Need of a Resolute Engagement within Asia

(Shehryar Khan, )

By Muzaffar Ahmed

Proceeding with its foreign policy objectives of seeking protection, promotion and advancement in national interests in the external domain; Pakistan makes endeavors to engage with other countries. Our relations with neighbours and particularly the Big Three – US, Russia and China – are quite evident due to our frequent engagements. While glancing at the Central Asian States, though we are engaged through multilateral forums such as ECO, OIC and SCO; yet, bilateral collaboration potentials of Pakistan and Central Asian States remain partially tapped. Contrarily, India has grounded its strong bases and structures in these states and pursuing its interests quite vigorously.

Looking at these states as a whole, it can be stated that their interrelations keep transiting in a fragile equation of moderate and good on political, economic and ethnic grounds. Likewise, their foreign relations range from alliances to the policies of neutrality with the US, Russia and China in line with their interests and influences of the Big Three. Moreover besides their native languages, Russian being the second official language leaves great impact and becomes barrier for legacies of the British ex colonies.

First of all Tajikistan; it is a growing economy with reservoirs of aluminum and cotton. Though, Pakistan and Tajikistan leaderships have been conducting meetings on annual or biannual basis, yet the potentials are not being optimally benefitted. Our bilateral trade volume rests on $70 million as compared to India’s $80 million. Progress on long talked CASA-1000 has remained lukewarm; thus a 13-65km of Wakhan Corridor has emphatically turned into 1000 miles barrier. Cultural and educational exchanges are rare perhaps due to nonexistence of direct air link and ground connectivity. On the other hand, Tajik people are fond of watching Indian movies. The US maintains its presence at Ayne Base (north of Dushanbe), India at Farkhore Base (south of Dushanbe) and Russia stays with its motorized Brigade in place to further their defence and economic cooperation. China, Turkey, US and India are bringing heavy investments by providing IT, construction and defence related equipment to Tajikistan.

The electricity, gold, cotton and uranium enriched Kyrgyzstan favours close relations with the members of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), particularly Kazakhstan and Russia. The Pakistan-Kyrgyz trade volume remains on the lowest ebb i.e. ranging between $1-2 million, but India has $49 million. In the recent past, Prime Minister-level meetings have been conducted to boost bilateral trade and engagements but implementation remains a sore point. Non-existent direct air link results in minimal cultural exchanges and lowering opportunities. Kyrgyzstan is experiencing a dramatic increase in trade with the People's Republic of China, its southern neighbour. Our neglects have resulted in Kyrgyz leaderships largely supporting Indian stand on Kashmir. India and the US are effectively engaged in bilateral defence cooperation with Kyrgyzstan. Indian-Kyrgyz media exchanges are quite often, thus the Kyrgyz have predominant fascination of the Indian culture.

Kazakhstan, a dominant nation of Central Asia, is economically generating 60 percent of the region's GDP; primarily through its oil and gas industry and vast mineral resources. It pursues a multi-vector foreign policy, seeking equally good relations with its two big neighbours – Russia and China – as well as with the US and the rest of the western world. The Pakistan-Kazakhstan trade volume is around $35 million far low than the Indian $995 million. Although we have established an elaborate diplomatic setup in Kazakhstan for high or low level bilateral engagements for trade, economic, scientific, technological and cultural cooperation, yet the progress remains very slow. Contrarily, India-Kazakhstan engagements such as developing joint economic and military-industrial projects and establishing a partnership between the defence industries have gone way forward.

The natural gas-rich Uzbekistan has been predicted by a survey of Global Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) to be one of the fastest-growing economies of the world (top 26) in future decades. It has fourth largest gold deposits, tenth largest copper deposits and twelfth largest uranium deposits in the world. It maintains friendly relations with all the countries except experiencing few dips in the relations with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on ethnic and geographical grounds. Our bilateral trade volume is around $40 million – low as compared to our needs against India’s $230 million. One of the major challenges between Pakistan and Uzbekistan was the direct link, which was resolved when direct flights started their operations from Tashkent to Lahore since April 2016. Pakistan has signed MoUs during high level exchanges in the fields of export of engineering goods, medical equipment, sports goods, and textile fabrics while Uzbekistan has agreed to export cotton fiber, silk, minerals, fertilizers, cables, construction material, transmission lines, transformers, consumer electronics, mobile phones and building materials along with agriculture machinery, chemicals and aircraft. Uzbekistan has been an active supporter of the US efforts against worldwide terrorism in Afghanistan.

Lastly, Turkmenistan possesses the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas resources, but economic prospects of the country in the near future are discouraging because of widespread internal poverty and burden of foreign debt. It bases its foreign relations on permanent neutrality, thus preventing it from participating in multinational defence organizations, but allows military assistance. However, it maintains good relations with other nations. In addition to supplying gas to Russia, China and Iran; Ashgabat has taken concrete measures to accelerate the progress in construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI). Unfortunately, the security situation in Afghanistan is impeding the completion of TAPI project. The Pak-Turkmen trade volume lies around $25 million against India’s $42 million. Areas of investment remain trade, energy, agriculture, livestock, science, technology, education, health, sports, tourism and defence. Factors of lack of direct cargo links, safe and direct land routes, knowledge of Pakistani products, and visa facilitation hamper expansion of trade with Turkmenistan. High level leadership meetings have affirmed to adjoin the ports of Turkmenbasy (Caspian Sea) and Gwadar (Indian Ocean) to shape domestic and international trade corridors.

The Government of Pakistan and leaderships of Central Asian States are reasonably cautious of improving bilateral relations amongst each other. However, the language barrier and issues of direct ground and air links are hindering it badly. Notwithstanding these barriers, we may have to put in extra efforts to improve people-to-people contacts and direct public or private sector investments to get into the Central Asian markets as being followed by the Indian and other nations’ businessmen. Our embassies abroad also need to be appropriately resourced and equipped to look after civil and defence related engagements. Media exchanges and cultural festivities such as fashion shows, musical nights, airing of own movies and dramas duly dubbed in local languages can bring us closer. Bilateral expatriate community bases and residencies need to be enhanced by offering education and sports programmes and events. At the end, despite security and connectivity challenges due to instable Afghanistan, we will have to exhibit more dedication and commitment to meet the requirements of national interests.

(The writer is a freelance columnist from Bhera)

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