The emergence of the energy-rich but landlocked Central Asian Republics (CARs) has attracted Pakistan's interest to develop closer sociopolitical, cultural and particularly commercial ties with the region. Since 2001, Pakistan has taken some of the very proactive diplomatic initiatives aimed to improve its bilateral relations with the region that were otherwise fragile during the era of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan, at the same time, is also engaged in multilateralism to expand its engagement with its regional neighbors including the CARs. Fundamentally and historically, the basic objectives of Pakistan vis-à-vis the CARs have remained unchanged, represented by import and export missions.
The relationship between South Asia and Central Asia is not new but rather historical. It is a centuries-old rich legacy and a celebrated heritage that represents productive religious, political, cultural, ethnic and commercial exchanges between the two regions. Together with religious, political, cultural and ethnic ties, however, the two regions also strengthened commercial ties or trading networks, particularly with the emergence of the Silk Route. This route boosted tremendously the economic activities between the two regions as the merchants from South Asia established their outposts and stations in various parts of Central Asia. Besides, the people of both regions were actively involved in conducting bilateral trade and for this purpose Afghanistan was used as a connecting point. During that period, the Pakistani city, Peshawar, was the main trading center and the Hindko language of Peshawar served the objective of trade dealings between Central Asia and South Asia. Trade especially flourished via the Samarkand-Multan to Lahore route.
Central Asia, without a doubt, is a storehouse of energy, but unfortunately landlocked geographically. The major exciting prospects with respect to the CARs are mostly viewed in terms of energy resources. The mineral resources present in abundance in Central Asia is a source of attraction for one and all, particularly for regional countries such as Pakistan, that otherwise have high deficits in these resources.
The region's oil and gas reserves are estimated as the second largest in the world. Vast mineral reserves and rich agriculture activities when combined with a skilled population imply that there are ample chances for this region to surface as one of the most dynamic regions in the entire world.
On the other hand, Pakistan is an energy deficit country but fortunately well-placed strategically. Such a complex situation makes either regions deficit in one aspect but at the same time rich in the other. The geostrategic and geopolitical location of Pakistan is extremely significant for the reason that it can provide the energy rich but landlocked CARs the shortest energy corridor for global export of its oil and gas reserves through the Gwadar and Karachi ports. However, in the case of Pakistan, there are a number of impediments in the way of further fostering its warm relations with the CARs. The first hindrance is a geographical one as none of the CARs share land borders with Pakistan. Thus, this geographical disadvantage brings Afghanistan into the limelight 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 (road and railroad systems, gas and oil pipelines and electricity transmission lines) between Pakistan and the CARs. In addition, Afghanistan for a long period has continued to remain unstable, so until and unless normalcy returns in the country none of the economic or other objectives can be realized or developed into a sustainable symbiotic relation and thus would be unrealistic.
Balochistan is a significant region for Pakistan and its strategic vitality has increased manifolds since Pakistan started to construct a deep sea port in Gwadar with the assistance of China. Pakistan's economic development and its role as a suitable corridor for Arab and Central Asian oil and gas resources primarily subjects on how the turmoil and instability in Gwadar and elsewhere in Balochistan is contended and how the grievances of the people are solved prudently that would help in gaining their trust. Otherwise, the stalemate in the region will continue to obstruct Pakistan from reaping the advantages of the Gwadar port.
Not least significant is Pakistan's role in Afghanistan that has a tremendous bearing on either boosting or damaging the interests between Pakistan and the CARs. In fact, Pakistan's relations with the CARs have been complicated by its historic role and rhetoric in Afghanistan. In this regard, Pakistan's earlier policy of supporting a Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan has severely dented its relations with the CARs, especially with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who share borders with Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan's image problem creates, somehow, a sense of suspicion among the CARs who, consequently, exhibit reluctance in solidifying relations with the country.
Among other obstacles that Pakistan faces is financial constraint due to which it failed to realize many of the earlier economic ventures started in the CARs post-90s. Pakistan's limited financial sources and lack of technological prowess obstruct it from envisioning those essential projects that otherwise could attract various foreign investors and could turn the country into a prosperous region.
New Delhi's challenge
Furthermore, India's growing influence not only in the CARs but also in Afghanistan is a major concern and challenge for Pakistan. Since 1947, both India and Pakistan continue to remain locked in a strategic rivalry over supremacy in South Asia. In this context, Pakistan cannot afford to abandon its effective strategic planning for the region that would help to ameliorate its ties with both CARs and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and decrease the influence of India in the region, on the other. Besides, the ongoing domestic politico-security turmoil in Pakistan and the failure to develop a strong foreign policy – complicating the equation even more – are other significant internal impediments that severely dent the country's various objectives, particularly expansion of economic relations.
However, all that is not so shaky because the other side of the coin demonstrates that Pakistan's relations with the CARs are full of prospects. Indeed, there are huge impediments hampering the relationship yet, from a realistic point of view, Pakistan has a clear strategic geographical advantage over other countries in the region, particularly India.
Becoming the bridge state
Being at the crossroads between Central and South Asia, it is encouraging for Pakistan to play a bridge state role, linking various regions and providing easy passage to the landlocked CARs. The Gwadar port, recently becoming partially-functionable, could serve this purpose effectively as is evident from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
However, the most significant prospect for Pakistan is the recent decision taken by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to admit India and Pakistan as full members. The SCO decision and subsequent signing of Memorandum of Obligations by Pakistan could be viewed as a new beginning and a major step to amplify relations with the other countries of the region.
Moreover, the longstanding, age-old, and multifaceted cultural, historical and ethnic bonds coupled with the common Muslim identity are other favorable signs for establishing comprehensive and strong bilateral relations with all the CARs that encompass political, defense, and particularly economic aspirations. From the 1990s up to now, the strategic objectives of both Pakistan and the CARs remain unchanged. However, despite common objectives and so much to offer simultaneously, both the regions so far fail to realize their interests because of the aforementioned reasons.
Therefore, the prevailing exigency demands Pakistan, whose policy still represents confusion, to develop such a strategy through which the country's plus points are maximized and minus points are minimized or, in other words, constraints are metamorphosed into opportunities. It is possible to envision if Pakistan succeeds in identifying its inadequacies in various areas and accordingly discovers effective measures necessary to overcome these shortcomings. In this regard, the setting up of a national agenda, fixing the country's priorities and notwithstanding political or other affiliations, can serve its interests greatly. This will immensely assist Pakistan to decrease and/or address many of the challenges and therein meet its various needs, besides engaging positively with the regional and global powers alike.
As a matter of fact, the ports such as Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan coupled with the country's close geographical proximity with the CARs and the presence of oil and gas and other essential resources in abundance in the CARs are some of the significant and exciting advantages that other key players in the region lack.
All this will prove beneficial although the Balochistan impasse needs to resolved by Islamabad intelligently. Pakistan's economic dreams of making Gwadar the en d point for billions of dollars in economic traffic will be very difficult to realize, keeping in view the insurgency affecting the law and order situation and the growing sentiments of the Balochis about the lack of control over their own natural resources.
* Post-doctoral candidate, Department of International Relations, Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University