How to reconnect Central and South Asia

Unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan are a major impediment for connectivity between Central and South Asia


Dr Moonis Ahmar May 16, 2023
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at amoons@hotmail.com

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Connectivity in terms of trade, travel and tourism is a fundamental requirement in the realm of regional cooperation. The meeting of SCO foreign ministers held in Goa earlier this month was mindful of the lack of connectivity in Central and South Asia but reiterated that member states will take measures for enhancing trade and commercial ties along with taking steps to deal with the challenges in climate change, extremism and terrorism.

The essence of connectivity in an era of globalisation, information, geo-economics and soft power is the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. That how the historical treaty of Peace and Friendship signed by the then French President Charles de Gaulle and the then Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer in 1963 led to a sea change in Europe ultimately leading to the formation of European Union and the launch of single currency as well as free travel, trade and unhindered shipment of goods.

Reconnecting South and Central Asia means that from the days of Kushan dynasty during ancient times and Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire during medieval and post medieval era, the connectivity through ancient Silk route used to take place between the two regions; but with the Russification and Sovietisation of Central Asia and the formation British empire in the Indian sub-continent, connectivity between Central and South Asia began to diminish. It was following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new Central Asian states in 1991 that ideas to reconnect Central and South Asian began to take shape. Euphoria and excitement in Pakistan about the emergence of Central Asian states was however short-lived because of realisation that without peace in Afghanistan connectivity with Central Asia cannot take place. Furthermore, the secular mode of governance in Central Asia and its contradiction with the surge of Islamic Jihad in Pakistan impeded Islamabad’s ambitions of winning over the people of a region who were once connected with the Indian sub-continent culturally and religiously.

When political realism replaced idealism, it was too late and the Central Asian states decided to accept Russian and Chinese influence under the SCO formed as Shanghai V in 1996 and renamed as SCO in 2001. Prior to that, Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) was revitalised in 1992 which included all the Central Asian states along with Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. Pakistan, Iran and Turkey — the three founding members of the defunct Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) — decided to rename it as ECO in 1985 and enlarge it by including six Central Asian states in November 1992. It means since long Pakistan had been trying to play a leading role in Central Asia but got blocked because of the civil war in Afghanistan and the lukewarm support of Central Asian regimes that were apprehensive of Islamabad’s support to the Taliban regime.

Two major initiatives under connectivity project to link Central and South Asia which if implemented would have brought qualitative changes in the two regions are: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan India gas pipeline (TAPI) and Central Asia-South Asia (CASA 1000) electricity corridor. These two projects which would have strengthened energy connectivity between Central and South Asia are still alive on paper but in view of funding issue and the situation in Afghanistan are far from being implemented. SCO meeting in Goa discussed other avenues of connectivity in trade, travel, education, culture and dealing with the grave threat of climate change.

Central and South Asia are the two regions which face grave threat of climate change in the shape of melting of glaciers. The mountain ranges of Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Pamir have enormous water resources but the fast melting of glaciers will face the threat of drought and famine in coming few decades. Likewise, the lack of proper and affordable air connectivity between Central and South Asia is a major challenge along with land and railways connections between the two Asias. Russia and China, as the two core members of SCO along with India, must outline a practical strategy for connecting Central and South Asia so that the vision to have free movement of travel, goods, services and capital is transformed as a reality.

One can outline two strategies for reconnecting Central and South Asia.

First, meaningful efforts for peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime which lacks legitimacy at the international level is trying to show to the world that it means business by establishing railway links connecting various Afghan cities and to provide that connectivity to Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan so that trade and commercial activities between Pakistan and Central Asia are given an impetus. It is yet to be seen to what extent the Taliban regime has capacity, capability and resources to promote connectivity through railways with Central and South Asia because when half of the population of Afghanistan is without fundamental rights like right to education, employment and free travel how can it take steps for infrastructural building? Despite the claims made by Afghanistan that it has established peace in their country, situation on the ground is tense because of repressive measures taken by the Taliban regime against opposition groups, particularly those protesting against violation of women rights.

Second, reconnecting South Asia and Central Asia would require political will and determination on the part of respective governments to ease travel, visa and trade restrictions. It would also require connectivity among academic institutions, policy oriented research centers and institutes. In this regard, an important initiative was taken when an international conference on ‘Reconnecting Central and South Asia’ was organised by the Department of Political Science and Pakistan Studies, University of Punjab Lahore, in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiffting, Berlin. Attended by speakers from Pakistan, UK, Germany, Turkey and Central Asia, the conference examined at length measures to reconnect Central and South Asia by promoting trade, commercial, cultural, tourism, educational and travel ties. Discourse which took place in that useful conference must be shared with relevant stakeholders along with findings/recommendations with concerned policymakers so that practical steps are taken to augment connectivity between Central and South Asia.

Unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan are a major impediment for connectivity between Central and South Asia along with unstable situation in Afghanistan. SCO and ECO member states need to take steps which can create plausible conditions for reducing restrictions on free movement of people, goods, services and capital, besides focusing on conflict management.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2023.

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