The year 2023 marks a significant milestone in the bilateral connectivity between Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Pakistan, which has been flourishing for 31 years. This collaboration is not just an attempt to counter challenges but also a testament to a historical and profound relationship that extends far beyond the past three decades. Geographically connected through the Wakhan Corridor since ancient times, Central Asia and Pakistan have been fate-connected for centuries. The foundation of socio-political and economic cooperation for mutual prosperity, stability, and security is primarily determined by regional connectivity. While connectivity includes road, railway, and air linkages, it also encompasses cultural exchange, scientific cooperation, arts, music, entertainment, trade, cuisine, and people-to-people contact. The significance of the CARs and Pakistan’s relationship goes beyond and it is time to acknowledge and nurture the deep roots that connect these regions.
The relationship between Pakistan and CARs is based on a multitude of shared factors, such as culture, norms, religion, and identity. Both regions have leveraged these similarities to foster cooperation. However, the landscape of connectivity transformed significantly with the initiation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015.
Remarkably, the modern BRI follows path of ancient Silk Route, traversing through Central and South Asia, which is a testament to longstanding connectivity between these lands. This transformational development has opened new opportunities for both Pakistan and CARs to collaborate and capitalize on their shared heritage for mutual growth and progress.
The dynamics surrounding connectivity, integration, and linkages have undergone a remarkable transformation, presenting unprecedented prospects for cooperation between South and Central Asia. BRI and CPEC have reshaped the traditional understanding of regional connectivity and opened up new avenues for collaboration. While CPEC is not directly linked to Central Asia, there is a growing debate about the possibility of connecting these two regions via Afghanistan in the future. One of the proposed solutions is the development of the Trans-Afghan Railway line, which would link Uzbekistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan, primarily for the purposes of trade and commerce. However, this development is also likely to foster people-to-people contact between the two regions, creating new opportunities for cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
The most common denominator in bilateral relationships is the need for a transit corridor for trade, investment, economy, politics, culture, science, technology, cuisine, and heritage. Due to the majestic mountainous landscape, there is a vast potential for tourism in both regions, Pakistan and Central Asia. Yet, Pakistan offers a better diversity of weather and topography spread across deserts, coastlines, and agricultural heartlands. Apart from this, the instability in Afghanistan have also led to the challenges for bringing both regions closer to each other.
Cooperation in the field of education represents a crucial facet of connectivity between Pakistan and CARs. Every year, thousands of Pakistani students travel to Central Asia to pursue higher education across a range of disciplines. It is imperative to promote educational cooperation and student exchange programs to foster a more educated workforce and promote cross-cultural assimilation based on shared values. In this regard, Pakistan has launched the Vision Central Asia policy initiative to accelerate regional connectivity and integration efforts. The initiative comprises five key pillars of engagement with CARs, including defense, economy, trade, people-to-people contact, and regional connectivity through cultural exchange and regional integration. Vision Central Asia recognizes the importance of a holistic approach to connectivity, encompassing not just economic and trade-related ties but also cultural and educational exchange. By prioritizing education as a central pillar of its connectivity strategy, Pakistan is laying the groundwork for a more vibrant and prosperous future for the entire region.
It is impossible to discuss the historical ties between Pakistan and CARs without acknowledging the significant influence of Central Asia on the dominant culture of Islam in modern-day Pakistan and the formerly subcontinent. The Mughal dynasty, descendants of Taimur, ruled over this land for centuries, leaving an indelible mark on the region’s cultural and religious landscape. They established connectivity corridors that facilitated the exchange of scholars, merchants, traders, fortune hunters, and wanderers, effectively erasing the boundaries between different cultures and religions. The resulting fusion of ideas and beliefs gave rise to a unique synthesis that continues to shape the region’s identity today.
The impact of Central Asia’s historical legacy on Pakistan’s cultural and religious heritage cannot be overstated, and it serves as a testament to the deep and enduring relationship between these regions.
The long-standing cultural exchange between Pakistan and CARs continues to serve as a vital driver of engagement between these two regional actors. However, these efforts are overshadowed by the fragile security situation in Afghanistan, which remains a persistent challenge to regional connectivity. Over the past three decades of bilateral cooperation, two decades have been marred by insecurity in Afghanistan, largely due to the American War on Terror. The regions bordering Afghanistan have felt the brunt of extremism and terrorism spillovers, which have hindered efforts to promote greater connectivity and cooperation in the region. In this context, it is crucial to address the security challenges in Afghanistan and reduce the threat of terrorism to create a conducive environment for sustained regional connectivity and integration. As the situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain, it is imperative for Pakistan and CARs to work together to address the challenges posed by extremism and terrorism and find innovative ways to promote regional cooperation and connectivity.
For more than thirty years of cooperation, Pakistan and Central Asia look forward to another decade of relationship. The steadfast but gradual linkages between both partners bind them to accelerate the collaboration because they have lived past the trust and confidence-building phase. Today, it is time for both actors to build on mutual trust and move towards tangible gains. This region holds the key to unimagined development and growth due to the large reserves of minerals and energy resources. CARs and Pakistan can hit a $1 billion trade volume, operationalize energy transmission lines, open trade and public transit through CPEC, and enhance public diplomacy potential.
The writer is President of Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies (IPDS)