By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan
The five Central Asian Republics (CARs); Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan are spread over an area of 1.6 million square miles. The region is considered to be the second Gulf in terms of hydrocarbon resources, thus likely to play a key role in Asian and global geopolitics and geo-economics. Ever since their independence in 1991, CARs have been striving for their rightful place in the global and regional political and economic configuration. However, until now, their efforts are mostly directed towards consolidation of their statehood under new circumstances, and becoming active members of the world community. These states are still under the grip of Communism and former Soviet mindset, though Russian Federation itself has been sufficiently revolutionized to adopt the modern international political and economical system, free from the Leninist-Marxist ideology.
The vast energy resources of the region created a sense of competition among other great powers as well as the neighbours of the CARs for establishing economic, political, and military relationship. The United States, Russia, and China became the three main forces competing besides some immediate and distant neighbours for influence in Central Asia. In the post 9/11 scenario, though the interest of major powers and regional countries converged in fight against terrorism in the neighbourhood of CARs, but Moscow and Beijing have jointly opposed the growing US military presence and influence in the region. They even made use of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) forum as the megaphone for asking US and NATO to vacate the military bases they were occupying in CARs. Even U.S has to vacate a few of those in 2005. The current instability and civil war like situation in Kyrgyzstan is primarily a rejection of US influence in that country. U.S has been backing the recently ousted government as they were brought into power through a US backed Tulip Revolution.
Central Asia has a two-fold economic significance: the region’s population is over 60 million, which represents a sizeable consumer market. The confirmed oil deposits in the region are 17.192 billion barrel, (23.5 billion barrels if Azerbaijan also included), estimated undiscovered reserves are 59.1 billion barrels (Middle East has confirmed oil reserves of 702.7 billion barrels and estimated undiscovered reserves are 269.2 billion barrels). The total confirmed gas deposits of Central Asia are around 203 trillion cubic feet (Iran and Qatar alone have confirmed gas reserves of approximately 950 to 900 trillion cubic feet respectively). The vast reserves of uranium also make Central Asian States a point of attraction for the world powers. In addition, the region has vast deposits of gold, silver, chromium and the hydel power-potential yet to be fully explored. The region is at the crossroads between Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and the Far East, and undoubtedly gains considerable importance in European and Asian economies. The region also derives its strategic significance from the fact that it borders two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China and Russia. Militarily, CARs lacked basic military infrastructure and coherent military system of their own. These states (less Turkmenistan) also became members of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) comprising eleven members of former Soviet Union signed in 1992. Most of CARs do not want to continue with the Russian monopoly and want to diversify their military and strategic relations. However, their military capabilities are limited. Their armies still need more time to train their own officers, create their own military training institutions, sort out military supplies system and cultivate their own culture. Having little indigenous defence related infrastructure or industry of their own; CARs solely rely on supply of military hardware and spares from Russia or the former Soviet states like Ukraine.
Basing on their historical ties, Pakistan welcomed the independence of CARs in 1991, and was among the first few countries that recognized and established its diplomatic relations with them. While the CARs were still in the transition, the regional and extra-regional countries have been endeavouring to gain control over the hydrocarbon reserves of the region. Pakistan otherwise situated at the crossroads between Central and South Asia with the God gifted potential to provide the landlocked region with the shortest possible outlet; a route to the Arabian Sea, reacted slowly. Through its ports like; Karachi, Port Qasim, and Gwadar, Pakistan could have provided the CARs with the cheaper and shorter outlet for its natural resources and its trade to the outside world. Pakistan, in return could have been benefitted in many ways, ranging from economic gains to strategic advantages from the region. Besides built-in effects and implications, Pakistan’s economic co-operation with the region would have enhanced its standing by turning it into a major energy export route connecting different regions of Asia. Though belated, but even now, if Pakistan is able to exploit the potential, it would lift its international status and help it obviate its domestic economic and social problems. The circumstances at that time indeed were more favourable for Pakistan than any other regional or extra regional country for the promotion of economic, scientific, cultural, political, and other links with these countries. However, as the fortunate had it, both at the level of Government and private sector, rather a cool and inconsistent response followed from Pakistan in the subsequent years. Pakistan in fact has the unique position to provide transit trade facilities to these landlocked states. However, different factors particularly instability in Afghanistan has hindered the efforts made by Pakistan and these states turning the region into a greater economic zones which could have benefitted other regions including Europe.
