If Pakistan is the gateway to Central Asia

Columnist SULTAN AHMED discusses the potential of Pakistan as an opening into Central Asia.

The rulers and people of Pakistan feel close to the people of Central Asia for good historical reasons as well as the fact most of the people of that newly liberated region are Muslims, conscious of their great heritage. And many of our rulers and writers refer to their country as the gateway to Central Asia.

It is certainly a gateway to Central Asia from the south or south-east; but it is not the only gateway from the South contrary to the impression our leaders try to create in their enthusiasm to identify themselves with Central Asia and enlarge the extent of co-operation with it.

And yet one leader after another of Pakistan tend to speak of Pakistan as the gateway to Central Asia. If Benazir Bhutto spoke of Pakistan in the same strain in the early 1990s, the Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf spoke in the same vein last month at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.

The fact is there is another gateway to Central Asia from the South via Iran, and Iran has done a great deal to develop good communication system with C.A. Yet another gateway in the south-west is from Turkey. Turgat Ozal as Prime Minister of Turkey wanted to capitalise on the fact that a large number of people of Turkish origin or Turkish speaking people were living there and rushed to CA with hard cash in hand. He was ready to commit upto one billion dollars to help those countries acutely short of foreign exchange. He did build some real bridges, though they were not as rewarding as he had hoped for due to the difference in the economic systems of Turkey and the Central Asian states. Iran, too, tried to checkmate the Turkish influence and vice versa.

Our ability to function as a dependable supply route to Central Asia and exit route for its exports has been hampered by the lasting civil war in Afghanistan and the unsettled conditions there. As a result there has not been much economic cooperation between Central Asia and Pakistan either.

During the period of the Soviet rule of Central Asia Pakistan's trade relations with that region was very small and cultural relations negligible. Under the influence of the US or its tutelage we kept away from communist states as much as possible, save China. So our economic linkages with Central Asia were few and the volume of trade with that region negligible.

But when Sardar Aseff Ali as foreign minister under Benazir Bhutto led the first Pakistan delegation to Central Asia after the collapse of Soviet Union there was tremendous popular enthusiasm for it. But the Pakistanis who tried to sell the Islamic bond between the two areas soon found the approach of the people of those regions to Islam was more romantic than ritualistic or based on fundamentals.

When some Pakistanis said Islam was great, the Central Asians immediately stood up and said "let us drink a toast to it." After a series of toasts the Pakistanis ceased talking of the greatness of Islam and began speaking of local cultures.

If we had more money to spend on Central Asia, and if our businessmen were ready to invest a good deal and wait for results instead of hoping for early gains, we could have built many economic bridges there. Instead our efforts to set up banks and have hotels there received severe setbacks as systems of doing business there was far different from that to which Pakistanis were accustomed. And since then as our economic conditions became worse there has been no great enthusiasm on the part of our businessmen to reach out to Central Asia with sizeable capital.

While the common history and the fact the peoples of the two regions are Muslims do provide a common bond we cannot overplay the Islamic card there for strengthening economic relations between the two regions. Instead we have to focus on economic cooperation on an economic basis, and after making allowance for their different economic system, which is slowly changing, and increase the cultural cooperation between the two people and promote greater people-to-people exchanges.

It is true we don't have the kind of money which Turgat Ozal could spare in those early years; but we have to do some real strategic spending there despite our financial constraints.

And instead of claiming we are the gateway to Central Asia we have to acknowledge the Iranian and Turkish routes as well, and we have to admit Central Asian goods will go to Europe via Russia and to the East via China.

The meeting of the five presidents of the Shanghai Five Group this week in Dushambe with the president of Russia, China Kazakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgztan participating shows the direction in which Central Asia is moving. They want to be a part of a much broader world than we are envisioning.

Pakistan took the lead informing the ECO states of ten by including the Central Asian states to the group of Iran, Turkey and Pakistan following the liberation of those republics from Russia, but the volume of trade has not increased significantly. There have been more of meetings and summits than great economic or commercial results.

