A crucial conference is held in Uzbekistan to discuss proposals on enhancing connections between South and Central Asia
Connectivity, inter-regional as well as intra-regional, is a prerequisite for prosperity. History suggests that connectedness leads to interdependence that mitigates conflicts. In some cases, it also creates incentives for the permanent resolution of seemingly intractable disputes.
Currently connectivity between various regions and sub-regions of Asia does not compare well with other regions of the world. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan has taken a momentous step to start a discussion about this under-utilised potential. Starting a discussion, it is said, is the first step towards undertaking a project. It was heartening to see the Uzbek president start of discussion on this crucial subject by organising a conference in the beautiful and historic city of Tashkent on July 15-16.
The topic of the conference was: Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities. Its aim was to bring forth proposals on how to enhance connectedness between South Asia and Central Asia to the level of connections between Central and Western Europe.
For being the driving force behind the event, the Uzbek president and the current leadership, were justifiably categorised as pioneers of the idea. The conference was attended by delegates from across the region. The participants included the foreign minister of China, India, Russia and the Central Asian Republics as well as US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Representatives from scores of international organisations including the European Union and the Sshanghai Cooperation Organisation also attended. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani were the guests of honour.
In his inaugural address, the Uzbek president, the man behind the initiative, highlighted the importance of the initiative by elucidating the historic significance of connectivity between the two regions. He regretted that despite having cultural similarities, the South Asian and Central Asian regions lacked real connectivity and coordination. He said the time was ripe for the participating countries to step forward to collaborate and find ways to interact for the greater good of the two regions.
The two regions host the world largest population that is predominantly young. For the sake of prosperity for the future generations, the two regions must take on the challenges in a coordinated way and devise out of box innovative solutions. “The revival of ties between Central and South Asia, where about two billion people live today, is an even more demanded and objective process. I think that the time has come, based on the huge historical, scientific, spiritual and cultural heritage of our peoples, the complementarity of economies and the availability of intellectual potential, to consolidate our efforts, which will undoubtedly give a powerful synergy effect,” said Shavkat President Mirziyoyev.
“The historical, cultural and civilisational community of Central and South Asia, the coinciding interests of our countries and peoples - this is a solid foundation on which we can build a common prosperous future. Together we will have to turn Central Asia and South Asia, and our entire Eurasian continent, into a stable, economically developed and prosperous space,” the president said at the end of his speech.
In his opening remarks, President Ashraf Ghani also highlighted the importance of the region and the role Afghanistan can play if the peace talks with the Taliban after the US withdrawal go well. He said Pakistan should act more strongly towards this end.
While praising the Uzbek leadership, especially the president, for his visionary leadership that has led to the great initiative, Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged his wholehearted support for the idea. He said Pakistan would like to see the idea put into action. He said Pakistan was already working on improving regional connectivity by hosting the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China. The prime minister emphasised that the region needed peace. He said his government was committed to bringing about peace. He called upon the international community to play its role in the settlement of all outstanding issues, particularly Kashmir, and requested the world to recognise the suffering Pakistan had had to endure after the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent turmoil.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also warned about the rough patch ahead for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops in September 2021. He vehemently and categorically rejected all allegations against Pakistan of hindering the Afghan peace process. He emphasised that Pakistan had suffered more than any other country due to the prolonged crisis. He mentioned that more than 70,000 people had been killed and Pakistan had lost more than $150 billion in the economic realm owing to instability in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan has been trying to diversify its options to access the sea beyond the Iranian ports to which it is currently limited. Pakistan offers a reliable alternative.
Khan stressed that Pakistan wanted peace in Afghanistan more than any other country in the world. He said it was about time that the Afghans and the rest of world recognised Pakistan’s sacrifices and efforts besides bringing an end to the blame game once and for all. Khan hoped that warring factions in Afghanistan will find peace and make the country an inseparable part of the regional integration scheme. He assured President Shavkat of Uzbekistan that he and his government were fully committed to the initiative.
