Pakistan a hub for South-Central Asian integration

Pakistan a hub for South-Central Asian integration

Kyrgyzstan has become the latest country to formally express its desire to join the multi-billion-dollar China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking Western China with the Pakistani deep seaport of Gwadar at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

The potential trade opportunities arising from access to Gwadar port are tremendous, Ulanbek Totuiaev, the Kyrgyz ambassador to Pakistan, said at a recent forum.

His country joins Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran as countries that foresee the potential dividends of regional connectivity. They see the possibility of integrating energy-rich Gulf and the Middle Eastern countries with the huge Chinese market but also connecting resource-rich Central Asia to South Asian markets.

A land route to a Persian Gulf seaport also provides Central Asian republics with access to wider African, Gulf, Far Eastern as well as European markets.

Although globalisation has brought the world closer, shrunk distances and improved communication, the neoliberal ideal of a single global market without barriers has struggled to gain traction. In recent decades, regional trade and economic blocs have gained more momentum, with Asean a successful example in this part of the world.

Chinese President Xi Jinping first floated the idea of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, envisioning the recommissioning of ancient silk route linking mainland China, especially its relatively volatile Xinjiang region, with the Eurasian landmass. The CPEC is its crown jewel, transiting the length and breadth of Pakistan.

Not only does the route drastically reduce freight time from Gulf to China from 32 days to less than four days, it offers huge investment opportunities for local as well as foreign businesses. This, coupled with investment-friendly policies in Pakistan and an improved security situation has created a development-hungry climate in sectors ranging from energy and production to tourism.

Remarkable counterterrorism success in the country's restive tribal belt has secured the western corridor of the CPEC, opening further business opportunities. Former no-go areas are already witnessing rapid transformation.

Pakistan has long yearned to connect itself to Central Asian states in search of new markets and offer them a route to a warm-water port. However, volatility in Afghanistan for the last four decades stood in the way of realising those goals.

But the recent regime change in Afghanistan appears to have improved the outlook for Central Asia-South Asia connectivity. The Kabul regime has gone one step further in guaranteeing the security of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India pipeline (Tapi), a key infrastructure project that will reduce the energy shortfall in Pakistan, which has been an impediment to investment.

One positive immediate result has been the inauguration of a freight service between Uzbekistan and Pakistan passing through Afghanistan. Plans are already in place for improving road infrastructure between Tashkent and Peshawar via Kabul. Pakistan also plans a railway network linking the three destinations.

As well, work is under way on the Central Asia-South Asia power project (known as Casa-1000) which would supply surplus electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and finally to Pakistan, replenishing dwindling power resources and further integrating the region.

Meanwhile, the government of Pakistan has accelerated its efforts to promote lasting peace through a regional approach. A recent agreement between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to bring traditionally warring Pashtun and Tajik entities to the table in order to form an inclusive government in Kabul is a positive step to bring peace to Afghan people.

The endorsement of this plan by the Taliban and their demonstrated willingness is a silver lining. A recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) foreign ministers' conference has further brightened the sky.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan also appears to have alleviated some concerns in Iran, which is now hoping to reach a deal to revive its nuclear accord with major world powers including the United States. The agreement, if reached, would bring new life to the region. Not only would it integrate Iran with Pakistan and China via the CPEC, but it would also promote trade in the region. As well, it would give a lifeline to the dormant IPI gas pipeline, apart from connecting Chabahar with Gwadar port.

The future for Pakistan looks bright, especially now that the country is offering its economic bases to the world. This marks a tectonic paradigm shift from geo-strategic to geo-economic considerations.

Now is time for others to "make hay while the sun shines". Asean as a bloc, along with China, the US, Central Asian republics and EU countries all can secure huge economic benefits thorough trade and connectivity offered by Pakistan.

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