Our efforts to bring electricity from Tajikistan to Pakistan earlier, and the later effort to bring gas from Turkmenistan have been stymied by the lasting civil war in Afghanistan and the resulting higher cost of transmission of power or gas, and the reluctance of foreign entrepreneurs to invest on such projects.

The fact is that except for the oil we import from Saudi Arabia and less from Iran and Iraq, and the oil products we get from Kuwait, our trade with the Muslim countries including those in the Gulf close by, has been small. And that happens despite the fact the Gulf countries have a large number of Pakistanis at various level working there.

Dr. Mahbubul Haq used to argue in 1980s that if Turkey could export 3 billion dollars worth of food items to the Gulf, Pakistan should be able to export at least a billion dollars worth of food items to the region. But our exports of food items to the Gulf have only been a fraction of that for want of adequate efforts in that direction and a more imaginative approach.

Indisputably we ought to be earning more through our trade with Central Asian states than merely letting our country used as a gateway to Central Asia. But even to become a dependable and adequate gateway we have to do great deal to develop our road and railway system and ports.

The fact is our existing road system is not adequate to meet our own domestic needs for transportation of goods. We need large and more durable roads and a network of them for use as alternate roads if one road becomes unserviceable.

If the goods from Central Asia are to go to India and exit down South via Karachi to be shipped to South East Asian ports, we have to have far more and better roads. And our railway system has to be expanded to meet more of our domestic needs instead of overloading the road network.

We have to develop the port facilities fast. Gwadar should become a major part soon and that could be used to supplying goods to Central Asia.

Along with that all, law and order has to improve a great deal so that there is no diversion of the imported goods or export cargo by criminals.

All that would take a great deal of investment capital. Foreign capital could be used to some extent depending on the conditions within the country.

Without such improvements in the country all around, and at all levels our claim to be the gateway to Central Asia would not hold water.

Foreign newspapers reported that when Benazir Bhutto addressed the World Economic Summit at Davos, Switzerland, and spoke of Pakistan as the gateway to Central Asia she was challenged by a Central Asian president, saying Central Asia had many gateways and spoke of his fear of fundamentalism coming through the Pakistan gateway.

The fact is the Central Asian leaders with their communist background have the fear of fundamentalism or Talibanism crept into the region via Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And that makes them wary of all out cooperation between Pakistan and Central Asia. If recognising the Taliban government in Afghanistan secured the support of Taliban for us to some extent that has increased the fears of the Central Asian states, Russia and China to a considerable extent.

I do not know how our leaders will now find a balance between support for Taliban and our efforts to seek closer relations with Central Asian states, particularly when our religious elements want to carry their message to all parts of the world, particularly to our neighbourhood which makes even China very wary of them.

When we see the traffic jams in the city and the ill-managed transport on the highways with heavy traffic accidents and high death toll we dread to think what would happen to our roads if we become the gateway to Central Asia without adequate preparations for it, including far better traffic management and real highway discipline.

So instead of thinking in romantic terms about serving as a gateway to Central Asia let us really prepare the country for it, prepare the roads, highways, and ports for that. That, of course, would call for a great deal of investment. If enough funds cannot be forthcoming from within the country let us seek foreign funds and use them judiciously. Gate-keepers have an onerous role to play and they have to play them well and diligently.

We have also to recognise that the Great Game is continuing with new players or the old players playing an altered role. Instead of the old British we have the Americans and the enlarged role of the Chinese and the vigilant presence of Russia under President Putin. It is a region rich in oil, gas and it can produce a great deal of electricity. It is rich in minerals and other resources.

We have hence to be alive to the complexity of the situation and play our part well instead of presuming that as our two people are Muslims our cooperation and mutual help are assured. We have to meet the challenges of the new international dynamics in a period of increasing globalization and countries bound together by e-mail.