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Central and South Asia connectivity conundrum


A decades-long conflict between Pakistan and India and uncertainty over Afghanistan are obstacles in the way of central and South Asia regional connectivity. The “Vision Central Asia” framework for regional cooperation encompasses people-to-people exchanges, energy and connectivity, economic and investment connections, political and diplomatic engagement, and security and defense.

Trade, travel, and tourism connectivity are essential for regional cooperation to be practical. The SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa on May 5, 2023, approved the need for more connectivity in the region. Still, they also reiterated that member states will take action to improve trade and commercial ties. Also, to address the issues of terrorism, extremism, and climate change.

As the world became a global village with information, geo-economics, and soft power, the freedom of people, capital, goods, and services to move around was the spirit of connection. That’s how the historic Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1963 by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle, brought about a radical shift in European politics that resulted in the creation of the European Union, the introduction of a single currency, and unrestricted travel, trade, and the movement of goods throughout the continent.

Reconnecting South Asia and Central Asia would entail reestablishing the ancient Silk Road. That connected the two regions during the Kushan dynasty’s, Delhi Sultanate’s, and the Mughal Empire’s medieval and post-medieval periods. However, as Central Asia became more Soviet and the British Empire established itself on the Indian subcontinent, connectivity between the two regions began to wane.

Similarly, concepts to reunite Central and South Asia started to take shape in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of new Central Asian governments. The euphoria and enthusiasm surrounding the establishment of Central Asian nations in Pakistan, however, were short-lived as it became apparent that connectivity with Central Asia could not occur without peace in Afghanistan. Further impeding Islamabad’s hopes of gaining the support of a people group that had formerly had cultural and theological ties to the Indian subcontinent was the secular form of government predominant in Central Asia and its conflict with the rise of Islamic Jihad in Pakistan.

It was too late for idealism to triumph, and the Central Asian governments accepted Chinese and Russian dominance through the Shanghai V organization, renamed the SCO in 2001. Previous to that, all of the Central Asian governments, as well as Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, were members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which was revived in 1992.

Furthermore, the three original members of the absolete Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, chose to expand it by adding six Central Asian governments in November 1992 and renaming it ECO in 1985. It indicates that Pakistan had been attempting for a long time to take the lead in Central Asia but had been thwarted by the civil war in Afghanistan and the uncertain support of regimes in Central Asia that were cautious of Islamabad’s backing of the Taliban government.

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India gas pipeline (TAPI) and the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA 1000) electrical corridor are two critical attempts under the connectivity project to link Central and South Asia. Which, if accomplished, would have produced qualitative changes in the two regions. Hence, despite still having life on paper due to funding issues and the state of affairs in Afghanistan, these two projects that would have improved the energy link between Central and South Asia are unlikely ever to be implemented. During its summit in Goa, the SCO explored ways to enhance connectedness in trade, travel, education, and culture and address the pressing issue of climate change.

Central and South Asia are the regions most at risk from climate change—the melting of glaciers. While water is abundant in the Himalayan, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, and Pamir mountain ranges, the rapid melting of glaciers threatens future decades of drought and starvation.

Also Read: ISSI holds round table on Pakistan’s relations with Central Asia, Azerbaijan

Along with land and rail links, another significant hindrance between Central and South Asia is the need for adequate air connectivity. To turn the dream of the free movement of capital, products, services, and people into a reality, Russia and China, the two prominent SCO members in addition to India, need to present a workable plan for tying Central Asia and South Asia together.

There are two main approaches to reuniting Central and South Asia. The first is to make significant efforts to bring about peace in Afghanistan. By building railroad connections between different Afghan cities and establishing that connectivity with Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan, the Taliban regime which lacks legitimacy on a global scale is attempting to demonstrate to the world that it means business and to encourage trade and commercial activity between Pakistan and Central Asia.

Furthermore, it is unclear how much the Taliban government can do to promote railroad connectivity with Central and South Asia because, given that half of Afghanistan’s population lacks fundamental rights like the freedom to work, study, and travel, it is difficult for it to take action toward developing infrastructure. Afghanistan claims to have brought about peace in their nation. Still, the reality is tense due to the Taliban regime’s harsh measures against opposition organizations, especially those who are demonstrating against the rights violations of women.

Second, reestablishing political ties between South and Central Asia would necessitate going beyond the governments’ respective will and desire to reduce trade, visa, and travel barriers. Additionally, communication between academic institutions, research centers, and institutes focused on policy would be necessary.

In this context, the Department of Political Science and Pakistan Studies, University of Punjab Lahore, in association with Konrad Adenauer Stiffing, Berlin, convened an international conference on “Reconnecting Central and South Asia,” a significant endeavor. The meeting looked at ways to strengthen trade, commerce, cultural exchanges, tourism, education, and travel connections between Central and South Asia. Moreover, the countries must take actionable steps to improve connectivity between Central and South Asia.

The uncertain situation in Afghanistan and unresolved tensions between India and Pakistan are significant barriers to connectivity between Central and South Asia. Member states of the SCO and ECO must take action to establish realistic circumstances—lower barriers to capital conflict management and the free movement of people, products, and services. Also, consider the difficulties companies confront in trade across borders, such as the limitations imposed by banks and the requirement for improved information exchange.

Owais Khan
Owais Khan
The author, Owais Khan, is a China researcher at The Diplomatic Insight. He graduated with a BS in International Relations from the University of Peshawar. He has been a research intern at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He is a contributing author at Stratheia, Pakistan Today, The Diplomatic Insight, Pakistan Observer, and the Daily Times Newspaper. He has many Op-Ed publications and press releases on South Asia, geopolitics, and the Indian Ocean Region on different platforms. He can be reached at owaiskhanmarwat07@gmail.com.

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