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CAR regionalism and Pakistan


November 16, 2020

Regionalism refers to institutional cooperation amongst countries of a region. Any country has to be first regionally integrated if it has to efficiently integrate globally.

This is particularly true for the landlocked but geographically important Central Asian Republics (CARs) – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Though geographically Afghanistan, Pakistan, Western China, Mongolia and the above mentioned former Soviet states have been declared part of the Central Asian region by many studies, this small piece of work takes the above-mentioned five countries as CARs. These republics are closely linked and connected by a common language, culture, religion, economic structure and history which make these republics interdependent for stability and economic development. The exception of Tajikistan or Turkic and Persianite identity never remained a source of division internally throughout the region’s history. This factor might have been used by external powers to divide, wane and rule.

Since independence in late 1991, CARs were inclined to regional cooperation and took initiatives for regional integration such as creation of a joint Council of Defence Ministers for greater security cooperation in 1995 and a treaty between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for creating a single economic space in 1994 named as the Central Asian Union. Tajikistan also joined in 1998 while Turkmenistan following a policy of positive neutrality did not. In 2001, this structure was renamed as the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organisation and also invited Afghanistan to join as observer. This body ceased to exist in 2005 by merging into the wider Eurasian integration structures and Central Asian Leaders would not meet, sit together and discuss Central Asian issues without the presence of external powers for the next thirteen years.

There are obvious reasons for the lack of regional cooperation, despite these serious efforts by CARs. First and foremost, the circumstances related to the political, social and economic transition in the immediate post-Soviet period demanded more focus on nation- and state-building and consolidation of new political and economic systems through constitution-making, institution-building and legislation which pre-occupied these states.

A steep economic decline was pervasive in Central Asia, though varied from state to state depending on resource and related market access during the 1990s. Secondly, the intense regional and extra-regional powers’ focus on the region due to its resource base with competing interests and agendas to draw CARs into their own orbits complicated regionalization. Third, unrest in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and explosions in Tashkent during the 1990s increased the cross-border terrorism threat which resulted in tight and close borders within Central Asia, hampering regional cooperation.

However, after almost three decades, CARs have achieved much as far as political and economic consolidation is concerned and therefore they have been looking beyond national borders and have been able to assert themselves and refocus on regional cooperation. They have been addressing regional issues from a regional perspective. Since the change of leadership particularly in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, radical institutional reforms have been undertaken by both the states in every sector which demand cooperation from other regional states resulting in a renewed focus on regionalism.

In 2018, all five CARs adopted a resolution on regional cooperation in the UN General Assembly. On the initiative of Uzbekistan’s president, heads of five CARs met in Astana in 2018 after a break of 13 long years. In November 2019, the Summit of CARs was held in Tashkent and this year in Bishkek. This forum has become a regular annual activity and CARs have meaningfully addressed the issues of border management, water sharing, transportation and economic cooperation mainly through this “Consultative Forum”. CARs have been able to adopt a common approach to the common economic and security challenges faced by the Central Asian region. In addition to their consolidated statehood, Sino-Russian collaboration for Eurasian Integration, of which Central Asia makes the heartland, through cross-border connectivity infrastructure, compel CARs for greater cooperation by coordinating political and economic policies to reap full benefits of the process.

Two factors are decisive in Eurasian Integration – Russo-Chinese collaboration and technological developments. These two elements remained absent during the last 100 years since Mackinder presented his ‘Heartland Theory’ in 1904 initially. Eurasian powers remained divided for the most part of the last century while their cooperation and jointly working for Eurasian Integration may ultimately shift a big portion of global trade from the sea lines of communication to continental trade corridors resulting from high-speed railways, pipelines and highways.

There is a realization in CARs to play an active positive role in ensuring sustainable peace in Afghanistan. CARs are ultimate stakeholders in the peace of Afghanistan as it provides the shortest outlet to the region in the southern direction. Kazakhstan has appointed a special representative for Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has sincerely offered its services to host sessions of intra-Afghan dialogue and is ready to extend its railway and energy projects via Afghanistan to Pakistan, Turkmenistan has been playing a positive neutral role since the 1990s while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are desperate for peace in the country to see their electricity export project to Pakistan materialized. CARs have influence and can neutralize and exert pressure in Northern Afghanistan to insulate different groups from spoilers. Pakistan has influence in the southern belt of Afghanistan, and both CARs and Pakistan can be instrumental in achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian-Pakistan integration via Afghanistan through TAPI, CASA, Uzbekistan’s Railway and Energy Projects and highways will be more than enough for Afghanistan to sustain its economy, to effectively address the issue of narcotics and to substantially reduce its dependence on foreign aid. Pakistan is naturally faced towards Central Asia because South Asia offers almost nothing to Pakistan in terms of regional integration until the Kashmir dispute is resolved according to UN resolutions. The Sino-Pakistan strategic and economic partnership under the BRI and CPEC and the Pakistan-Russia entente and growing strategic and economic cooperation reinforce Central Asia-Pakistan integration via Afghanistan. The North-South Corridor can be developed from Central Russia, via Central Asia – Afghanistan – Pakistan to Iran, South Asia, Indian Ocean and beyond instead of land-Sea (Caspian)- land and Sea (Arabian).

Though CPEC provides an alternate route for access to Central Asia via the KKH, the historical and most economic access to Central Asia is via Afghanistan. The western route of CPEC provides additional connectivity to CARs via Afghanistan-Torkham, Ghulam Khan and Chaman along Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan therefore welcomes the new regionalism in Central Asia and considers itself a part of the region and the process. In fact, Unesco’s 1978 definition declares Pakistan a Central Asian country geographically. The new regionalism in the heartland of Eurasia also bode well for the effective implementation of integration plans under the BRI and the Eurasian Union.

The China-Iran agreement effectively kicked India out of the race for Central Asia and also provides opportunities to Pakistan for enhanced regional cooperation. According to one source, China will invest $600 billion in Iran during the next 25 years as per the recent agreement signed between the two countries. It is obvious that Iran will join CPEC creating a win-win situation as far as regional commerce and trade is concerned. Beijing’s presence in Tehran will substantially reduce Washington’s pressure on Iran.

The US’s influence in the region has been waning due to self-proclaimed challenges such as countering China’s growing influence in the region, Iran’s rivalry, and deteriorated relations with Russia which still enjoys a greater say in Central Asia due to the Tsarist and Soviet legacies.

The writer is director, Area Study Centre (Russia, China & Central Asia) at the University of Peshawar.