Rising Pak-Uzbekistan Ties: Integrating South and Central Asia

Regional connectivity is a prerequisite for economic growth. Unlike Europe, regional and trans-regional integration has not been a strong feature in the case of South and Central Asia. Despite having cultural commonalities, the connection between South and Central Asia has always been weak. However, for better or worse, change in leadership always brings transformative elements in the state’s policymaking. It is also true for Pakistan and Uzbekistan, especially regarding their foreign policy. The vision “Naya Pakistan” centring on economic security and social justice aims to bolster Islamabad’s ties within and across regions, including “New Uzbekistan”. New Uzbekistan is contemplated as the foundation of the third renaissance in Uzbekistan, whereby focusing on economic reforms and regional integration have laid the ground for boosting regional connectivity and integration between South and Central Asia.

Pakistan and Uzbekistan are strategically important for each other. Uzbekistan is the largest landlocked republic in Central Asia, connecting five other Central Asian Republics (CARs), acting as a bridge between the East and West. For Pakistan, natural resources are the primary attraction for strengthening ties with CARs to maintain its energy security. On the other hand, South Asia provides Uzbekistan with the shortest and cheapest gateway to transport its natural resources to the international market via Gwadar or Karachi ports. Uzbekistan can expand its trade volume by utilising warm waters via Pakistan. It would also get access to the Middle Eastern and African markets without increasing its dependence on Russia, the US and Europe.

Soon after Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Pakistan was among the initial countries that recognised Uzbekistan and formed diplomatic ties with it by 1992. Their shared history goes back to the Great Kushans from 2nd Century BC to 3rd Century AD, which expanded in Central Asia, Afghanistan and today’s Pakistan. Kushans were the core of the Gandharan civilisation. Later during the Umayyad Dynasty in the eighth century, many cities of Uzbekistan such as Samarkand, Tashkent, Kiva and Bukhara became the heart of Islamic civilisation. The fact that there are 23 shrines of Naqshbandiya Sufis in Pakistan, originating from Uzbekistan, reflects the cultural linkages between the two states. Unfortunately, these cultural associations were not fully utilised for cultural and economic integration during the presidency of Islam Karimov. During the 25 years of President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian rule, Uzbekistan and Pakistan relations never achieved their full economic potential due to the Afghanistan war and upsurge in terrorism. However, after the demise of Karimov in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came up with the Development Strategy for 2017-2021, aiming to strengthen democratic principles to ensure good relations with the neighbours and to improve a legal framework that enhances foreign policy and foreign economic activities. Following the new vision for Uzbekistan, President Mirziyoyev has welcomed Pakistan’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017.

Uzbekistan can expand its trade volume by utilising warm waters via Pakistan. It would also get access to the Middle Eastern and African markets without increasing its dependence on Russia, the US and Europe.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Uzbekistan in 2021, followed by his participation in the international conference, “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity” hosted by Tashkent, has given impetus to Islamabad and Tashkent bilateral relations. Both states have signed a range of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) such as transit trade agreement, military education cooperation, pre-arrival information of goods movements across the borders, ease in visa procedures, cultural exchange program (2021-2026) and collaboration between Foreign Service Academy of Pakistan and University of World Economy and Diplomacy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan. Before the Pakistan premier’s visit in July, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan held a trilateral meeting in Tashkent to discuss the construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project. This project would be the “turning point” in the history of regional integration and trade between South and Central Asia. This Trans-Afghan corridor would be the shortest route from Central Asian state to the market of 1.9 billion people residing in the region. Furthermore, to Pakistan’s advantage, this railway route would also reduce Tashkent’s dependence on Iran’s Bandar Abbas port as it costs more to transport goods from the Tashkent – Bandar Abbas route than the Trans-Afghanistan corridor.

The transit trade agreement was the highlight during Pakistan’s Premier visit to Tashkent as this agreement has given Uzbekistan access to the Pakistan seaports. According to this agreement, transit trade would pass only through pre-determined routes. Both states would also provide road transmit permits to the transport operators and recognise driver’s licenses and vehicle registration documents, allowing the Uzbek trucks to offload goods at Pakistani ports instead at the Afghan-Pakistan border. Additionally, under this agreement, Uzbekistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Coordination Committee would be formed to monitor, facilitate, and resolve grievances, if any, during the implementation process of this project.

On 3 March 2022, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrived in Pakistan for a two-day visit for the first time since he assumed the presidency. His arrival was significant as both states signed a joint declaration on the “Next Step in Strategic Partnership” between Pakistan and Uzbekistan to boost economic and cultural integration. On the same day of his arrival, Pakistan-Uzbekistan Transit Trade Agreement (AUPTT) became operational. Under this strategic partnership, both states have expanded their bilateral cooperation in science, technology, cultural exchange, tourism, media, environment and establishment of inter-parliamentary groups of collaboration. Additionally, both states have agreed to launch regular flights on the routes Tashkent – Lahore and Tashkent – Islamabad to facilitate business community and enhance people to people engagement.

The long due strategic partnership between Pakistan and Uzbekistan has finally been initiated and reflects President Mirziyoyev’s “Development Strategy for New Uzbekistan 2022-2026” and Pakistan’s “National Security Policy 2022-2026”. The advanced cooperation in various fields would eventually help both states strengthen regional integration and enhance people-to-people connections. The only problem in the Pakistan and Uzbekistan bilateral equation remains Afghanistan. However, on the brighter side, the Trans-Afghanistan corridor would provide momentum to Afghanistan’s frailing economy and provide job opportunities to the locals. On the contrary, the security situation in Afghanistan has the potential to either make or break this landmark railroad project. Pakistan and Uzbekistan should continue their efforts in facilitating Afghanistan in normalising its security and economic situation. Effective implementation of 5 R’s of post-conflict peacebuilding in Afghanistan, i.e., Reconstruction, Rebuilding, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Reconciliation, would help Pakistan realise its “Vision Central Asia” policy” and Uzbekistan in boosting its economic growth.

Neha Nisar

Neha Nisar is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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