Report on the 3rd Asia-Pacific Border Studies Seminar

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The seminar consisted of two sessions devoted to two topics that superficially appeared to be largely unrelated, with one on “Geopolitical Realities for the European Union: Views from Finland” and the other on “Cooperation and Conflict? Trans-boundary issues in the Aral Sea”. Actually, both topics had some very important features in common as they were devoted to major cross-border conflict and cooperation issues crucial for the EU’s borderland and for post-Soviet Central Asia.

The first of the two mentioned sessions focused on the ideational dimension of conflict: viz. on the conflict between post-modern representations of the EU’s borderland as fuzzy space for transnational regional cooperation and traditional representation of rigid divide between alliances of nation-states trying to enlarge or to protect their spheres of influence. Until recently it was quite fashionable to proclaim traditional the geopolitical imaginary inadequate, largely on the grounds of its alleged obsolescence. Now, in the course of Russian-Ukrainian conflict with Russian efforts to reshape its Western borders in accordance with traditional geopolitical views, there is already some doubt about the adequacy of post-modernist interpretations of the EU’s borderlands. Indeed, a cross-border regionalist order shaped by fuzzy and overlapping borders looks vulnerable in the face of consistent and vigorous effort to establish traditional geopolitical borders supported by hard power. Should we proclaim post-modern representation of the EU’s borders outdated and return to looking at these borders through the lens of the traditional geopolitical approach?

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Both presenters from the University of Eastern Finland, Ilkka Liikanen and James Scott, were reluctant either to proclaim the superiority of this approach or to insist on its outdatedness in comparison with post-Westphalian cross-border regionalism. Ilkka Liikanen argued that the EU’s neighborhood policy itself contains features of both approaches (supporting cross-border cooperation and, at the same time, maintaining hard external borders and resorting to NATO) and that one should speak rather about the ongoing competition between the two imaginaries than about changing eras when traditional and post-modern visions dominated. James Scott focused on the need to overcome weaknesses in European cross-border regionalism by reinforcing it through working “ideational principles based on political, functional, cultural, and everyday relationships”.

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While for post-Soviet Central Asia, geopolitical imaginaries also matter to some extent, the second session focused on another kind of issue which often impacts on regional cross-border conflict and cooperation agendas. Indeed, the scarcity of water resources that has led to the depletion of Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and especially of the Aral Sea is both a very serious source of tension and a driver for cross-border cooperation involving not only states of the region themselves but also even some other countries adjacent to it. Above all, transborder water issues in Central Asia also illustrate aberrations in the territorial imaginaries promoted by many widely-issued maps (such as those shown to passengers on international flights) which still depict Amu Darya and Syr Darya as affluent rivers and the now virtually non-existent Aral Sea as large as it was in the 1970s. Both presentations of the session, by Nikolai Aladin (Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg) and by Yekaterina Borisova (Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences) focused on various issues of the Aral Basin.

Nikolay Aladin’s presentation “The Partial Restoration of the Aral Sea and the Biological, Socio-Economic, and Health Conditions of the Region” focused on the corresponding issues of the Aral Sea itself while Yekaterina Borisova’s presentation “The Trans-boundary Water Problems of the Aral Sea Basin” had a much broader geographical focus while prioritizing political relations between Central Asian countries. Both presenters stressed that solving such acute transboundary water problems cannot be achieved by any on country in the region, and that a more cooperative approach is required between not only the Central Asian countries but also with their neighbours and the relevant international organisations. It seems that both cases, of the EU’s Eastern borderland and of Central Asian transborder issues, can potentially have important conceptual implications for conceptualizing cross-border conflict and cooperation issues in the Asia-Pacific region. First, the way in which the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes can be dealt with seriously depend on what type of territorial imaginary prevail in heads of decision-makers who can choose between insisting on hard geopolitical divides or prioritizing cross-border regional cooperation. Second, Central Asian transborder water issues can be compared with similar issues of the Mekong Basin where riparian countries achieved more success in cooperating and mitigating contradictions. Currently Border Studies needs more comparative research and the topics considered during this seminar look potentially important for it.

Serghei Golunov (Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies)