Pakistan’s longstanding relationship with Central Asian Republics (CARs) has spanned over three decades, characterized by cordial diplomatic relations founded upon strong historical, religious, cultural, and geographical ties. Recognizing the independence of these Republics in the early 90s, Pakistan has held deep-seated regard for its diplomatic ties with the Central Asian region, including mutual economic, energy, and security cooperation. The bonds between Pakistan and the CARs have proven to be a source of stability in the region and an essential element in shaping the foreign policy of both parties. Over the past three decades, the relations have grown to the highest level and brought forward the strengthened cooperation in areas of connectivity and prosperity.
The Central Asian Republic encompasses Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan where we also include Azerbaijan as an important regional ally in boasting boasts abundant reserves of energy and natural resources, providing Pakistan with immense opportunities for trade and commerce. The majority of the population in these countries is Muslim, sharing a common history, identity, heritage, and religion with the people of Pakistan. Furthermore, the region lies closer to Pakistan. It is partially linked through the Wakhan Corridor in the Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges, further cementing the deep connections between Pakistan and the CARs. These geographic and cultural similarities have led to a natural partnership, strengthening mutual ties and cooperation in various fields.
Pakistan’s unwavering commitment to strengthening its ties with the CARs since 1991 has been hindered by various challenges. The instability in neighboring Afghanistan and the subsequent onset of the Global War on Terror have limited Pakistan’s diplomatic options.
Moreover, the scourge of extremism and terrorism has posed a persistent threat to the region’s people, making it difficult for Pakistan to diversify its diplomatic outreach. However, the CARs’ membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has presented numerous opportunities for increased cooperation. The SCO has been instrumental in promoting regional stability and enhancing economic, cultural, and security ties between Pakistan and the CARs, helping to pave the way for deeper collaboration in the future. Despite the challenges, Pakistan’s commitment to strengthening its relations with the CARs has remained steadfast, believing that cooperation between these nations will yield significant benefits for the entire region.
Over the past three decades, the close interaction and increasing cooperation between Pakistan and the CARs have opened up a plethora of opportunities for both parties. The partnerships have facilitated high-level visits, and bilateral and multilateral discussions based on mutual trust, and shared benefits, allowing both sides to explore and leverage each other’s strengths. The areas of cooperation have spanned across various sectors, including the economy, energy, defense, and diplomacy. With the passage of time, the nature of this cooperation has evolved and become more strategic in response to the changing geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape. The deepening of ties between Pakistan and the CARs is a testament to the mutual benefits of sustained engagement and cooperation, presenting a promising future for both parties and beyond.
The announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan in 2013 marked a turning point in regional cooperation mechanisms between Pakistan and the CARs. The signing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015, as the pilot project of the BRI, further cemented the relationship between the two parties. This landmark initiative has led to development of critical infrastructure, including highways, railways, and ports, which has significantly enhanced regional connectivity and trade. Additionally, Pakistan’s full membership in the SCO in 2019 injected new vigor into the relationship between the two regions, providing a platform for deeper engagement and collaboration in diverse fields, including security, culture, and economic cooperation. These regional cooperation mechanisms have facilitated sustained engagement and laid the foundation for greater cooperation between Pakistan and the CARs, enabling both parties to leverage their strengths and enhance mutual benefits.
In addition to Europe and the Middle East, Pakistan’s relationship with the CARs has garnered significant interest in recent years, primarily due to the region’s vast energy resources and emerging business markets. However, the CARs’ landlocked status has limited their ability to access blue waters for international trade, making Pakistan a crucial transit corridor for the region through the CPEC. Pakistan has a strategic interest in becoming a significant trading partner for the CARs and is committed to treating all states in the region equally. The development of CPEC has facilitated the creation of infrastructure for the CARs to access international markets through the deep-sea port of Gwadar, enhancing regional connectivity and economic development. By leveraging its strategic location, Pakistan is well-positioned to emerge as a hub of regional trade and investment, providing significant benefits for CARs and beyond.
