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Foreign Policy Options for Pakistan in Central Asia Post COVID-19

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“… geography shapes not just history but also destiny.” - Tim Marshall

This quote shows that the land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, power, politics and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of Earth. Pakistan is probably the clearest example, as the twenty-first century progresses. Geopolitics is considered as a paramount concept in Pakistan’s foreign policy discourse. Albeit overshadowed by security as the primary driver of foreign policy, its potential may develop into a switch for Pakistan's territorial political yearnings. By focusing on Pakistan’s relations with Central Asian countries, this article elaborates Pakistan’s foreign policy options and opportunities in Central Asia post-COVID-19.

Being at the crossroads between Central Asia, Middle East and South Asia, it is encouraging for Pakistan to act as a bridge, linking various regions and providing easy access to the landlocked Central Asian Republics

Regional politics has remained highly volatile in South Asia. This region has been unable to truly blossom in terms of regional economic and political integration. The existence of heavy cultural and ideological bonds has proven to be more of a blessing in disguise.

Pakistan has encountered two significant geopolitical setbacks. The first was in 1971, when the loss of the nation's adroitly found Eastern wing flagged the end of any geopolitical/network nexus with Southeast Asia. The subsequent factor was the breakdown of the USSR, which highlighted Pakistan's geopolitical and geostrategic qualities. With Southeast Asia beyond reach in terms of taking part in regional politics, the Central Asian region is apparently one of Pakistan's chances for contriving an important, regionally situated foreign policy.

After the Central Asian Republic’s (CAR) independence in 1991, Pakistan was among the first countries that extended recognition and Pakistani embassies were immediately establish in all the CARs. Since 2001, Pakistan has been taking initiatives to develop a diplomatic relationship with this region that was otherwise fragile during the era of the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorism. In May 2019, the Central Asian countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pakistan.

The emergence of energy-rich Central Asian region has attracted Pakistan’s interest to develop closer political, social and particularly economic ties with them. Fundamentally and historically, the primary foreign policy objectives of Pakistan vis-à-vis the CARs have remained unchanged, represented by import and export missions, besides creating political good will for further consolidation of regions.

The relationship between Central Asia and South Asia is not new but rather historical. Together with political, cultural and social bonds, these two regions have also strengthened trading networks, especially with the emergence of Silk Route. This route heavily increased economic activities between these two regions, as merchants from Southeast Asia developed their stations in different regions of Central Asia. Besides, people of these regions also played an active role in conducting bilateral trade, and for this purpose, Afghanistan was a bridging state. During that period, Peshawar was the main trading hub and the Hindko language of Peshawar served as the primary driver for trade deals between Central Asian and South Asian states.

Central Asia is a storehouse of oil and gas but is landlocked geographically. The region’s oil and gas are estimated as the second-largest reserve in the world. The main area of cooperation between Pakistan and Central Asian region is the energy sector.

On the other hand, Pakistan is an energy deficient country, but well-placed geographically. Its geopolitical and geostrategic significance has blessed Pakistan in a way that it can provide oil-rich but landlocked Central Asian states the shortest corridor for global exports of its oil and gas reserve through the ports of Gwadar and Karachi.

To overcome energy shortage, the Central Asia South Asia-1000 (CASA) is a major cooperation project between Pakistan and Tajikistan along with Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has the potential to provide electricity to the region by using its hydropower resources. However, the completion of this project relies on the security situation in Afghanistan. Thus, geography brings Afghanistan into the spotlight as it not only shares a common border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, but also provides a direct route for all the major possible channels of communication between Pakistan and CARs. This project will turn into sustainable symbiotic relation if there is normalcy in Afghanistan.

Security strategists have put forward a solution to this on-going issue. They have developed and operationalized an alternative route, i.e. Pakistan-China-Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan Transit Agreement, to Central Asia via Karakoram Highway, Khunjerab and China. This transit highlights the importance of Gilgit-Baltistan in ensuring Pakistan’s linkages with China and Central Asia, which is necessary for the geo-economical future of Pakistan.

Pakistan is also trying to develop strong economic ties with Uzbekistan, and the Pakistan- Uzbekistan joint ministerial commission is the major initiative in this regard. Although the current volume of bilateral trade between Pakistan and Uzbekistan is relatively low (around US $24 million), both the countries have agreed to increase the volume of trade up to US $300 million in the next five years. Both sides are eager to take bilateral relations to new heights based on win-win cooperation. Uzbekistan has a large tourism potential; more than 20 Pakistani tourist companies have signed MoUs with their counterparts in Uzbekistan. In the energy sector, The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) oil and gas pipeline is another project under consideration.

The Society of Asian Civilizations built by late Professor Emeritus Dr Ahmad Hasan Dani on 23rd March 2000, with the purpose of promoting academic and cultural activities, has so far conducted three Cultural Study Tours to Uzbekistan. Besides, Professor Tashmirza and Professor Ansaruddin Ibrahim of the Urdu Department of Uzbekistan have authored an Urdu-Uzbek Dictionary and Urdu-Uzbek Mushtarak Alfa’az, which were launched in Pakistan by the  Society of Asian Civilizations.

There is a tremendous scope for cooperation between universities in Pakistan and those in CARs. Pakistan, with its low literacy rate, can learn something from Central Asian states, where the population has a literacy rate of 95%.

There is also a need to boost the media exchange between Pakistan and Central Asian regions. The development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the larger One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative provides Pakistan a golden opportunity to transform itself, as Pakistan could provide a bridge between Central Asian, South Asian, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the European Union (EU) countries. To sum up, Central Asia does provide Pakistan with numerous opportunities in terms of trade in raw material and manufactured goods, contracting for regular power supply and opening up communications. The resource-rich Central Asia is seen as a future source of energy for Pakistan. The mutual cooperation and steady development in Pakistan-Central Asian relations will eventually lead towards regional stability. And in the future, all regional countries may opt for the establishment of a common market for the well-being of their people. In order to realize this dream, Pakistan and Central Asia need to facilitate peace efforts in Afghanistan.