Prof Shabir Ahmad Khan
Pakistan and Central Asia have a shared past and a shared destiny. The bilateral relations between Pakistan and Central Asian Republics (CARs) do not exist in a vacuum rather they exist and evolve within a regional context. A regional context in turn exists and evolves within global context. Therefore it is important to have a brief look at the global and regional contexts to better understand the prospects of Pakistan’s bilateral relations and connectivity with CARs.
At the global level, Europe is pre-occupied with its own issues and priorities; U.S.A has shifted its attention to Asia Pacific region after leaving Central Asia. Russia as opposed to its expectations has been in a protracted conflict with Ukraine and faced with economic difficulties under the Western sanctions. Russia-Ukraine conflict has profound socio-economic implications for global food and energy market. The conflict has threatened World food security (wheat supply) as well as already resulting in rising oil & gas prices at global revel. Overall global supply chains would remain interrupted resulting in slowing down the global economic recovery after the shockwaves of Covid19 Pandemic. The divide between Western Europe & Russia has enlarged to unprecedented levels, U.S has been successful in rallying Europe behind it, NATO has been made more relevant to Europe while China & Russia providing strategic depth to each other in the global context.
In the wake of US withdrawal, diverted or divided Russian attention plus sanctions on Russia, the China’s geo economic relevance to Central Asia is set to grow further. Russo-Chinese competition in the region is out of question due to greater geo-strategic and geo-economic interdependence between Russia and China in the face of common foe. The Eurasian Integration process in the form of highways, railways and pipelines realizes because of the cooperation of two major Eurasian powers i.e. China and Russia. This cooperation was absent during the last century. Currently Russia and China have clear roles in Central Asia i.e. security provision and economic development respectively with a consensus to keep their backyard stable and developed.
Regarding Central Asia, Russia has geographical and historical advantages due to Tsarist and Soviet legacies while China has geographical plus financial leverages vis-a-vis USA. USA will have to invest in huge infrastructural development projects to counter China in the region beyond the institutional framework like C5+1. Currently it does not seem the US policy and it will be difficult for USA in the face of withdrawal from the region to influence CARs’ external relations.
With the US/NATO withdrawal from the region, Central Asia is moving from shatter belt to focused regionalism. Shatter belt is a geographical region subject to intense great powers competition for control over. The major powers competition makes a region prone to internal divisions. The post-American Central Asia with diverted Russian attention and competition from the region provide additional space and drive the regional countries to make independent foreign policy choices best suited to regional requirements and to their national economic development. There would be renewed efforts to develop regionalism as well as diversify their foreign political and economic relations in ways that address regional issues of security and development from regional perspective and strengthen their national economic development.
The CARs, after having consolidated their economies and statehood in contrast to the immediate post-Soviet period, have revived regional cooperation and looking beyond their borders. Connectivity, the ‘arms race’ of twenty first century, has been the driving force for transformational changes in the region. This is to maximally benefit from the process of Eurasian integration, multilateral regional integration plans and connectivity plans of CAREC (Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation), ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization) and SCO while leveraging their resource base and geographical location.
Russia-Ukraine conflict started at a moment when US/NATO had already left Central Asia otherwise Russia-US tension could have created security problems in the region. The conflict presents challenges as well as opportunities to CARs. The challenges are in terms of trade, remittances and security vis-à-vis geographically adjacent Russia and due to Soviet legacies. Russia-Ukrainian conflict and Western sanctions on Russia necessitate and drive Central Asian Region to revive historical routes and open up in the Southern direction.
An important factor in the regional context has been the end of war in Afghanistan. The inclusion of Afghanistan into regional economic process is imperative for regional security and connectivity. It is worth mentioning that if Afghanistan remains instable it will not remain a regional problem rather would become a global problem as it turned to be in 1990s. Therefore peace in Afghanistan is not only in the interests of its neighbors and regional states rather it is in the interests of the world.
Afghanistan has been left to its neighbors and regional countries to deal with. The post-U.S Afghanistan, to a great extent has become a regional responsibility in terms of security and development. Afghanistan presents both challenges and opportunities. However as a regional cornerstone, Afghanistan shall be viewed as an opportunity and a regional consensus and coordinated approach is needed to help Afghanistan and ultimately help the entire region. The neighbours of Afghanistan in particular shall develop framework of cooperation instead of competition or conflict.
A regional strategic alignment is needed regarding Afghanistan. Pakistan-Central Asia forum of think tanks can be instrumental in developing synergies and road map for connectivity via Afghanistan. A cooperative and coordinated approach at regional level towards Afghanistan will encourage and push the war-torn country in right direction. This will lead to capitalise on the region’s resource base for shared growth and prosperity. In this regard Pakistan and CARs need to play active role.
The principles of mutual benefit, mutual trust and pragmatism between Pakistan, CARs and other neighbors of Afghanistan i.e. China and Iran will contribute to the search for constructive approaches to solve regional issues of security and connectivity from regional perspectives. Therefore one can observe that the emerging regional scenario will be more conducive and encouraging to regional initiatives for regional connectivity.
Pakistan and CARs have achieved a lot during the last three decades in terms of institutional setup and bilateral agreements, memoranda. These agreements cover diverse areas of mutual interests in political, culture, economic and strategic realms paving the way for enhanced connectivity in the changed regional circumstances. Pakistan provides an important outlet to the Eurasian Heartland as well as Western China. The regional countries need to capitalize on the regional conducive environment by actively pursuing the development of trade and logistic corridors in the region.
Pakistan has framed Vision Central Asia Policy with focus on strategizing trade and economic connectivity with CARs via Afghanistan as well as via Karakoram Highway and Kashgar.
The regional integration plans shall be viewed in regional context e.g. Trans-Afghan Railway line can become an efficient trade and logistic corridor between Pakistan and Central Asia as all CARs are interwoven by railways, highways and pipelines.
Pakistan and CARs as members of ECO, CAREC and SCO need to play active roles in coordinating the cross border connectivity plans of these organisations in the regional interests. Pakistan has been in the process to sign bilateral transit trade agreements with CARs. These bilateral transit trade agreements will include CARs in the web based one custom (WeBOC) system of Pakistan Customs.
Institutions and organisations are dead bodies. It is human beings that bring life to institutions and organisations. People to people connectivity provides base for all kind of relations between states. Therefore people to people contacts shall be enhanced on priority basis between Pakistan and CARs. In this regard it is needed simplify visa regime and establish air corridors. Without simplified visa regime, neither land corridor nor air corridor will work. It is imperative to establish links between the research and educational institutions to start joint research projects on regional and bilateral issues of security and development. It is also important to enhance cultural and media exchanges for enhanced awareness about each other as people know least about each other in Pakistan and Central Asia despite having a common past.
(The author is Director
Area Study Centre (Russia, China & Central Asia) University of Peshawar)