The economic dimension of the relationship between Pakistan and the CARs remains a primary driver of cooperation. As per the data published by the State Bank of Pakistan for the Financial Year 2022, Pakistan holds a net trade surplus of $42.19 million with the CARs. The first quarter of 2022 saw a 29% increase in Pakistan’s exports to the region. However, these disparities in trade flows should be seen as something other than a cause for concern, as they are primarily influenced by differences in economic structures, market demand, and geographical distance. With a strong focus on improving regional connectivity and enhancing economic cooperation through initiatives such as the CPEC, Pakistan and the CARs are well-positioned to expand their trade and investment ties in the coming years.
The statistics related to economic relations between Pakistan and the CARs present a positive image of the region, which can be further improved. It is important to view the trade potential with the CARs in the context of the shift from geo-strategy to geo-economy under Pakistan’s National Security Policy of 2022. Pakistan’s position as a valuable trading partner in the region is underscored by its positive trade intensity, with exports of cereals, oil, and pharmaceuticals, and imports of iron, steel, and cotton. As Pakistan and the CARs work towards strengthening their economic cooperation, there is immense potential for further growth and expansion of trade ties.
Energy cooperation is a crucial aspect of regional collaboration, and Pakistan has a keen interest in the energy-rich resources of Central Asia. The CASA-1000 power project is a prime example of the close partnership between Pakistan and Central Asian countries in the energy sector. The project aims to transmit hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan by the end of 2024. Additionally, the TAPI gas pipeline project involving Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India seeks to enhance energy cooperation. Still, its future is still being determined due to the prevailing security situation in Afghanistan and India’s lack of interest. Despite these challenges, Pakistan remains committed to exploring opportunities for energy cooperation with Central Asian countries.
In the past 30 years, the relationship between Pakistan and the CARs has evolved into a mutually beneficial partnership with positive outcomes. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provide a significant boost to regional connectivity, and both Pakistan and the CARs are committed to linking CPEC with Central Asia. However, Afghanistan presents a challenge to this plan, as it holds the key to transregional connectivity. Despite this, efforts by Uzbekistan and Pakistan to promote peace and security in Afghanistan are often underappreciated. The Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif Railway line, which runs across the Uzbek-Afghan border, has been agreed to be extended up to Peshawar in Pakistan via Kabul. Once completed, the Trans-Afghan railway line will significantly reduce transit time from 30 days to just a few days between Central Asia and Pakistan.
Energy resources are another crucial component of regional cooperation between Pakistan and the CARs. Central Asia is rich in energy resources, while Pakistan lacks cheaper energy resources and remains interested in the energy reserves of Central Asia. The Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) power project and the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (TAPI) gas pipeline are both examples of successful cooperation in the region. However, the future of TAPI remains uncertain due to the security situation in Afghanistan and India’s lack of interest.
Security cooperation is also an essential aspect of regional cooperation between Pakistan and the CARs. The CARs and Pakistan have previously engaged in security cooperation under the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, the recent security situation in Afghanistan has raised concerns, and all neighbors of Afghanistan, including Pakistan and the CARs, have held multiple rounds of talks to find avenues of cooperation on border management, spill over of terrorists, and security of trade routes. All parties see peace in Afghanistan as a precursor to durable peace and stability across the region.
As the CARs and Pakistan enter into their fourth decade of diplomatic relations, the pattern of close cooperation is achieving new heights. The new decade is the decade of completing multiple mega projects, including CASA-1000 and the Trans-Afghan railway, which will connect Central Asia and Pakistan via Afghanistan. Under its National Security Policy 2022, Pakistan is expanding its economic outreach into the region and is targeting a trade volume of $1 billion with a surplus in the new decade. There is huge untapped potential to increase cooperation in areas of energy, economy, connectivity, and security, and it is expected that the partnership between Pakistan and the CARs will continue to flourish in the years to come.