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The New Asian 'Bloc'

August 04, 1992|Robin Wright

Its Composition

In some ways, Asia's newest region is anything but new. With languages and peoples that span borders, the area taps into longstanding cultural and historic connections, even some old empires.

Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Turkmens all speak a Turkic-based language, a holdover from the days of Turkestan, an empire first molded in medieval days by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

Traces of the Persian empire are found in the Farsi spoken throughout Tajikistan and in parts of Afghanistan, while languages of Pakistan are spoken in areas of Afghanistan and India.

Even the most recent colonial presence, the British empire, is still felt in the massive numbers of people for whom English is the second language.

Meanwhile, none of the core countries is ethnically homogenous. Just a sampling of the overlap shows:

Uzbeks and Tajiks are significant communities in Afghanistan, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are both home to Pashtuns and Baluchis.

Pakistan and India both have Punjabi Sikhs and Kashmiri Muslims, while Azerbaijanis span Iran and Azerbaijan.

Moreover, more than 10 million Russians reside in the former Soviet republics, while Chinese Uighurs are important communities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. And Kurds have a large presence in Iran and Turkey.

Its Origins

The demise of the Soviet Union has played a major role, resulting in the region's six newly independent republics.

For countries such as Turkey, the end of the Western policy of containment has, in turn, allowed Ankara to look east to Asia rather than just west toward Europe for allies and trade.

The collapse of Communism also sped the downfall of Afghan President Najibullah and the victory of Muslim Moujahadeen rebels. Kabul's system of government and identity are no longer so heavily influenced by European Russians; its Asian roots are being restored.

Along the way, Islam, the only major monotheistic religion that offers a set of rules by which to govern a state as well as a set of spiritual beliefs, is increasingly filling an ideological vacuum--and providing a common cultural denominator.

The European Community's formal unification also played a key role in the formation of this new bloc. It has forced other regions to rethink their internal and international relationships--for trade to be competitive and for security in the absence of a superpower shield or ally.

This spring, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics formed the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Although ECO will take years to become a coordinated and developed alliance, others are eventually expected to join.

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