Q&A: Regional Cooperation in Central Asia in the Time of COVID-19 with Historian Peter Frankopan

Video | 14 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented vast global, regional, and local economic challenges, including in Central and West Asia.

While countries have focused on tackling the disease domestically, the outbreak also presents opportunities to improve coordination, reduce costs for producers and consumers, and boost taxable revenues.

The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program (CAREC) brings together Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the People’s Republic of China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation.

These topics will be discussed at the Asian Development Bank’s 53rd Annual General Meeting high-level session Regional Cooperation in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons Learned and Way Forward, moderated by author and University of Oxford Professor of Global History Peter Frankopan.

We asked Mr. Frankopan for insights from history on how cooperation can help the CAREC region overcome the pandemic and prosper. Read the Transcript below for the full interview.


How will the future of the CAREC region look in the post-COVID world?

Peter Frankopan: A lot is going to depend on when we get to the post-COVID world and in what kind of format. There are multiple vaccines being trialed and tested all around the world, and I think the expectation is that one or more of those will work and pass all the regulatory requirements.

But the process of rolling out mass testing on a scale that covers large parts—if not the whole global population will take time. So, a lot will depend on when we get to that point. And clearly as the weather starts to turn colder in the northern hemisphere, the preponderance towards other diseases like flu may change the virus too. I think a lot will depend on the decisions made in individual countries and across regional groupings of countries about how cooperation works so that economies can be kickstarted.

The global economy is obviously under considerable pressure and a lot will depend on the willingness and the ability of groupings of countries—of which CAREC is a prime example—to use this as an opportunity to move forward in their collaboration and cooperation, to work through getting the economy back on its feet.

Question: In the post-COVID world, what role can regional cooperation play for CAREC countries?

Peter Frankopan: The point of regional groupings is to encourage closer integration, higher levels of cooperation, more levels of information sharing. And what tends to happen when groups function successfully is that they all tend to produce the same kinds of outcomes—usually very positive ones. When one works on trying to harmonize standards and to improve border crossings and so on, inevitably there can be very substantial gains for productivity.

I think it is very important in post-COVID to accentuate the role of regional groups. These are important under any circumstances but particularly at a time when some cardiac therapy needs to be given across regions and where quite dramatic interventions are being done at a domestic level. This gives a real opportunity for CAREC to speed up the collaboration and cooperation that has already been successful in the past.

Question: How can platforms such as the CAREC Program help build resilience to future crises?

Peter Frankopan: Crisis and resilience are very closely linked. This is not the first time that there being major diseases that have spread through across CAREC countries and in fact globally. But one of the key elements, one of the key takeaways from the last 8-9 months has been the importance of information sharing, the importance of cooperation at both vaccine levels but also in terms of how states share, work and find common standards that allow them to both lock down but also to reopen up again.

So, one of the key elements about CAREC is to look beyond just transport infrastructure and energy but to be thinking about how other forms of cooperation across the group can help. And I think healthcare is a very important part of that, notwithstanding COVID that would have been key. But I think there’s a real impetus to think through healthcare collaboration and also other forms of softer ways in which groups like the Asian Development Bank can help CAREC countries find other ways of cooperating where resilience and crisis can be mitigated in the future.

Question: What do you see as the biggest challenge to greater cooperation in the region?

Peter Frankopan: Inevitably, countries tend to look at their domestic situation first, and in that world, looking at cooperation with neighbors and with regional neighbors, it can seem like that is not so much of a priority. But I think in this particular case what’s key is to be trying to stand back and look at the big picture. So, to move away from just looking at the domestic agenda but to see how regional trade, regional infrastructure cooperation can help that domestic position too.

So, one of the things that is so central right now and important, and we will talk about in the meeting (ADB’s 53rd Annual General Meeting) is about harmonization of documentation, lowering times and waits for border crossings. And some of these things which are logistically and technically not too difficult can produce very substantial gains for domestic and regional economies. So, I think a lot of it really is about how one chooses to focus and how one has a hierarchy of what really matters.

And as a global historian, someone who looks at the big picture, stepping away from individual countries and looking at groups, it’s clear to me that in the past there have been many cases, many times where these kinds of lowering of waiting times, finding ways to facilitate trade, have led to very substantial upswings at local level and regional level, and in fact even at global level too.

Question: What are key lessons from history for the region’s governments to help overcome these challenges?

Peter Frankopan: When we think about history, and when we think about our national histories, we always start with home, wherever that might be, whichever individual country in the CAREC region or any country in the world. And that sometimes makes it difficult for us to see the big picture because we tend not to be looking at things that are happening hundreds or even thousands of miles away. But one of the big themes across CAREC countries in particular is about looking back on the histories of the Silk Roads and seeing that there’s never a moment where one country does well, or one people does well, or one culture does well, and others do less well. There tend to be these big waves that everybody does well together, and everybody fails together.

So there have been all sorts of rhythms in history, lots of explanations about what prompts these rises and falls. But typically high levels of integration, high levels of cooperation, low levels of border tariffs, enabling goods to move quickly from one side of the world to the other, stimulates the global economy but also stimulates very significantly at regional and local levels too. Equally, when things start to go wrong in one or more locations, that has a concertina effect and it affects everybody.

So the region really does rise and fall together, and I think that’s a very important lesson to be thinking about, even without COVID but especially because of the pandemic, that we should be thinking about ways in which these countries can all collaborate and work together in order to not just get back up and running, but to find a real platform for facilitating and improving collaboration across the board going forwards.

And if that happens, I think when one looks at the population sizes, the gross domestic products of individual countries, also the kinds of problems that many countries have in common, I think there are all sorts of ways in which the needle can be moved very dramatically towards improvement of capital flows, improvement of living standards, improvement of all of the kinds of metrics that all of you will be looking at anyway to try to improve the lives of all the citizens in countries individually and also collectively.