Regional connectivity through shared prosperity
MANY international monetary agencies and global financial institutions have termed Asia, the leader of 21th century in which greater regional connectivity would play a vital role.
In this regard, Chinese One Belt & One Road Initiative (BRI) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would play an important role in “promoting” and “sustaining” regional connectivity based on “shared prosperity” leading towards “productivity” and “prosperity”.
Being a regional expert of Uzbekistan and CIS, I value it as the real “custodian” and “guarantor” of the “realization” of long awaited dreams of greater regional connectivity in which greater socio-economic integration, energy and food cooperation, FDIs, joint ventures, optimal participation of private sector and last but not the least, integrated system of transportation, logistics and seaports would be instrumental.
Uzbekistan hosted an international conference titled “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities” on 15-16 July 2021.
It was held at the invitation of the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev who triggered the concept of regional connectivity among the regional countries as well as global relations.
It was focused to develop mutually beneficial strategic ties among the participating countries in various fields, especially in transportation and logistics, energy, trade, production and investment.
In addition, the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan, Turkey, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Japan and many other countries attended said conference.
According to Uzbek officials more than 250 participants from more than 50 countries attended the conference.
The main objective of the conference was to create an optimal proposition of win-win “doctrine” to serve the welfare of the regional populations by avoiding useless competition and promoting cooperation and developing relations in various fields, especially trade routes.
Since Mirziyoyev’s appointment to the presidency, he adopted a multi-purpose policy and created “strategic cushion” and maintained balance in foreign policy and prioritized cooperation.
He institutionalized a “constructive policy” acted especially in the conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Critical analysis upholds that greater regional connectivity also suits Russia to reach the South.
It will create a great opportunity for South Asian countries to open up to both Central Asia and Russia.
Increasing prosperity in Central Asia will encourage regional stability as well as offering to China a safe route BRI to open up to the West.
While addressing the conference, the Uzbek President termed “strengthening ties” with neighbours a “top priority”.
He said “a reliable, stable and predictable partner, interested in and committed to constructive cooperation based on mutual interests must for greater regional connectivity.”
He adopted holistic “mantra” and “evoked” common history and values, urged closer “partnerships” because without tighter relationships and economic connectivity, Central Asia cannot be connected with the world, and the Eurasian continent, into a stable and prosperous space.”
It seems that Mirziyoyev’s “activist foreign policy” is gradually expanding trade by reopening borders and addressing “regional problems, most notably the challenging situation in Afghanistan.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan signed numerous MoUs and contracts with Uzbekistan worth $500 million, covering trade, transit, visas, security and cultural cooperation.
He stressed the need to have greater “regional connectivity” because “with large populations (1.6 billion) and rich natural resources, Central and South Asia can create a giant market of products and services”.
Secretary-General António Guterres through video message pledged the United Nations support for regional connectivity essential to trade, growth and sustainable development.
He emphasized greater socio-economic and geo-connectivity and labelled it vital for regional cooperation and friendly relations among neighbours.
Tashkent and Islamabad have high hopes for a proposed trans-regional railway project (US$ 90 billion) connecting Termez in southern Uzbekistan through the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul to Pakistan’s Peshawar and on to its Arabian Sea port cities of Karachi, Gwadar and Bin Qasim.
Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also stressed Central Asia’s strategic position between Europe and South Asia. He termed connectivity, stability and security as “prerequisites” for each other.
On the other hand, the Washington led C5+1 forum with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also affirmed its commitment to strengthen trade, transport and energy links.
The group also stressed the need for security and stability through Afghan peace negotiations.
Central Asia is a geostrategic region whose orientation will have a profound impact on the global balance of power for which Pak-Uzbek “strategic alliance’ are trying to promote spirits of cooperation, coordination and collaboration instead of schemes of conflicts, conspiracies and competition.
In this regard, both countries have been tirelessly working to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Regional connectivity is being touted as a means to stabilize Afghanistan, roads, rails, and pipelines would not even be built without stability.
Afghanistan faces a chicken-and-egg problem: no stability, no investment; but investment and “grand reconciliation” with the soil of Afghanistan and regional participatory “political involvement” could help bring stability.
Participants of the conference undoubtedly urged peace talks and negotiations among the warring Afghan parties.
But widening gap between the Taliban and Ghani’s government is not a good sign for greater regional connectivity.
It seems that “fragmented markets” separating Central and South Asia are costly to entrepreneurs, governments, and citizens.
Improved connectivity from agreements at this conference can facilitate economic prosperity in the region.
On the other hand, on the sideline of this conference, representatives of the United States, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed in principle to establish a new “quadrilateral diplomatic platform” focused on enhancing regional connectivity.
According to this platform all the parties consider long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan critical to regional connectivity and agree that peace and regional connectivity are mutually reinforcing.
The adoption of joint statement of the Leaders of the Central Asian States at the second Consultative Meeting in November 2019 and the adoption of a special UN resolution “Strengthening Regional and International Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Sustainable Development in the Central Asian Region in June 2018 all vividly reflect the strategic vision of Mirziyoyev aiming to achieve greater regional connectivity, due to which inter-regional reached $5.2 billion in 2019, 2.5 times more than in 2016. At the same time, the total foreign trade in 2016-2019 increased 56 percent to $168.2 billion.
The number of travellers to the countries of Central Asia in 2016-2019 increased almost 2 times from 9.5 to 18.4 million people. Furthermore, the combined GDP of the region’s countries increased from $253 billion in 2016 to $302.8 billion in 2019.
Successful conference revealed Uzbek constructive role in establishing peace in the region. Uzbekistan aims to establish peace and transform the region into a stability area.
It shows that Uzbekistan’s new pragmatic foreign policy has promoted favourable conditions for the Central Asian states to jointly promote major economic projects of a trans-regional nature for which “Pak-Uzbek strategic partnership” is must.
—The writer is Director, Geopolitics/Economics Member Board of Experts, CGSS.