Pakistan and Central Asian Republics
After the Soviet Union imploded, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) assumed great significance in the region owing to their energy potential. Covering major part of the globe and having geographical proximity with South Asia, CARs have acquired the extensive geo-political and geo-economic importance in the region. CARs include five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All republics are land-locked and energy-rich.
Pakistan and CARs share various religious and cultural commonalities. However, Islamabad has not cultivated close ties so far. Margins in mutual cooperation still exist. Even though Pakistan desires close political and economic linkage with the Central Asian states, there are a multitude of internal and external challenges that have been hampering progress in this regard.
Pakistan’s internal and regional political conditions along with its flimsy economy have barred it from actively engaging with Central Asia. The unrest in recalcitrant Afghanistan has also created multi-faceted obstacles in Pakistan’s efforts to establish strong bond with the CARs. The poor border situation with Afghanistan presents the biggest challenge in the materialisation of the economic ventures that Pakistan seeks to pursue, such as proposed pipelines projects which can transport oil and gas from Central Asia to Pakistan.
Regional and global powers’ are competing to gain access to Central Asian energy resources. They have also been a major hurdle in Pakistan’s endeavours to nurture cordial relations with the CARs. The long-standing presence of US led NATO forces in the region has impeded the formation of cordial bilateral relations.
Moreover, the rift between the US and Russia has managed to influence the foreign policies being followed by the CARs. Perennial fights in Afghanistan and competing interests of two powers have caused multiple intricacies in the present regional paradigm. Therefore, it has become an arduous task for Pakistan to find a reliable way to build ties it can benefit from.
Since the imposition of the ‘war on terror’ on Pakistan, its internal condition has continued to deteriorate and it’s economy has become increasingly fragile. Political instability has also affected Islamabad’s focus on the expansion of economic ties with various countries, including CARs.
Axiomatically, CARs have large reserves of oil and gas as well as extensive mineral wealth. However, as far as Pakistan is concerned, this wealth has remained untapped. Pakistan has a weak economy and lacks the technological prowess which is essential to tap the CARs’ energy reserves.
However, Pakistan and the CARs have signed various memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on ‘economic cooperation and collaboration’ in several fields. Furthermore, an inter-governmental Joint Economic Commission was also established with regional countries which gave the impetus for cooperative engagement in various sectors including trade, economy and science. However, Pakistan is not reaping the benefits it expected because these agreements have not materialised or been implemented in true spirit as yet.
Interestingly, Pakistan and the Central Asian states are members of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) which was primarily formed to develop and improve the economic infrastructure and transportation system in the region. Fortunately or unfortunately, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) while making headway with two major powers, Russia and China, has almost eclipsed the ECO that has caused the considerable blow to its effectiveness.
Given the complicated picture of the whole region along with the CARs, Pakistan must revisit its policies towards Central Asia. Pakistan needs to evolve a vibrant, non-aligned foreign policy, exclusively based on respect for the sovereignty of these states. Cooperation and constructive engagement must be prioritised to be the cornerstone of Pakistan’s approach towards this region.
There should be a mechanism for frequent exchanges of scholars, cultural representatives, and government officials to develop better mutual understanding and people-to-people contact. People-to-people contact is an effective instrument for the establishment of mutual relations. For that matter, Pakistan may offer scholarships to Central Asian students and professionals in expert fields.
Islamabad must utilise regional and international forums such as SCO and ECO in order to gain trust and enhance economic and political cooperation. Each Central Asian republic should be given equal importance by Islamabad in terms of the development of friendly ties while addressing a multitude of irritants and challenges. Instead of waiting for peace to return to Afghanistan so that transit and pipeline routes can be facilitated, Pakistan must implement all economic agreements in true spirit.