Leaving aside the past slip-ups, Pakistan can cooperate with CARs politically, economically and militarily. Politically, Pakistan would not like to promote the narrow interests of any regional state over those of others. It will seek not to create regional or local surrogates. Through political means, Pakistan desires to create opening for CARs economic resources, mainly through construction of a pipelines from CARs to Pakistan and then to the rest of the world. Pakistan would like to incorporate and engage other regional countries and China to make investment in this field. Promotion of internal stability of the CARs, with the assurance that the region will not be divided into spheres of influence by other regional powers; it is essential to ensure that the rivalry of regional powers is minimized. Politically and economically, the forum of Economic co-operation Organization (ECO) is now the second biggest regional organization after the European Community (EC), with the potential for making a significant contribution to the development and prosperity of member countries. As one of the founding members of ECO, Pakistan can play a significant role in the political and economic integration of the region with its other members. This perceived integration would also guarantee the security of the CARs, besides other members of ECO.
On the military front, since CARs are in the process of upgrading and modernizing, their national armies, but have weak military infrastructure and defence industry of their own, therefore, Pakistan’s well-developed advanced technological defence industry can render them maximum assistance. The current limited military cooperation of training of their few officers by Pakistan can be further expanded. Pakistan should diversify its defence production and promote strategic partnership with armed forces of CARs by offering military training assistance. Pakistan can also help set up military institutions in these states and even naval bases in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, bordering Caspian Sea. This will help in building a closer relationship with the armies of these countries and develop close cooperation in defence matters. In order to promote the military relations with CARs, Pakistan has already posted defence attachés in its embassies there. The current military-to-military collaboration is restricted to military courses only, which needs to be enhanced at the broad level of defence cooperation including modernization and expansion of military forces, establishments of institutions as well as military technology related with all three Services. In spite of a number of MoUs and agreements between the governments, practically, things are extremely slow moving. There is need that Pakistan should enhance its defence cooperation with CARs at the bilateral level, rather through a wholesome regional approach.
Through a land route-linking Pakistan with the CARs via China, Pakistan has already started limited business with Central Asian states. This land route would give CARs an excess to the Arabian Sea. Apart from other business opportunities, access to oil and natural gas constitute strategic priority for Pakistan. In addition to hydrocarbons, Pakistan perceives substantial benefit for industrial growth in obtaining regular supplies of surplus power through gas and electricity grid scheme or through future oil supplies from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Efforts are also being made to set up banking and insurance companies as well as stock markets, joint-venture capital, and import-export ventures. In fact, the initial Pakistani effort of economic collaboration with the CARs fallen prey of factional fighting in Afghanistan. Through the visit of a high-level delegation, Pakistan offered $30 million in credit offers to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan ‘to establish joint ventures also got failed. Now, Pakistan has established Joint Economic Commissions (JECs) with CARs. Under a special Technical Assistance Programme (STAP) initiated in 1992-93, Pakistan provides fully funded training facilities to CARs. Pakistan has an abiding stake in peace and stability in Central Asia for its long-term security and economic prosperity. Therefore, one of the objectives of Pakistan’s foreign policy is the intensification and consolidation of ties with CARs and strengthening of peace and security in the region as a whole, through mutually beneficial cooperation.
Since there is a gradual improvement in the Pak-Afghan relationship, therefore, Pakistan must pursue a multi-pronged relationship with CARs in the field of economy, military, and diplomacy. Pakistan’s military diplomacy should adopt integrated approach of common security interests with CARs and other global powers in the region. An objective assessment of military-to-military cooperation is essential for the identification of the areas of mutual interests as well as common security concerns, which can pave way for development of sustainable military relations. Apart from the textile and other Pakistani products, the military hardware from Pakistan to CARs would cement the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and CARs. The CARs hydrocarbons are essentially required for fulfilling the needs of energy in Pakistan.
Dr Raja Muhammad Khan is PhD in International Relations from Karachi University. Presently, he is Associate Professor with National Defence University. His special focus is on South and Central Asia in particular and the Muslim world in general.
He is a regular contributor to www.Opinion-Maker.org