CPEC: Iran and Central Asia

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Dr Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan

Most recently, due to its paramount development orientation and sky-high peace outlook the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become a hot topic and a befitting trans-regional mega project for greater socio-economic and energy integration. Various countries of West Asia namely Iran and Afghanistan and the Central Asian States (CIS) Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have now shown keen interests to join the CPEC.

In this context, various interactive and meaningful spells of negotiations/meetings have already been held in Islamabad. The assertive stance of Iranian Ambassador H.E. Dr Syed Muhammad Hussaini and consequent visit of Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif and meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the COAS General Qamar Bajwa showing Iranian government’s desire to join the CPEC, all indicate western expansion of this mega project.

Iranian Foreign Minister and big business delegation requested to open various new border openings between the two countries for the further strengthening of bilateral trade & commerce, foreign direct investment, joint ventures and, above all, people-to-people contacts. In this regard, most recently, another border opening at Rimdahn (Gwadar) has been made which is situated just 130km away from Chabahar Sea Port (CSP).

It will further enhance the inflow of petroleum products, fruit, vegetable and construction material trade in the days to come. Iranian side also requested for another border opening at Pishin-Quetta. Most recently, the Center of Global Strategic Studies (CGSS) held an international webinar on the topic of Pakistan-China-Iran: Trilateral Cooperation, & Opportunities and Way-forward during which Iranian Ambassador H.E. Syed Muhammad Hussaini once again reaffirmed his government’s desire to become part of the CPEC.

Iranian Ambassador also briefed about the opening of Iran-Afghanistan Railway project which has further enhanced their connectivity and inflow of trade and commerce. It is their first shared railway network. The CPEC ML-I Railways project will also be connected with Afghanistan in the future, so the importance of the CPEC has further increased manifolds.

The train route so far links the Iranian city of Khaf with the Afghan town of Rozanak about 150 kilometres away but is scheduled to be expanded to reach Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city.

On the other hand, for the further strengthening of regional connectivity, the governments of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan have decided to revive a transnational rail service linking Istanbul, Tehran and Islamabad in 2021. The ITI transnational railroad is expected to enhance connectivity with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by providing a rail connection between China and Turkey. CPEC is the flagship mega-project of the BRI.

During his annual speech, the President of Uzbekistan, Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, singled out enhanced ties with South Asia, and pointing out that “today we have taken the first practical steps to implement the project for the construction of the Trans-Afghan transport corridor, which will connect Central Asia with the Indian Ocean. Its implementation will serve to ensure stability and sustainable economic development throughout the region.

To materialize the dreams of greater regional connectivity, peace and harmony, the government of Pakistan signed a joint request letter seeking a $4.8 billion loan from international financial institutions for a mega railway project to connect Pakistan with Uzbekistan via Afghanistan and later to other Central Asian states. The said railway joint project has already been approved by the Presidents of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It hopes that the project will help improve regional trade and connectivity through Afghanistan to the Central Asia Republics.

The signing ceremony was attended by Uzbekistan’s Minister for Transport Makhkamov Ilkham and senior Pakistan government officials. During the meeting, Imran Khan affirmed Pakistan’s eagerness “to establish closer ties with Central Asia in diverse sectors of trade, investment, energy and people-to-people contacts. Prime Minister Khan upheld Pakistan’s strong commitment to deepen bilateral cooperation.

On his part, Uzbek Minister highlighted Uzbekistan’s desire to improve bilateral trade and commercial ties and connectivity with Pakistan. He also discussed rail and road cooperation and explored region’s direct access to the seaports.

The $4.8 billion trans-Afghan railway line “Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar” project consists of a 573-km long railway track, connecting Peshawar to Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif all the way to Uzbekistan. Pakistan would operate the routes from Peshawar to Torkham beyond which Afghanistan and Uzbekistan would operate it. It will transform Pakistan as the economic hub for the Central Asian Republics. In this connection, the heads of the railway administrations of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan had a meaningful meeting in Tashkent to discuss an ambitious railway line to offer the countries of South and Central Asia access to promising markets in Asia and Europe in December 2018.

Pakistan Minister for Railways Azam Khan Swati showcased salient features of the said trilateral project connecting Pakistan Railways with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and will include both passenger and cargo high-speed trains. It hopes that the said project will provide a new impetus to Pakistan Railways after the country’s most expensive $6.8 billion Mainline-1 (ML-1) project to upgrade 2,655km tracks under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The trilateral rail project opens up “a new window of opportunity for all the CIS.

Most recently, during a meeting between Ambassador of Turkmenistan to Pakistan H.E. Atadjan Movlamov and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Commerce, Mr Abdul Razak Dawood, both sides discussed the historical bilateral relations. They resolved to increase the volumes of trade. Since the CPEC stands for greater regional connectivity and immense socio-economic prosperity and energy cooperation, Turkmenistan also desires to enhance trade relations with Pakistan.

Hence, the Ministry of Commerce is developing a strategy to incorporate Turkmenistan as part of efforts to integrate five Central Asian Republics with Afghanistan and Pakistan. H.E. Turkmenistan Ambassador showed keen interest in holding the sixth meeting of Pakistan-Turkmenistan Joint Governmental Commission during 2021.

Furthermore, the Turkmen side also discussed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Gwadar and Turkmen ports. The Commerce Adviser appreciated Turkmenistan’s proposal for the transit of its goods through Gwadar and Karachi ports through railways and road transportation.

Being a prominent regional expert on CPEC & BRI, I term greater socio-economic and geopolitical realization of the various regional countries towards the CPEC a good omen for achieving greater regional connectivity. Even President Arif Alvi underlined the need of utilizing Gwadar Port as a free zone area for transit trade with Afghanistan and Balochistan in addition to Karachi ports which will be further connected with all the Central Asian countries. So CPEC holds the key to Pakistan’s future, socio-economic prosperity and greater regional connectivity in the future.

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