Reaching out to Central Asian states – I



Ansar Mahmood Bhatti

Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north. The region consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Central Asia has a population of about 105 million, consisting of five republics: Kazakhstan (18 million), Kyrgyzstan (6 million), Tajikistan (9 million), Turkmenistan (6 million), and Uzbekistan (31 million). Afghanistan (35 million), which is a part of South Asia, is also sometimes included in Central Asia.

Being located at a strategic location, Central Asia provides perhaps best connectivity opportunities not only with various Central Asian states but with Russia also. Pakistan during the previous regime of Nawaz Sharif did try to reach out to these states by signing agreements especially in energy field. Prominent among these projects are TAPI and Central Asia South Asia (CASA) 1000 project with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.  TAPI project may face some hurdles in the way of its execution and implantation as it includes India also. While all other participating states are willing to exclude India for they know it very well that as long as India is part of TAPI it may never see light of the day, however Turkmenistan and Afghanistan are bent upon Indian participation.

CASA 1000 project is already in final stages and it plans to fetch electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Once completed, Pakistan will get 1000 MW electricity while Afghanistan’s share shall be 300 MW. Froemr Ambassador of Tajikistan Sherali Jononov who had worked whole-heartedly to get this project done, was optimistic that Pakistan will be able to overcome its energy needs after completion of the project.

Recently, the consortium responsible for executing the project signed a $ 330 million deal with Swedish and Spanish companies for lying of transmission lines. This is indeed a major development towards timely completion of the project. Apart from cooperation in power sector, these countries, like Pakistan, are gifted with rich cultural heritage therefore this can be another sphere where Pakistan can have deeper cooperation with Central Asia states.

Uzbekistan, being the largest of all the Central Asian states, offers huge business and cultural opportunities. Uzbekistan’s agriculture sector is one of the most developed sectors not only in the region but in the world also. Pakistan can surely benefit from Uzbek expertise in the field of cotton given the fact that Uzbekistan is a huge producer of quality cotton. With Uzbek technology Pakistan can surely double its cotton production with half of the cost it is incurring at the moment.  Pakistan and Uzbekistan trade volume has increased from 35 million USD to 85 million USD per year, which speaks volumes for the great work done by former Ambassador of Uzbekistan Furqat Sidiqov, who recently left Pakistan to join Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the Deputy Foreign Minister.

Ambassador Furqat had contributed greatly towards promotion and strengthening of bilateral relations. During his time both Pakistan and Uzbekistan came even closer. He in fact had set basis for a deeper bilateral cooperation.

Uzbek air has already started its direct flights from Pakistan, thus providing travelers, especially the business community, easy access to Uzbek markets and rest of the Central Asian states. Pakistan, following the footsteps of Uzbek government, should also encourage the national flag carrier and even private airlines to start flights to Tashkent and Central Asian destinations with a view to improving connectivity and easy movement of peoples. It will certainly spur the business and tourism activity as well.

Ostensibly, Central Asian states are keen to expand and strengthen relations with Pakistan therefore the Pakistani side too needs to respond in same manner. Islamabad should always welcome any business and tourism promotion proposals from these states. To send a loud and clear signal to these states that Islamabad is keen to have serious truck with them, Pakistan leadership should propose a summit level engagement with them as soon as possible. India holds annual summit meetings with Central Asian states, on regular basis. (To be continued)