Pakistan and Uzbekistan also agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in all areas of mutual interest and stressed the need for a resolution of the Afghanistan conflict through an intra-Afghan political process as an imperative for peace and progress in the region. Several MoUs and agreements were signed between Pakistan and Uzbekistan to enhance the bilateral relationship. These included a protocol on exchange of pre-arrival information on goods moving across state borders, an agreement on transit trade, cooperation in the field of military education and an agreement on simplification of visa procedures for businessmen and tourist groups.
An MoU was signed between Pakistan’s Foreign Service Academy and the University of World Economy and Diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan. A cultural exchange programme was agreed to for 2021-2026 and an MoU signed on tourism.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit should be seen as the start of a new era in the relationship between the two countries. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Khan Pakistan is pioneering its Vision Central Asia, which aims to connect Pakistan to the Central Asian Republics via Afghanistan. The flagship project of this initiative is the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway project that was agreed to in February 2021.
Uzbekistan is central to Pakistan’s Vision Central Asia. PAKAFUZ will enable Uzbekistan’s access to the rest of the global economy through Pakistani ports. It will also open up the Central Asia and beyond to Pakistan. The two countries have a shared interest in promoting a political solution to the on-going Afghan War. The recent escalation of violence in Afghanistan has played an important role in bringing Pakistan and Uzbekistan closer.
On July 15, the prime minister addressed businessmen from Pakistan and Uzbekistan at the first Uzbekistan-Pakistan Business Forum. Khan expressed hope that connectivity through rail, road and aviation would open new avenues of prosperity in the region. “Pakistan has immense potential to connect Central Asia with the rest of the world and become a hub of trade,” he added.
Uzbekistan has also been trying to diversify options to access the sea beyond the Iranian ports to which it is now limited. Pakistan offers a reliable alternative. In May 2021, Pakistan and Uzbekistan exchanged goods through Afghanistan for the first time in a move hailed as a milestone for regional economic integration. In March 2021, Khan assured Uzbekistan of facilitation in accessing Pakistani ports. In May 2021 Uzbekistan formally sought Pakistan’s support for accession to the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA) in a bid to utilise Karachi and Gwadar ports for trade operations. Pakistan and Uzbekistan also agreed on July 15 to finalise the bilateral Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within three months to boost bilateral trade volume.
Three breakout sessions held after the inaugural session of the conference were about Trade and Transport Connectivity for Sustainable Growth; Revival of Cultural and Humanitarian Ties as a Way to Strengthen Friendship and Mutual Confidence; and Regional Security: Challenges and Threats. A large number of diplomats, civil society representatives, academia, media, and intellectuals from around the world deliberated on these topics and furnished insights on Central Asia-South Asia connectivity.
“All these countries have gathered here in Tashkent to revive the Silk Road. This is a huge opportunity for the countries of the region to revive a huge network of trade starting from South Asia to Central Asia to Europe. Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev have a shared vision of not only having a road network but also establishing a trade network through this initiative,” said Fawad Chaughry, the federal minister for information.
Pakistan was among the earliest countries in the world in 1991 to recognise the independence of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Since then, however, there have been no significant developments in the relationship and trade and people-to-people connectivity remain minimal. The current initiative can give an impetus to an ever-increasing momentum set by Prime Minister Khan and President Mirziyoyev.
Uzbekistan’s embassy in Pakistan played a crucial role in the regional connectivity conference. Its defence attaché, Col Saadullah Tashmotove, in particular, played a significant role in developing the cordiality that now informs the relations. All the participants from Pakistan appreciated the Uzbek hospitality and the love shown by the Uzbek people and conference organisers.
Aoun Sahi is an Islamabad-based journalist, researcher and media trainer. A former Daniel Pearl/AFPP fellow, he shared the LA Times’2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. He tweets @AounSahi
Hamayoun Khan is an Islamabad-based academic and strategic affairs expert. He can be reached at email@example.com