Prospects of Pakistan-Central Asia Relations

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By Muhammad Nawaz Khan : –

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. In May, 2017, the Central Asian Countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Pakistan had signed six Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) in 1992 with the CARs in the field of economy, culture, trade and banking. The Government of Pakistan was determined to establish productive relations with the CARs but there were several factors, which impeded the rapid development of bilateral relations. These were Pakistan’s recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan during 1990s, the authoritarian styled government system in the CARs, lack of political will, and issues of governance in both CARs and Pakistan.  During 1990s, no major foreign policy initiatives were taken by the leadership of Pakistan, resulting into slow development of bilateral relations with CARs, despite strong historical and cultural links with them. During the same period, although, official visits were made from both side and several MoUs were signed but concrete steps for implementation of the MoUs were not taken.

The slow 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 on both sides have been made, which is an evidence of improved bilateral relations. In this context, various agreements have been signed between both 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, accountancy and 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 US $ 18 million in 1998 to 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 Central Asia South Asia-1000 (CASA) is a major cooperation project between the two countries. 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 security situation in Afghanistan because the instability in the country is a major hurdle in the way of CASA-1000 project. Especially, in post 9/11 regional security 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 policy makers and strategists have figured out a solution to this on-going decades-old problem. They have developed and operationalized an alternate route such as 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 (over US $ 24 million), but both the countries have agreed to increase the volume of trade up to 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. Besides, 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. It is estimated that Uzbekistan possesses mineral-resources potential of over US $ 3.5 trillion. Hence, mutual cooperation between the two countries in the fields of mineral and metal exploration will be a promising enterprise.

Pakistan and CARs should exchange parliamentary and other governmental and non-governmental delegations frequently and focus on people to people contacts. The expansion of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) air network to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Alma Ata in Kazakhstan is a major step forward in cementing ties with these two states. The PIA has also finalized plans for air services to the capitals of the other three Central Asian States. The Uzbek Air and Tajik Air have begun flights from Tashkent and Dushanbe to Lahore. A cheap and regular air cargo service between Pakistan and the Central Asian states is the need of the hour. Pakistan has a railway network with Zahidan in Iran that should be extended to Turkmenistan via Surrukh border so that CARs could also be linked via railway with Pakistan. Besides, Central Asia can benefit from the proposed up gradation of Pakistan-China railway network and Karakorum Highway under China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative.

There is an immense scope for cooperation between the Universities of Pakistan and those in Central Asia. Pakistan, with a low literacy rate, can learn a great deal from the Central Asian states, which have made nearly 95 per cent of their population literate. In the field of media, Radio Pakistan is working on projects to strengthen its service for the Central Asian region so that the people are educated about Pakistan in their own native languages. Likewise, an expansion of Pakistan Television’s transmission facilities in Peshawar could enable it to beam its TV programmes to the entire Central Asian region. There is also a need to enhance the media exchanges between Pakistan and Central Asia. The development of Gwadar port and the CPEC project is a golden opportunity to change the destiny of the region as Pakistan could provide a bridge between Central Asia, South Asian, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the European Union (EU) countries. There is a need to develop academic, educational, scientific and cultural relations between Pakistan and Central Asia. Central Asia, with 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.

The mutual cooperation and steady development in Pakistan-Central Asia relations will eventually lead towards regional stability. And in the future, all regional countries may opt for the establishment of a common market for the well-being of their people. For realizing this dream, Pakistan and Central Asia need to facilitate the peace efforts in Afghanistan.

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