By C. Andrew
The Central Asian Republics (CARs), i.e., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with a total population of over 60 million spread over an area of about four million square kilometres, are located on historical Silk Route. The geo-strategic, political and economic significance of CARs makes it one of the most important regions in the world, connecting South Asia, West Asia, Russia, China and other parts of the world through the historic Silk Route which always has served as a crossroads in terms of trade between Europe and Asia. Its also possesses rich reservoirs of oil and natural gas resources and has a compelling attraction for all the regional and international countries to get into the closer interaction through bilateral or multilateral relation. For Pakistan, the geographic proximity and many commonly shared features along with eternal religious bonds are some of the reasons which bring the two sides closer to each other. Pakistan also enjoys a romantic historical linkage and commonalities with CARs in religion, culture, heritage and Sufism.
At the time of Central Asian Republics’ (CARs) independence in 1991, Pakistan was among the first countries, which extended recognition to the CARs without any hesitation and Pakistani embassies were immediately established in all the CARs. During the month of May 2017, the Central Asian Countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pakistan. During the decade of the 1990s, although, official visits were made from both side and several Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) were signed in the fields of economy, trade, and business but concrete steps for implementation of the MoUs were not taken. The sluggish process of development of bilateral relations between Pakistan and Central Asia was however revived when Pakistan became the frontline state in the ‘Global War on Terror” in Afghanistan. Since then frequent visits by the officials from both sides have been made, which is an evidence of improved bilateral relations. In this context, various agreements have been signed between both the sides to develop bilateral trade and economic cooperation. To boost collaboration in cultural and other fields, institutional level arrangements have been made and joint Economic Commissions (JECs) have also been established with all the Central Asian states. Currently, under a Special Technical Assistance Programme (STAP), initiated in 1992-93, Pakistan is providing training facilities, which are fully funded by the government of Pakistan. The programme includes courses ranging from English language, banking and accountancy to diplomacy.
The increasing significance of the CARs in the world over had made Pakistan active in enhancing its relations with Central Asia and particularly with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Resultantly, the trade turnover between Tajikistan and Pakistan has steadily risen from the US $ 18 million in 1998 to the US $ 89 million in 2014. The main area of cooperation between the two countries is ‘energy sector’ in which Pakistan is deficient and facing crises. To overcome energy shortage, the CASA-1000 (Central Asia South Asia-1000) is a major cooperation project between the two countries. But due to uncertain security situation of Afghanistan, the CASA-1000 is not on the priority agenda of both sides. Tajikistan has the potential to provide electricity to the region by using its hydropower resources. CASA-1000 is one of the major projects
initiated to use this potential. However, the completion of the project is linked to the law and order situation in Afghanistan. As already mentioned, in 2014, trade between Pakistan and Tajikistan was the US $ 89 million, which has much more potential to multiply. In post 9/11 environment, one of the major reasons in hampering the development of rapid relations between Pakistan and Central Asia is the Afghan conflict that is still blocking Pakistan’s physical access to the region and, vice versa. Pakistan’s decision-makers and strategists have worked out a solution to this on-going decades-old problem. They have developed and operationalized an alternate route (Pakistan-China-Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan Transit Agreement) to Central Asia through Karakoram Highway, Khunjerab and China.
The Kyrgyz Republic has surplus hydro-power resources and it could help Pakistan to overcome its energy crisis. Pakistan is trying to evolve firm economic relations with Uzbekistan and establishment of Pakistan-Uzbekistan Joint Ministerial Commission is a major step in this direction. Although the current volume of bilateral trade between Pakistan and Uzbekistan is relatively low (about US $ 24 million), but both the countries have agreed to increase the volume of trade up to the US $ 300 million during next five years. Besides, both sides are eager to enhance bilateral relations to new heights based on win-win cooperation. Pakistan is keen to advance its ties in all fields predominantly in the energy and the economic sectors. Uzbekistan has large tourism potential. More than 20 Pakistani tourist companies have signed MoUs with their counterparts in Uzbekistan. The Society of Asian Civilizations Pakistan, set up by late Professor Emeritus Dr Ahmad Hasan Dani on 23rd March 2000 with the aim of promoting academic and cultural activities, has so far conducted three Cultural Study Tours to Uzbekistan. Professor Tashmirza and Professor Ansaruddin Ibrahim of the Urdu Department of Uzbekistan have authored Urdu-Uzbek Dictionary and Urdu-Uzbek Mushtarak Alfa’az, which were launched in Pakistan by the Society of Asian Civilizations Pakistan.
Pakistan and Central Asian Republics are also the members of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) which provides a good opportunity for the Heads of State and Government to meet. Bilateral meetings on the sidelines offer a closer focus on bilateral relations. There is a desire in Pakistan that ECO, which is basically an economic grouping, should try to assume a political role and in due course of time also aspire to the possibility of geopolitical and geo-economic role. ECO may help in adopting a common security policy on similar grounds as pursued by EU in the European States combating religious extremism and Terrorism. Although CARs are land-locked and dependent on other regional partners for export purposes, still all eyes are set on this region as the Caspian Sea in central Asia contains the world’s largest untapped oil and gas resources. All countries in the region are getting close to the Central Asian States and they geared up their trade. Pakistan’s loans of $ 10 to 30 million to each of the CARs and its commitment to cooperate in the building of $500 million hydel power station in Tajikistan are some of the many indicators of its keen wish to assist them in their economic development. Moreover, the expansion of PIA’s air network to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Alma Ata in Kazakstan is a major step forward in cementing ties with these two states. The PIA has finalized plans for air services to the capitals of the other three Central Asian States.
Despite their ethnic bonds with Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, the CARs can benefit more from Pakistan’s port facilities, trade and commerce with the countries in Southern Hemisphere. The development of Gwadar port and the CPEC project is a golden opportunity to change the destiny of the region as Pakistan can provide a bridge between Central Asia, South Asia, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the European Union (EU) countries. This port has been specially designed to cater the needs of China and CARs.
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In the context of geo-strategic situation in the region, including political and security instability in Afghanistan and fluctuating relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, CPEC provides an alternative solution to link up Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, and Tajikistan, which directly border China, as well as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to the CPEC route, thus ruling out reliance on the traditional perception that all roads from Pakistan into Central Asia go through Kabul or Wahkhan. Chinese Xinjiang enjoys centuries-old cultural traditions and trading links with Central Asia. The ancient Chinese Silk Road first connects to Central Asia and then to the rest of the world. Central Asia is thus central to Silk Road. CPEC route provides immense opportunities to CARs to expand trade with Pakistan and also go through China for trade expansion. Almost all CARs have shown interest in joining the CPEC. With an abundance of natural resources such as oil, gas, gold, and other metals, CARs have great potentials to invest in CPEC-related projects and its industrial zones. Looking at vast trade and transit-trade and investment opportunities and potentials, CARs should take benefits of the CPEC. On the other hand, Pakistan could also benefit from Central Asia, which has a combined gross domestic product of US $ 207 billion and a population of 66 million, can offer a sizeable market for Pakistan’s goods, services and investment.