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Regional Outlook : The West Is Looking at South Asia in a New Way : A new, potentially worrisome grouping of nations is taking shape in the minds of policy-makers.

August 04, 1992|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Some have dubbed it the Greater Middle East. Others call it the new Islamic Bloc, Northwest Asia or Southwest Asia--the disparity reflecting different views of its geographic dimensions.

Whatever its final designation, a new region--stretching across a landmass from Turkey to India, from Kazakhstan to the Maldives, from the shores of the Black Sea to the Bay of Bengal--is taking shape in the minds of global policy-makers. Its emergence is among the most visible--and sizable--responses to political change around the world over the past year.

Although still little-recognized, the new Asian bloc promises to attract much of the world's attention as the 1990s unfold. "It's almost like discovering a new continent," marveled a senior U.S. official. "This region opens up a host of new possibilities--for diplomacy, for political growth, for cultural discoveries, for resource exploitation and economic development."

At the same time, the official warned, "It's one of the regions most apt to face great turmoil and change in the near future."

The new Asian grouping pulls together countries that just a year ago would have been considered a nearly impossible mix: the world's most populous democracy with the world's only modern theocracy; a stalwart member of NATO with several former Soviet republics; a nation independent for more than two millennia with countries less than a year old.

"Membership" in the region, which extends what has long been known as the Asian subcontinent at least 1,200 miles north and about 2,400 miles west, is still being defined. But the core nations include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and six former Soviet republics--Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Among the fringe nations that may end up being included are Armenia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

On paper, this newly defined region is among the world's poorest. "It's a fascinating area, but it's still essentially a backwater," said a senior Bush Administration Mideast specialist.

Yet the region has such potential that the Administration has started language-training programs, reallocated personnel and reorganized departments to deal with it. To mark the first anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon's Central Command hosted a symposium on the new area last spring. Across the country, scholars at universities and think tanks have launched projects focusing on the region, while several major foreign policy magazines published pieces on parts or all of it.

The new region pulls together countries that have historic connections, but which have long been linked with other lands.

Almost one-third of the region comes from Central Asia, an area known as Turkestan until it was conquered and colonized by the Russian czars in the 19th Century and divided into smaller states by the Soviets in the 20th Century. Turkey and Iran have been attached to the Middle East, although they always stuck out as the two non-Arab Muslim countries, while the final third made up South Asia.

The collapse of communism was the biggest single factor in the regrouping: The Soviet demise led the southern Muslim republics to declare independence last year and sped the victory of Muslim moujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan this year.

Communism's demise has since reverberated through some neighboring nations: The end of the West's preoccupation with containment has allowed Ankara, for example, to look east to Asia rather than just west toward Europe for allies and trade.

The new regional focus has been further encouraged by the Islamic resurgence, which is increasingly filling an ideological vacuum and helping restore historic ties, and the European Community's formal unification, which has led other regions to strengthen their ties--to be competitive and for security.

Last spring, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics formed the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Other nations are eventually expected to join ECO, although it will take years to become a coordinated alliance.

The potential--both auspicious and ominous--plays out on several fronts.

Physically, the region is rich in agriculture and minerals. Since the individual states all have troubled economies and limited development technology, the area is ripe for cultivation and exploitation.

Larger than the United States in area, the region has a population of almost 1.2 billion. That is more than four times the U.S. population and represents more than one of every five people on the globe.

Ideologically, the region's very emergence is a byproduct of communism's collapse. Yet, with the exception of India, democracy has hardly taken firm root.

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