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Rising Powers in Central Asia: Competing approaches to conflict management

1 September 2012 - 31 August 2015

PI/s in Exeter: Professor John Heathershaw

Research partners: Newcastle, Bradford, Saferworld

Funding awarded: £ 568,701

Sponsor(s): Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

About the research

Since the end of the Cold War, most international responses to conflict have been governed by a broadly liberal set of norms, promoted by Western states, which linked conflict management to international intervention, democratisation and liberal state-building. Since the early 21st century, however, some of these norms -related to sovereignty in particular - have been sharply contested by Russia, China and other Rising Powers, in relation to successive internal conflicts in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Syria and others.

This process of norm contestation has also taken place in the region of Central Asia, where western notions of 'liberal peacebuilding' have often been rejected or substantially adapted by local elites, who have tended to favour the 'non-liberal' policies of the neighbouring states of China or Russia to maintain regime security. Such policies have tended to use authoritarian forms of conflict management to control outbreaks of violence, and have often been criticised by Western states. Rising Powers in the region have also differed markedly from many Western actors in their analysis of the causes of conflict in the region.

Some analysts have viewed this apparent competition between Russia, China and the West in Central Asia through the realist lens of a new 'Great Game'. This project takes a more critical and productive approach to these contestations of conflict-related norms, analysing the ways in which divergent discourses of conflict management are promoted, adapted and localised by Central Asians themselves. In this way, it will help to explain why Western approaches to conflict in the region, through the EU, bilateral relations or organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have often been rejected or undermined by local approaches to conflict management.

The project focuses in particular on three incidents of armed conflict- a rebellion against the government in Andijon, Uzbekistan, inter-ethnic violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and armed rebellion in the Rasht valley of Tajikistan. In each case the international responses were complex and partly divergent along traditional lines of geopolitical competition. The project will conduct interviews in London, Beijing and Moscow with policy-makers, academics and NGOs, to assess the ways in which policymakers framed and understood these conflict situations. Fieldwork in Central Asia will assess local views in Osh and Rasht regions, both of the nature of the conflict, but also of the divergent international responses.

The project aims to explain the apparent failure of Western approaches to conflict management to gain traction in Central Asia, and will contrast those approaches with those promoted by Russia and China, both bilaterally, and through regional organisations. The project will be designed to have a significant impact, both in academic terms and in policy terms, by engaging closely with partners engaged in influencing or making policymaking in the UK, China and Russia. The project will aim to encourage improved understandings of such divergent approaches to conflict management with the aim of more effective responses to conflict in the region, in the context of more cooperative relationships between Rising Powers and the West.

Economic and Social Research Council