Towards Central Asia

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Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The recently concluded visits of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan show the recalibrated vision of the PML-N government to build regional linkages for shared economic prosperity, Pakistan’s quest for becoming a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Chinese strategy to revive the old Silk Route in which Pakistan has a pivotal role to play.

In the backdrop of the MOUs and agreements for implementation of the projects under the China-Pak Economic Corridor, and the newfound bonhomie with Afghanistan, these visits were essential to nudge the process of economic cooperation with the Central Asian states, especially the implementation of trans-regional projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and Casa-1000 for transmission of electricity from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan both expressed unqualified support for regional connectivity, early implementation of trans-regional projects and agreed to enhance economic ties with Pakistan especially in the energy sector, on terrorism and on drug trafficking besides commonality of views on issue of international concern like reforms in the UN. Turkmenistan also offered 1000MW electricity to Pakistan. Pakistan rightly stressed the need to enhance regional connectivity through communication networks like road and rail links and the benefits such connectivity would accrue to the countries of the region, more so to the Central Asian states by using Pakistani ports.

Tapi and Casa-1000 are the potential game-changers for the concerned countries, particularly for energy-starved Pakistan. For Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan the implementation of these projects would generate the required resources for their developmental needs.

Tapi was conceived in 1995 by Western Multinational Oil Companies who were working in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the beginning of the 1990s, in view of Russian refusal to allow them the use of the pipeline network in Russia-controlled countries. These companies needed an independent export route avoiding both Iran and Russia. The project was launched on March 15, 1995 when Pakistan and Turkmenistan signed an inaugural memorandum for the pipeline.

In April 2008 Pakistan, Afghanistan and India signed a framework agreement to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan. The 1735km long pipeline purports to carry 27 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India with a potential to enhance the capacity to 33 billion cubic meters. The Indian cabinet has also given approval for signing the gas sale purchase agreement with Turkmenistan as well as payment of transit fee to Afghanistan and Pakistan for allowing the pipeline to pass through their territories. The pipeline, estimated to be built at a cost of $7.6 billion will pass through Herat, Kandahar in Afghanistan and then Balochistan and Multan before entering Indian Punjab.

Casa-1000 also represents landmark cooperation between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It holds the promise to establish and develop inter-regional linkages between Central Asia and South Asia. The project, devised on the similar lines as the North American grid spanning over 340,000km and European power system traversing a territory of 230,000km, is ambitious but seems achievable. A high-level inter-governmental committee has already been established to evolve modalities for the implementing the project, resolving technical issues and devising rules and regulations.

The implementation of Casa-1000 will require strategic actions and long-term vision, private sector and government participation and the support of many partners. Ultimately, the realisation of this ambitious project will deliver reliable and affordable electricity to countries of the region, besides generating revenues for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It will strengthen inter-regional cooperation, investment in social services, and encourage community benefit-sharing.

In addition to the commitment of countries benefiting from the endeavour, Casa-1000 has the support of the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, USAID, US State Department, DfID, AUSAID, and other donor agencies.

Russia, which was initially opposed to this project, has had a change of heart and has expressed not only support for the completion of the project but also promised to contribute $500 million towards the cost of the undertaking. This was publicly announced by the Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the eve of the 10th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting held in Petersburg. Observers attribute this change in Russian stance to its reinvented strategy to wean away Turkmenistan from the Trans-Caspian energy ventures.

The other reason advanced by some is that Russia might be thinking of developing a geo-political axis extending from Russia across Central and South Asia to the Middle East as a strategy to counter the US plan for Greater Middle East or Greater Central Asia. In my view the efforts of the Pakistani government in recent years to reach out to its neighbours, particularly Central Asian states, and build regional linkages have also tremendously contributed to the Russian support for the project and Pakistan eventually becoming a full member of the SCO.

Pakistan will be the biggest beneficiary of both Tapi and Casa-1000 if they materialise as visualised. There are indeed encouraging portents to suggest that peace in Afghanistan might become a reality in the near future. In the backdrop of the drawdown of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan, cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism with the support of the regional countries like China, Pakistan’s facilitating role for the process of reconciliation and the recent talks held between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the prospects are indeed very promising.

Pakistan’s security and economic interests are linked to the overall security environment in the region and economic interdependence among the South Asian and Central Asian states. The government is indeed moving in the right direction in this regard and its efforts are showing positive results. Rapprochement with Afghanistan and the exponential expansion of economic ties with China under the CPEC present testimonies of the success of the initiatives of the PML-N government under Nawaz Sharif.

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