Very recently, celebrations to mark the completion of twenty-five years of relations between Pakistan and Central Asian Republics (CARs – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), were underway in Islamabad. Diplomatic missions held talks, conducted seminars and organized roundtable discussions with an aim to pave the way for friendly economic, social, cultural and political collaborations in the future.
The people of Central Asian Republics (CARs) have deep historic and cultural ties with Pakistan, and this affinity has gone stronger and stronger due to several factors. The origin of profound Pakistan-CARs relations goes back to the years 1991-92, when Pakistan helped those republics in the very first year of their independence as sovereign states. Pakistan was one of the first states that not only recognized these republics but also donated generously in order to contribute to their economic stability.
Central Asian region is known for its rugged terrains and limited arable lands. The region is linked with the lands of Europe, Far East and South Asia. Other than this geographical connectivity, huge reserves of petroleum and natural gas make this region a harbinger of growth and development for its neighbours. Whereas South Asia, which comprises eight countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has its own trends of mistrust that is compounded by a plethora of problems; humanitarian issues, hegemonic designs of some countries, poverty, fragile economies, soaring populations, water issues, nuclearisation of the region and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Nonetheless, in this age of connectivity, these two contiguous regions have the potential to effect fundamental changes in the whole Asian continent at large.
As articulated by Professor Frederick Starr, the foremost proponent of New Silk Roads: “Central Asia and South Asia are already having historical connections and it should be connected again by all means of linkages.”
Central Asia and Pakistan possess a lot of components of connectivity through which these Republics could be connected in a better way; Pakistan offers easier access to energy resources of Central Asia (despite having no direct land access) toward the world markets through its warm waters.
China’s revolutionary idea of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) would play a crucial role for western and southern countries i.e. Central Asia and South Asia, and would open up immense opportunities for the two diverse regions. This will further lead to a web of connectivity with the Middle East, Africa and Europe through the Arabian and Mediterranean seas.
Although Pakistan has strong bilateral ties with CARs, in a globalized world strong potency is towards multilateralism which, as per a definition, “is a process of organizing relations between groups of three or more states”. Indivisibility of interests among participants makes them show a commitment to diffuse reciprocity, and it boosts the system of dispute settlement. The same pattern is prevailing in multilateralism between CARs and Pakistan. Projects such as Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Quartet Agreement of Transit Trade (QATT 1995), Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) programme, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Ashgabat Agreement, and Lapis Lazuli Corridor 2011 are the crucial factors in these relations. Let’s have a fleeting look at them:
a. Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)
ECO is an intergovernmental organization that came into existence in 1985 as a successor to Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) which worked as a platform for economic cooperation among Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Later, ECO was established in 1985 and after its expansion, all the CARs became part of it.
Today, all states are collaborating in order to accelerate the pace of regional development through their common endeavours. Besides shared cultural and historic affinities, they have been able to use the existing infrastructural and business links to further fortify their resolve to transfer their hopes and aspirations into a tangible reality.
b. Quartet Agreement of Transit Trade (QATT)
Similarly, Quartet Agreement of Transit Trade (QATT), which was concluded in 1995 by Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, is an agreement of two CARs with two emerging economies of the world. It is more in favour of Pakistan because Pakistani ports (Gwadar Port, Karachi Port and Port Qasim) will be used.
c. Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)
Member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) occupy an exceptional position on the world map. The SCO’s rationale of economic cooperation, eradication of terrorism, strengthening of mutual cooperation and establishing good neighbourly relations will forge connectivity that would result in fruitful opportunities for economic intercourse (trade and commence) among different states of Asia and Europe. Recently-accorded permanent membership of the SCO will offer Pakistan easier access to energy resources of Central Asia, despite that Pakistan has no direct land access to the CARs.
d. Ashgabat Agreement
The Ashgabat Agreement is aimed at developing the shortest trade route between Central Asian countries and Iranian and Omani ports. The Agreement was initially signed by Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman and Qatar back in April 2011 and was given additional support in 2014 with a Memorandum of Understanding. Kazakhstan has also joined this arrangement subsequently. Pakistan joined in October 2016
e. Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program
The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program of 11 countries and six multilateral development partners working to promote development through cooperation, leading to accelerated economic growth and poverty reduction. The priority areas are transport, trade facilitation, trade policy and energy.
