Asia is the largest continent in the world with more than forty countries stretching from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the western Pacific Ocean. This is home to some of the world’s largest and most powerful countries like China, India, and Indonesia. With more than sixty percent of the world’s population residing in this continent, Asia has the largest market in the world and is one of the most dynamic and promising regions. Thus, it plays an extremely important role in addressing global security challenges and pursuing global peace and development. Moreover, the geostrategic shift from the Euro-Atlantic to Asia Pacific and the rise of China have made the continent the center of geopolitical power competition in world politics. However, a closer look at the continent reveals a disheartening pattern of disintegration. It becomes more clear when we see the dysfunctional and ineffective regional cooperation institutions in Asia. In this regard, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) serves as a significant case study, offering valuable insights as to why regional instruments are not much effective. Moreover, it sheds light on the persisting challenges in achieving a more integrated Asian continent.
What is CICA?
CICA is an intergovernmental forum aimed at enhancing cooperation in promoting peace, security, and stability in Asia and around the world. The member states of CICA, while reaffirming their commitment to the United Nations Charter, recognize that dialogue and cooperation are essential for achieving peace and security in the Asian region. With 28 member countries spanning across Asia and representing over 90% of the continent’s population, CICA stands as the largest intergovernmental forum in Asia. Additionally, nine countries and five multinational organizations, including the UN, hold observer status within the organization.
The inception of CICA dates back to a speech delivered by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan during the 47th United Nations General Assembly on 5 October 1992. This initiative garnered positive responses from 16 countries, leading to the first Ministerial Meeting on 14 September 1999. The foundational documents of CICA include the Declaration on the Principles Guiding Relations between the CICA Member States, adopted during the inaugural Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Almaty on 14 September 1999, and the Almaty Act, which serves as the charter of CICA, adopted at the first summit held in Almaty on 4 June 2002.
During the 6th CICA summit held on 12-13 October 2022, a significant development took place with the adoption of the Astana Statement. This statement marked a notable transformation for CICA, shifting its status from being a “dialogue forum” to a “regional cooperation organization.” As part of this transformation, the position of the Executive Director of the CICA Secretariat was changed to that of a Secretary General.
Core Functions and Major Challenges Faced by CICA
The CICA operates through a permanent structure composed of governing bodies, including the Summit, Ministerial Meeting, and the Committee of Senior Officials (CSO), as well as working bodies such as the Ad Hoc Working Group and Meetings of Experts. Within this organizational framework, Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) are categorized into five broad domains, namely the economic dimension, environmental dimension, human dimension, new challenges and threats, and military-political dimension. Besides, CICA has some core objectives like combating terrorism, drug trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and climate change. In addition, the CICA seeks to promote mutual respect and understanding among different civilizations, recognizing the importance of cultural diversity and harmony in achieving regional cooperation and development.
The CICA, despite its well-established framework and diverse membership, has faced significant challenges in meeting the expectations and fulfilling its core principles. One example is the failure to effectively address the ongoing conflict and tension in Ukraine, despite having Ukraine as an observer and Russia as a member. The CICA has been unable to take concrete measures to halt the war or de-escalate the situation through facilitating dialogues and different CBMs. Although, Paragraph 3 of the Almaty Act talks about the peaceful settlement of disputes under the principles of the UN Charter among member states. Moreover, it has not effectively addressed long-standing rivalries between India and China, as well as India and Pakistan despite having them on board as parts of the same organization. The CICA has also been unable to foster a sense of united Asia in the face of growing polarization and heightened geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region in the context of a new Cold War dynamic.
Furthermore, the CICA has been silent in responding to pressing humanitarian crises, such as the Rohingya crisis which is not just disrupting the security of Bangladesh, but also the whole region. While Paragraph 5 of the Almaty Act reiterates CICA’s commitment to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Asia. It has also encountered difficulties in providing substantial assistance to countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which confront simultaneous humanitarian and economic challenges. Nonetheless, intra-regional trade within Asia remains relatively low, with South Asia accounting for a mere 5%, Southeast Asia for 25%, and East Asia for 35% compared to Europe’s 60%.
Ineffectiveness of Asian Regional Institutional Framework: The Case of CICA
Asia is home to a number of regional cooperation institutions that neither function nor contribute much to regional development. There are lots of examples and the most cited one is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, today this paper will try to explore the reasons behind the ineffectiveness of Asian regional institutions through the case of CICA.
The ineffectiveness of the CICA as a regional cooperation institution can be attributed to a range of interconnected factors. Historical rivalries among member countries have persisted and hindered productive cooperation within the organization. Border disputes and other bilateral issues between member states also undermine the effectiveness of CICA. These deep-rooted disputes have created an environment of mistrust and diverted attention away from broader regional cooperation efforts. Moreover, internal political dynamics and heterogeneity among Asian countries pose additional challenges. Varying political systems, ideologies, and interests hinder the development of a shared vision and impede the implementation of effective cooperative measures. Such heterogeneity in economic and political matters naturally interferes with the action of continental structures for collective security.
The hegemonic ambitions of regional and outside powers in the continent have further complicated the dynamics of cooperation within the continent, as well as in the CICA. The pursuit of strategic interests and power struggles by these actors adds complexities to the decision-making process and inhibits the achievement of collective goals. Moreover, the presence of external powers and their interests in the region also complicates matters. Their involvement introduces competing agendas and exacerbates power imbalances among member states, hindering consensus-building and cooperation. The prevalence of a cold war mentality and zero-sum logic of these powerful actors create divisions and further obstruct progress and hampers the organization’s ability to foster meaningful cooperation.
A notable factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of CICA is the non-inclusion of major Asian states as members such as Japan and Indonesia, while including non-Asian states like Iraq, Iran, and Israel. This imbalance in representation limits the organization’s ability to address key regional issues and undermines its legitimacy as a genuine Asian-centric forum. Moreover, the existence of overlapping regional organizations such as ASEAN, SAARC, BIMSTEC, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and SASEC, dilutes the focus and efforts of CICA. This leads to a diffusion of resources and attention, limiting the organization’s impact.
Furthermore, a tendency to avoid discussing sensitive bilateral issues impede open and constructive dialogue within the organization. Moreover, member states are often tangled in playing blame games which further obstruct the effectiveness of the CICA. Such as, during the 6th CICA Summit, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif accused India of committing atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir, while Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakashi Lekhi termed Pakistan as the epicenter of terrorism and accused of nurturing infrastructure of terrorism.
Additionally, a consensus-based decision-making model within CICA brings complexity to decision-making. The lack of adequate promotion and ownership of CICA initiatives, as well as a limited commitment by member states to prioritize the organization’s goals and objectives, further undermines its effectiveness as a regional cooperation institution. These factors are not unique to the CICA, but also other Asian regional organizations which are facing the same problems.
Why CICA Need to be Bolstered?
The Asian continent is comprised of five distinct sub-regions: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia. However, unlike the European Union (EU), which serves as a binding framework for different regions of Europe, Asia lacks a cohesive regional framework that connects these sub-regions, despite its growing significance in world politics.
Asia has emerged as a new theater for geopolitical power competition, attracting external powers seeking to exert influence in the continent. The rise of China as a formidable global power challenges the hegemonic position of the United States (US), leading to a contestation of interests for control and influence in the region. The continent has observer the polarization politics by the formation of new alliances recently which have created divisions and distrust among Asian countries. Furthermore, the emergence of regional powers like India further contributes to the decentralization and competition over power in the continent. Despite that, a significant power imbalance exists, as many countries in Asia lack a strong political and economic foundation to back themselves up against powerful countries.
In addition, the internal political landscape and heterogeneity of the political system have further contributed to the disintegration of the continent. Moreover, historical rivalries and disputes have created tensions and mutual distrust among Asian countries. Besides, the Asian continent is facing numerous humanitarian crises, including the Rohingya crisis which has been protracted for five years without any solution.
This situation demands a strong regional cooperation framework that can help countries collectively address those common challenges. In this context, CICA has the potential to be a savior for Asian countries. As the largest regional institution in Asia, CICA can unite all countries in the region to prevent the continent from falling apart. It can also help Asia become more interconnected, which will facilitate trade, the movement of people and ideas, and ultimately foster regional growth and integration.
Asia possesses immense potential to emerge as the most developed and important continent in the world. However, realizing this potential requires greater unity and an effective regional cooperation framework. So, to enhance the effectiveness of the CICA and other Asian regional organizations, fostering a culture of trust and dialogue among member states is crucial, along with promoting inclusive participation by ensuring the representation of major Asian states. Additionally, encouraging member states to prioritize the collective interests of the region over narrow national interests will foster a sense of shared responsibility and cooperation, ultimately strengthening the effectiveness of these Asian regional organizations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Muhammad Estiak Hussian is a Research Analyst at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).