014, it was assessed that the 25 % of the whole Afghani opium production was passing through CA (Rosen and Katzman, 2014). According to the United Nations Organization for Drug and Crime (UNODC), CA is the key to Afghan heroin smuggling (UNODC, 2012).

11 For instance, in 2018, Iran’s Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs held a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart and reportedly discussed opportunities for extending partnership to combat drug trafficking, terrorism and illegal immigration (IRNA, 2018). In June 2018, Rouhani and Xi Jinping reportedly signed a number of pacts “in the field of joint research projects, preventing and fighting illegal production, trafficking and misuse of narcotics, psychotropic drugs and precursors, and cooperation and technical help in the field of securities” (The Iran Project, 2018) In August 2019, it was launched the China-Kyrgyzstan “Cooperation-2019” joint counter-terrorism exercise (Xinhua, 2019). On the China-CA state’s security cooperation and jointly fight against threats of the so-called “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, as well as transnational organized crime, see also Xinhua (2016); CGTN (2019); Fdi (2015).

12 It is worth of note that Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan share a 2,050-mile border with China’s Xinjiang.

13 Several international reports highlight a serious violation of human rights in China, in particular discriminatory policies against Uighur population (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

14 See, for instance, the President Xi’s speech at the opening of the 2017 Belt and Road forum (Xinhua, 2017b).

15 However, the past frictions between the two countries appear more as a tentative by Tajikistan to sideline with Saudi Arabia in the confrontation taking place between the two rivalries than a rejection of Iran’s supposedly assertive role in Tajikistan’s internal affairs, as it is portrayed by some narratives (Eurasia Staff, 2017). In fact, Tehran has been successfully restoring cooperative relations with Dushanbee (The Iran Project, 2015b, 2015c; Tehran Times, 2019).

16 For an insightful comparison between Russian and Chinese soft power’s potentiality in the process of CA region-building process, see Samokhvalov (2018, in particular pp. 35-37).

17 For example, according to Akbarzadeh (2015), CA Republics are against full Iranian SCO membership because of its theocratic form of government. However, some statements by CA states’ political authorities would question such an argument (The Iran Project, 2015b, 2015c).

18 Regarding in particular Russia, it is interesting to note that, according to Vsevolod Samokhvalov “Russia did not oppose Chinese economic expansion into Central Asia. But when China sought to officially expand the mandate of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to include an economic dimension, Russia blocked it” (Samokhvalov, 2018, p. 36).

To cite this article

Noemi M. Rocca, «From Connectivity and Security to Regional Integration? The “Central Asian corridor” region1», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 2/2021 - Special issue Western Balkans, European Union and Emerging Powers, URL :

About: Noemi M. Rocca

Noemi Maria Rocca is PhD Candidate in International Relations–International Politics and Conflict Resolution, at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. Her dissertation is about American foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. She holds a post-graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Coimbra and a Master of Arts in International Business and Finance from the University of Reading, United Kingdom (UK). She has been a visiting professor of Monetary Economics at the Faculty of Economics of the University “Eduardo Mondlane” in Maputo, Mozambique, and contract professor of International Economics, from 1995 to 2000, at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Bergamo, Italy. Her main research areas are: foreign policy analysis, global political economy, Central Asia geopolitics, Islamic terrorism. Her latest publication is: “The evolution of the crime-terror nexus in Europe”, Naçao e Defesa, April 2020, n° 155, ISSN 0870 – 757X.