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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2040

Pakistan seeks stronger ties with Central Asia

By Dr. Abdul Ruff

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif concluded a visit to the Central Asian region on 22 May Friday, pushing to expand energy, security and tourism ties with the former Soviet states, essentially to sign deals to overcome Pakistan's chronic power shortages.

In a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Temir Sariyev, in the capital Bishkek, Sharif discussed an electricity project that would see Pakistan import up to 1,000 megawatts from mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Sharif also met Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev during the visit. Sharif flew to Bishkek from the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, where he spoke with Turkmenistan's leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) power line, which would also supply 300 megawatts to conflict-torn Afghanistan, "would ease the electro-energy deficit" of his country of 185 million people, Sharif said as the two agreed to develop energy, security and tourism ties. Sariyev promised his country's "active participation" in the project, known as CASA 1000.

Though the World Bank is financing half the project, CASA 1000 faces challenges since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can produce an energy surplus only in the summer when their mountain rivers fill with water. The project would therefore only partially solve Pakistan's politically contentious deficit.

Little detail was disclosed from negotiations in secluded gas-rich Turkmenistan, but they were likely focused mainly on TAPI, the ambitious pipeline project valued at up to $10 billion that would pump Turkmen gas to the South Asian country and India, also via Afghanistan. The planned 1,800-kilometre link could deliver 33 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas annually to the growing Indian and Pakistani markets with Afghanistan likely to absorb no more than 0.5 bcm.

After the talks, Sharif said that he hoped to intensify work on the TAPI project that would bring advantages to the entire region. The pipeline however faces security concerns in Afghanistan and ballooning costs while it lacks a commercial investor. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in April the project may take five years to complete.

Earlier, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics have signed several memoranda of understanding on economic cooperation and collaboration in various fields. An inter-governmental Joint Economic Commission has also been set up with the countries in the region to give impetus to trade, economic and scientific cooperation. But the expected economic growth has not materialized mainly because of lack of implementation of the agreements. Pakistan and Central Asian states are members of ECO, whose main objectives include developing and improving the economic infrastructure and transportation system in the region. However, the organization has lost its effectiveness and has been eclipsed by the emerging SCO, which has in its folds two major powers, Russia and China.

Historically, the areas that make up Pakistan have had close cultural and economic relations with the central Asia region. Central Asia has been closely tied to its nomadic people and the Silk Route, which has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe and Asia for centuries. British occupation of India and Russia’s control over Central Asia had disrupted these ties in the late 19th century. Soon after gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan joined the anti-communist bloc, which prevented Islamabad from developing close relations with the Central Asian region. Pakistan had no direct contact with Central Asia under Soviet rule.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the energy-rich and land-locked Central Asian Republics (CARs) have assumed great significance in Pakistan’s foreign policy considerations. Pakistan’s geographical proximity with the Central Asian region, the geo-political and geo-economic significance of the CARs and the desire to become the gateway to Central Asia have stimulated Islamabad’s interest in building closer political and economic ties with the region, which includes five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Pakistan renounced its pro-Taliban policy after 9/11 and the shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy since then has enhanced Islamabad’s cooperation and economic links with Central Asia. However, the nature of Pakistan’s relations with former Soviet Central Asia has largely been economic rather than political or strategic.

Pakistan has long portrayed itself as a natural trade route for Central Asian republics to reach world markets by availing transit facilities and access to Pakistani seaports. Several agreements have been signed to develop the communication links, including road and rail links. However, lawlessness and instability along all these routes have proven to be a major hurdle in realizing the potential for economic cooperation. The CARs have encountered a litany of post-independence problems, including rapid economic and socio-political transformation, security challenges, and suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Pakistan and the CARs share many things including religion and cultural ties. However, Islamabad’s desire for close political and economic ties with the Central Asian region has been plagued by its foreign policy, mainly on Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ties with the region are nowhere near as robust as the initial warmth had indicated when these Central Asian republics gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A multitude of internal and external challenges facing the region have hampered progress in that regard. Unlike the other main players in the region, including Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey and the US, Pakistan’s political conditions, unrest in Afghanistan and fragile economy have prevented it from engaging with Central Asia.

The Central Asian states want to expand trade ties with Pakistan and develop new infrastructure. Turkmenistan would like to boost energy sales through the construction of the TAPI pipeline, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are growing markets for Pakistani goods. Pakistan in turn is interested in expanding its imports of Central Asian energy (hydroelectricity as well as gas). These economic ties ensure a common interest among the Central Asian states and Pakistan in having stability in and secure transit across Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s hopes of becoming Central Asia’s main artery to global commerce have been disappointed.7 Central Asian States’ Relations with India In the long run, the Central Asian states generally view India as an important economic partner that can help ameliorate their dependence on Russia and China.

The strategic importance of Pakistan’s Balochistan province has grown since China started building a deep sea port in Gwadar.6 Pakistan’s economic development depends on how it takes advantage of the tremendous economic and trade potential of energy-rich Central Asia. Balochistan is a vital link to expansion of economic ties and cooperation with Central Asia. But all that would depend on ensuring security and law and order in the province. Balochistan is ideally situated to cater to the energy and trading needs of other countries in the region and make Pakistan an energy hub for Asia. The Gwadar deep sea port is expected to serve as a secure storage and transhipment hub for the Middle East and Central Asian oil and gas supplies through a well-defined corridor passing through the country. In fact, if all goes as planned, Gwadar would be the terminus of multi-billion dollar gas pipelines.

India lacks a direct geographical links with Afghanistan and Central Asia. It has to pass through Pakistani territory for any access to this region. By keeping close links with Afghanistan, especially post- 9/11 and supporting the Karzai government, New Delhi has managed to expand its role in the war-torn country. Islamabad has also charged India of seeking to create unrest along Pakistan’s western borders, especially in Balochistan, and exploiting the situation.

