Greater regional connectivity beyond realpolitik
COMPARATIVELY the chances of greater regional connectivity between South East Asia, Central Asia and South Caucasus are brighter and healthier however the real destination of immense socio-economic integration, integrated transport system, development of blue economy, proper utilization of regional ports, harmonization of custom duties and, above all, joint ventures mechanism is still a far cry. Moreover, unfortunately many regional countries do not have direct aerial connectivity due to which pace and prospects of greater regional connectivity are sailing with a snail speed. H.E. Khazar Farhadov, Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Pakistan, has played extraordinary role in establishing the direct flight protocol (twice a week from Lahore & Karachi) with Pakistan due to which volumes of bilateral trade, opportunities of joint ventures, cooperation in oil & gas sectors, tourism, infrastructure development, agriculture and, above all, multiculturalism is constantly on the rise.
It is a good omen that Azerbaijan has brotherly offered its unconditional cooperation to help Pakistan control its looming energy crisis. In this regard, the SOCAR offered investment in the LNG sector varying from the terminal establishment to short-term loans and deferred payment facilities. SOCAR Trading offered a supply of petrol and LNG cargoes to Pakistan LNG Ltd (PLL) and PSO around the year on credit under a government-to-government (G2G) arrangement. Interestingly, in the near past, the government of Azerbaijan has completely waived off custom duties on the imports of rice from Pakistan which has now become a “launching pad” for further strengthening bilateral ties with Pakistan. Both countries have already started “Fast Track Dialogue” on energy cooperation in which numerous meaningful MoUs have been inked with many companies of Azerbaijan.
Interestingly and initially, the Uzbek Ambassador to Pakistan, HE Aybek Arif Usmanov, established direct flight connectivity with Pakistan which successfully “revived” mutual history, traditions, culture and commonalities of socio-economic preferences. Unfortunately, the journey of immense socio-economic integration, joint ventures and FDIs remained docile. But visionary leadership of Uzbek President, Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev, has revolutionized concept of greater regional connectivity with South Asia, especially with Pakistan.
HE Furqat Sidiqov the former Uzbek head of mission in Islamabad played an “immense” role in promoting the business, economic, investment, educational, cultural and people-to-people contacts between both the countries. For the first time, trade, and socio-economic integration became a true “strategic priority” between the two sides. Now Ambassador Aybek Arif Usmanov is trying his best to further strengthen these ties up to next levels. In the near past, Pakistan and Uzbekistan inked an agreement on Monday to implement the Pakistan-Uzbekistan Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA), which would take effect from 1 February 2023, aimed at enhancing the trade volume to $1 billion. Moreover, to overcome the problems being faced by transporters, both countries agreed to take up all relevant issues with the Afghan authorities to resolve it very soon. However, the Mexican wave of terrorism, rise of TTP, ISIS and many other global terrorist franchises in different parts of Afghanistan have somehow slowed down process. The interim Taliban government’s unwise decisions on social development, ban on girl education, women empowerment and above all, friendly relations with all regional countries have now become “stumbling blocks” in achieving the goals of greater regional connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia due to which Pakistan and Uzbekistan are now facing the heat.
Good thing is that the Uzbek side has successfully completed all the internal formalities during January 2023 while the Pakistan side has also completed the same to implement the PTA from 1 February 2023. Both sides discussed the implementation of the agreement between Uzbekistan and Pakistan on Transit Trade (AUPTT).
Uzbekistan informed Pakistan about the “Termez Economic Zone” and the incentives being offered. The Pakistani side agreed to disseminate this information to the business community. Due to “tireless” diplomatic efforts of H.E. Yerzhan Kistafin, Ambassador of Kazakhstan in Islamabad, the socio-economic integration process, civil aviation cooperation, energy, investment, agriculture coordination, textiles, garments, sports, pharmaceutical, education and last but not least cultural affinity is getting “momentum”. In this regard, Kistafin’s “superior strategic economic endeavours”, practical business priorities, innovative soft image projection marketing efforts and, above all, increasing political connectivity with numerous ministries, business communities and commerce chambers has “swayed” the spheres of competitor’s diplomatic efforts in the country. The inauguration of the honorary Kazakhstan Consulate General Office in Lahore has further strengthened trade, investment, business and people-to-people contacts between the two sides and communities alike. The pace of bilateral visits of ministers, representatives of chambers of commerce, exchange of scholars, NGOs, media communities and people-to-people has further geared up the entire “spectrum” of Pak-Kazak bilateral relations. Most recently, both countries agreed in principle to sign the Kazakhstan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. Both sides discussed potential opportunities for trade and cooperation between Kazakhstan and Pakistan, including the conclusion of several transit trade agreements. The MoU between Kazakh Invest & Qaz Trade from Kazakhstan and Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) and Board of Investment (BOI) from Pakistan signed on 23 Dec 2022 will further enhance Trade and Investment activities between two sides.
To conclude, the dream of greater regional connectivity has now new “X-Factors” in shape of new means like the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative, Turkmenistan trans-regional gas pipeline (TAPI), CASA-1000 and “Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan” trans-regional railway project which should be expedited as soon as possible. Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan H.E. Ulanbek Totuiaev is also working very hard to “snatch” all psychological, political, and business hurdles to further strengthen economic ties with Pakistan. He emphasised the need to fully tap the existing vast trade potential between the two countries besides further cementing existing economic relations between two countries on a sound footing. In this regard, Kyrgyzstan Trade House has been inaugurated in country which attracts Pakistani buyers and investors in diversified sectors.
Interestingly, Tajikistan has now signed a transit trade agreement with Pakistan during the visit of Tajik President to Islamabad. There is huge potential of bilateral relations in pharmaceuticals, textiles and agricultural products, marble, energy, sports, civil aviation, security, education, culture, tourism and last but not the least, transport between Pakistan and all the countries of Central Asia which must be tapped as soon as possible. The policy makers of Pakistan should prepare a holistic and comprehensive policy to counter the strong Indian lobby in these countries. On their part, the CIS should try to come out of the former Soviet Union security syndrome too. China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan railway projects would be extended to Peshawar through Afghanistan in the future which would help in boosting trade relations. Financial blessings of China are the need of the hour.
—The writer is Executive Director, Centre for South Asia & International Studies, Islamabad, regional expert China, BRI & CPEC & senior analyst, world affairs, Pakistan Observer.