Sabah Aslam l

From the coasts of Caspian Sea to the rouged lands touching Afghanistan, there lies a belt of resource rich countries – the Central Asian States. Comprising five states, the region is fast becoming the new hub for social and economic development. As it lies at the heart of the ancient Silk Route, Central Asia also holds key importance in the new geo-economics of world. With a combined population of more than 66 million – Uzbekistan alone accounting for approximately 29 million – Central Asia is an emerging market for investors.

The Central Asia states are known as the ‘five – stans’; it is because all -stan at the end of their names. When these states got independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognise them and establish diplomatic relations with them. Since then, Pakistan and the Central Asian countries have enjoyed cordial relations. From visits of high-level delegations to signing of MOUs for establishing joint economic commissions, Pakistan has always acknowledged the role and importance of the Central Asian states.

Geography plays a key role in the importance of these states located on the crossroads of east and west, Central Asian culture is an amalgam of ancient civilisations and modern times. Pakistan and the other -stans have a lot in common. Deeply connected with the bond of religion, Pakistan and Central Asia share many similitudes in culture. For instance, sufism has deep roots in both societies. Architecture, cuisine, arts and handicrafts, and even dresses are similar. The languages also contain words and structures that are common. Pakistan and Central Asia have immense potential of bilateral co-operation. For that purpose, cross-cultural integrating policies and measures will boost the relations.

Out of many cross-cultural programmes, students’ exchange programmes can be very beneficial. Pakistan, in 1992-93, started a Special Technical Assistance Programme, under which apart from language courses, expertise in diplomacy, banking and accountancy was shared. The programmes were fully funded by the government of Pakistan. The Central Asian Faculty Development Programme had 7 per cent fellows from Pakistan in the first phase. Similar programmes can help improve the relationship between Pakistan and Central Asia.

Economic diplomacy is currently one of the guiding principles of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The always important trade and commerce are now even more important. Pakistan’s trade with the region stands $58.4 billion a year. There are indications that Central Asia can be a very favourable market for Pakistani exporters and investors. Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian trade partner of Pakistan, is followed by Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Trade and commerce can contribute a lot to economic development of all these countries, while uplifting standards of living.

Pakistan is now laying greater emphasis on tourism than ever before. It has also been a driver for development in Central Asia. Travellers from across the globe are now visiting the region because of its unique cultural heritage and landscape. The number of visitors to Central Asia has grown from 2 million in 2010 to 6 million in 2016. Pakistan is also aiming for a single visa for the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation. Promotion of tourism for strengthening of economic and cultural ties across countries, and generation of employment and business opportunities are the main priorities under CAREC 2030.

After Washington started its War on Terror venture and Pakistan became the pivot for it the tables were turned. When Pakistan experienced the ricochet of Uncle Sam’s policies in Afghanistan, there appeared to be a decline in Pakistan’s attention towards Central Asia. Affected by terrorism and its export from across the border, with grave internal security challenges, discourse of Pakistan’s foreign policy took a major shift. Pakistan’s prime objective than became security. After more than a decade, the dark clouds are lifting from Pakistani skies.

Now is the time for Pakistan to revamp its foreign policy framework and extend its diplomatic arms across the region. Both Pakistan and Central Asia can benefit from an embrace and bring robust advancements to their socio-economic fabric by cooperating with each other. Pakistan should align its policies with the overall shift in global politics. The east now holds much importance on the international scene. Pakistan and Central Asia must not miss the opportunity.

The writer is the Founder & Executive Director of Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR), and member visiting faculty Dept. of Peace & Conflict Studies, NUML, and School of Politics & IR, Quaid-I- Azam University, Islamabad. The article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with author’s permission.