Indian policymakers believe that any advance by Islamist militants in Central Asia could invigorate similar elements active in Indian-administered Kashmir. India has also proposed an energy pipeline from Russia across Central Asia and China. Another gas pipeline which is of significant interest to New Delhi seeks to connect India to Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan, although progress in that regard depends on the nature of relations between New Delhi and Islamabad as well as the security situation in Afghanistan. The degree of strategic cooperation between India and the CARs is evident from the fact that New Delhi has established a military base at Farkhor in Tajikistan.

The base has been operating since May 2002 in an area close to the border with Afghanistan. This has had serious implications for Pakistan’s strategic interests in Central Asia. India also has the observer status with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Both USA and Russia, as per their joint anti-Islam agenda, do not want Central Asian nations to come closer to Pakistan for religious reasons. Lack of a common border with any Central Asian state is one of the primary impediments to accessing the region. Instability in Pakistan does not help promote strong ties with CAR.

Relations between the United States and the five Central Asian countries are largely positive, notwithstanding tensions over the spotty political and human rights environment in some states. Much U.S.–Central Asian cooperation is connected to the war effort in Afghanistan, which the Central Asians are assisting with logistical support, infrastructure, and security cooperation.

As the leader of former Soviet Union of which Central Asia was also a part, Russia remains the most important security actor in Central Asia, though its economic position is being rapidly overtaken by China. Russia is seeking to limit the Central Asian states’ reorientation towards China (and, to a more limited extent, South Asia) by promoting regional re-integration through bodies like the Customs Union and CSTO. With the withdrawal of foreign forces from the region, Russia is looking to reinforce its own presence. It reached agreement with the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to extend the deployment of Russian forces into the middle of the century, and has sought to improve the capabilities of the CSTO to address threats to regional security, including those coming from Afghanistan. Given Russia’s large Muslim population (including millions of Central Asian migrants), Moscow regards extremism and instability in Central Asia as a direct threat to its security. Russian pressure played a role in blocking the deployment of Indian combat aircraft in Tajikistan.

Afghanistan offers the most direct access for the Central Asian region to ports and markets in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan can also be the conduit for Central Asian oil and gas to South Asia and Iran. But such benefits for both Pakistan as well as Central Asia could be realized only when the situation in Afghanistan is sufficiently stabilized and secure land access is possible.

The major internal dynamics affecting Central Asia’s influence and interests in South Asia are continued weak governance, including rampant corruption, the potential for state failure at least in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, entrenched criminality, and mistrust and low levels of interdependence among the five states. The impact of all these problems could be exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding the succession to long-time leaders.

Moreover, much of Central Asia with abundant energy resources faces demographic shifts—growing youth populations lacking the Soviet-era education and values of their elders—coupled with shortages of water and other resources that could contribute to civil strife or crossborder conflict. To the extent these internal dynamics contribute to instability within Central Asia, governments in the region are likely to place a greater emphasis on preventing the spread of drugs, crime, and other problems from South Asia. Imbibing truly Islamic values can save the region, making it a strong economic union.

South Asia is likely to remain a niche partner for Central Asia, especially for states looking to reduce their dependence on Russia and China for access to global markets. Cross-border violence in South Asia would make even this limited degree of integration problematic.

An Indo-Pakistani conflict over Jammu Kashmir which both South Asian nuclear powers share in occupation would undermine—likely for good—USbacked plans for Central-South Asian economic integration, making it impossible to build infrastructure across Pakistan to markets in India. Central Asia would then look even more to alternative outlets, including Russia, China, and perhaps Iran.

The biggest threats to Central Asian stability, however, are indigenous to the region: poor governance, state failure, demographic change, criminality, and rising extremist tides. And this factor binds CAR with a corrupt and destabilized Pakistan.

Security cooperation between the Central Asian states and Pakistan has improved in recent years, but many Central Asians remain wary of Pakistan’s double game with Islamist militants and support for non-violent Islamist groups such as Tablighi Jamaat that are banned in Central Asia. The Central Asian states’ generally positive relations with India also limit prospects for cooperation with Pakistan as long as Indo-Pakistani ties remain poor. Tajikistan allowed India to launch its military bases on its soil in return for money and more business.

The Central Asian states want to expand trade ties with Pakistan and develop new infrastructure. Turkmenistan would like to boost energy sales through the construction of the TAPI pipeline, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are growing markets for Pakistani goods. Pakistan in turn is interested in expanding its imports of Central Asian energy (hydroelectricity as well as gas). These economic ties ensure a common interest among the Central Asian states and Pakistan in having stability in and secure transit across Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s hopes of becoming Central Asia’s main artery to global commerce have been disappointed.7 Central Asian States’ Relations with India In the long run, the Central Asian states generally view India as an important economic partner that can help ameliorate their dependence on Russia and China.

Establishment of peace in Afghanistan is of utmost importance in order to maximize economic prospects for both Pakistan and the CARs. Pakistan’s policymakers now have to formulate a comprehensive policy on the Central Asian republics in order to turn constraints into opportunities. Pakistan must develop good diplomatic ties with these states as well as develop economic ties with them by facilitating them with regard to trade and pipeline routes. This can only be done if Pakistan improves its economic, security and political conditions. Pakistan can boost ties with Central Asia by undertaking both individual and joint ventures in all economic fields.

Despite all impediments, the economic and cultural ties between Pakistan and Central Asian nations would, in the years to come, grow further.

- Asian Tribune -

Pakistan seeks stronger ties with Central Asia
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