Pakistan and Central Asia Striving for Regional Connectivity

Being present in the heart of Asia, Pakistan holds a significant geographic position and aims to obtain the best out of it by serving as a gateway between Central Asia and South Asia. Any developments in the economic, political or social domains anywhere in the region have huge implications for Pakistan. The interdependence of the states stimulates the need to develop active diplomacy and good political and economic relations. In the same way, Pakistan and Central Asia seek to build and promote valuable geo-economic and geo-political links to enhance regional connectivity and prosperity. While South Asia has a huge market for global investors, Central Asia is rich in natural reserves, energy resources, hydrocarbons, coal, natural gas and many more. Its topographical location complements its collaboration with the neighbouring states, especially with Pakistan. Since the last few years, Pakistan and Central Asian governments have been working together to capitalise on these opportunities through appropriate strategies that will provide a productive and secure environment for trans-regional trade and connectivity.

Regional cooperation and integration are major determinants for healthy and improved economic growth, political stability and social prosperity. Pakistan is heading towards a severe economic and energy crisis, directly affecting industrial production and, ultimately, the country’s economic growth. During the tenure of the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, several mutual agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) at both state and regional levels were proposed to sort out these challenges. “Vision Central Asia” is one of these mutual agreements. It has five pillars and is comprised of domains including economy, trade, defence, regional connectivity and people-to-people connection through cultural exchange and regional integration. Therefore, collaboration with energy-rich Central Asia will help Pakistan meet its energy requirements. On the other hand, it will provide Central Asia easy access to the South Asian markets for their natural resources and agricultural produce through Pakistan’s rail links and ports of Gwadar and Karachi.

Following the consistent official visits, it is evident that the leadership of Pakistan and Central Asia understands that multilateral cooperation is essential for economic growth and regional prosperity.

Central Asia is also serving the role of an alternate supply market of natural gas, hydrocarbons and other energy resources for the European states. Due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the West is facing an extreme energy supply shortage because of its dependence on Russian energy exports. This has paved a new way for Central Asia to serve as an energy source and to enhance its economic growth.

Asia has always been the centre of attraction for international traders and investors. Despite that, the region has never gotten considerable beneficial gains due to poor infrastructure and lack of efficiency to attain the best out of it. For Pakistan, regional rivalries, the conflict of interests of major powers in the region, and the unstable security situation in Afghanistan have always remained stumbling blocks. Furthermore, the internal political chaos, energy and economic crisis have diverted focus more towards obstacles rather than capitalising on prevailing opportunities.

Nevertheless, the most important Pak-CAR bilateral energy projects are the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and Central Asia South Asia (CASA)-1000. The CASA-1000 is likely to be operational in 2024. The project will generate new avenues for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to export clean energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. By establishing a modern framework and secure commercial links, this project would build up a proper energy supply system. Almost 3000 tons of coal is imported from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan, and the recent visit of the Kyrgyz envoy to Pakistan ensured better commercial links between the two states. Moreover, Pakistan and Kazakhstan are collaborating in agriculture, infrastructure and information technology to explore diverse bilateral trade ventures.

Following the consistent official visits, it is evident that the leadership of Pakistan and Central Asia understands that multilateral cooperation is essential for economic growth and regional prosperity. Central Asia’s keen interest in getting access to Pakistan’s ports, which will help it in reaching the global market, has stimulated several bilateral and multilateral agreements. The bilateral meeting between the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif, and Tajikistan’s President, Emamoli Rahmon, has opened new avenues for cooperation between the two states. Both parties discussed mutual regional interests and emphasised enhancing further cooperation and fully operationalising it. They also ensured the implementation of existing frameworks and the completion of the energy supply project CASA 1000. Sri Lanka has also shown interest in connecting Gwadar port with Colombo port to reach CARs through the trade route of Pakistan.

Pakistan can only access Central Asia through the narrow Wakhan border, and for that, stability in Afghanistan is the first priority. Pakistan played a crucial role in US-Taliban negotiations and peace deals to promote regional prosperity and security. After the takeover of the Taliban government, both states are not on good terms with each other. The threatening security situation and constant border clashes have made it more challenging to maintain peace at home and have raised security concerns for all the bordering states. The recent Chaman border clash has also added fuel to the fire. As Pakistan is inking new trade agreements and MoUs with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is necessary for Pakistan to resolve regional disagreements to safeguard its national and economic interests in the region and the world.

Regional connectivity and economic growth are interlinked with a secure and peaceful trade atmosphere necessary for trans-regional collaboration. No investment can serve the states as long as there is internal political instability and distrust between the regional players. If implemented properly, these networks of trade links can not only give access to distant markets but will also provide ease for future geographical connectivity. Along with merely focusing on obstacles, new avenues must be explored in promoting inter-state collaboration. States that share borders within a geographical entity must positively utilise the changing regional dynamics.

Sadia Riaz

Sadia Riaz is a graduate from International Islamic University Islamabad. She is currently serving as a research intern at Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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