According to the official website of CAREC, the Program is a proactive facilitator of practical, results-based regional projects, and policy initiatives critical to trade expansion and sustainable development in the stakeholder countries. Since 2001, the Program has mobilized almost $27.7 billion in transport, trade and energy infrastructure investments.
f. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline
Other than abovementioned multilateral fora, a Central Asian Republic “Turkmenistan” is working on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. TAPI is a project of laying 1,814-kilometre-long pipeline that would be providing gas from Turkmenistan to energy-hungry South Asian countries.
In December 2015, Central Asian and South Asian states, including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, met in Turkmenistan’s city of Merv where they signed the project details. Due to conflicted strategic and economic values for each country, the project is still clouded by the politics of “ifs and buts”. TAPI, if and when operationalized, will produce new opportunities for members of the Southern Corridor. It will connect the lucrative regions of Central and South Asia and will create the North-South corridor. Of late, Uzbekistan has also shown interest in joining the TAPI.
The second mega project between two regions is CASA-1000. It would build a bridge between the two regions and will develop Central Asia-South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASAREM). On May 12, 2016, an agreement was signed in Dushanbe by the principal stakeholders i.e. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Like TAPI, CASA-1000 has been hit by economic and political problems. Both projects have generated a political tug of war between diverse regions.
Economic Relationship is the New Mantra
In present global political setting, economic relationship is the new mantra. The economic significance of abovementioned multilateral forums is undeniable due to links between regions, which possesses a large proportion of the world’s oil and gas reserves. The Central Asian states seriously lack one particular aspect despite their large territories and proportion of the world’s oil and gas reserves and that is: “access to warm waters” or, one can say, easy access to sea trade.
Pakistan’s strategic location makes it more important because of its maritime link with the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Hence, strategic location of Pakistan will be able to provide land and sea routes and connectivity to the CARs and Russia as well as China.
Access to warm waters (Indian Ocean) will be possible with the establishment of the North-South Corridor. The Chinese investment of above $60 billion in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is very consequential in this regard. CPEC is one branch of $60 billion for Pakistan from the five-trillion-dollar ‘investment tree’.
Fortunately, this came as the privileged bounty for Pakistan due its geostrategic location and time-tested Pak-China friendship. Sea, as a mode of cargo transportation, is comparatively cheaper than land or air. Pakistan’s Gwadar port is the third largest deep sea port in the world, bearing strategic significance, especially with reference to maritime links of Silk Roads.
Moreover, Pakistan has a tantalizing opportunity for investment in trade, marketing, business and banking sectors, as well as, a sizeable market for common goods. Regional connectivity between member states with Pakistan would unfold immense opportunities in trade, business, infrastructure, transportation and emerging markets for China and Russia. As the CARs are lacking in North-South corridors, this could become a reality by establishing links with Pakistan through the CPEC.
Furthermore, as Pakistan is successfully overcoming terrorism and extremism through Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the CARs could also imbibe some tried tactics and strategy to counter “three evils” (of SCO) on their territories.
The idea of connectivity of CARs and Pakistan is an economic opportunity which possesses lucrative benefits for all. These collaborations in economic field between the states that are a part of the New Silk Road would attract extra-regional states as part of a great game to secure their vital interests by creating new strategic environment. All players are consistently pursuing their strategic designs in resource-rich region of Central and South Asia.
What needs to be done is that CARs and Pakistan should work on bilateralism which would also boost multilateralism. Huge potential exists for extensive bilateral cooperation and coordination among many projects but there is a pressing need for taking substantial steps as soon as possible for progress, prosperity and cooperation of the two diverse regions. Significant benefits can be reaped by enhancing people-to-people contacts which would also improve cooperation between CARs and Islamabad. Free flow of trade, goods, capital and ideas could gestate a new world for them.
- Huge reserves of petroleum and natural gas make Central Asia a harbinger of growth and development for its neighbours.
- China’s revolutionary idea of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) would play a crucial role for Central Asia and South Asia, and would open up immense opportunities for the two diverse regions.
- CASA-1000 will build a bridge between the two regions and will develop Central Asia-South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASAREM).
- Strategic location of Pakistan will be able to provide land and sea routes and connectivity to the CARs, Russia and China.
- CPEC is one branch of $60 billion for Pakistan from the five-trillion-dollar ‘investment tree’.
- Free flow of trade, goods, capital and ideas could gestate a new world for Central Asia and South Asia.