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How to bring Central and South Asia back together

Connectivity in terms of trade, travel, and tourism is one of the most important parts of working together in an area. At the meeting of SCO foreign ministers in Goa earlier this month, they were aware of the lack of connections between Central and South Asia. However, they reaffirmed that member states would take steps to improve trade and business ties and deal with problems like climate change, extremism, and terrorism.

In an age of globalization, technology, geo-economics, and soft power, connectivity is all about the free flow of people, goods, services, and capital. How the historic Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, caused a sea change in Europe and led to the creation of the European Union, a single currency, and free travel, trade, and shipment of goods.

Reconnecting South and Central Asia means that during the Kushan dynasty in ancient times and the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire in the middle ages and after the middle ages, the ancient Silk Road connected the two areas. However, when Russia and the Soviet Union took over Central Asia and the British Empire took over the Indian subcontinent, the Silk Road stopped connecting Central and South Asia. After the Soviet Union broke up and new Central Asian states were formed in 1991, people started to think about how to connect Central and South Asia again. Pakistan was happy and excited about the rise of Central Asian states, but this feeling didn’t last long because people soon realized that Central Asia couldn’t be connected without peace in Afghanistan. Also, the secular way of running things in Central Asia and the rise of Islamic Jihad in Pakistan made it harder for Islamabad to win over the people of an area that used to be culturally and religiously linked to the Indian subcontinent.

When political realism replaced idealism, it was too late, and the Central Asian states chose to accept Russian and Chinese influence through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was formed in 1996 as Shanghai V and changed its name in 2001. Before that, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) was brought back to life in 1992. It was made up of all the countries in Central Asia, as well as Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey were the three founding members of the now-defunct Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). In 1985, they chose to rename it the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and in November 1992, they invited six Central Asian states to join. It means that Pakistan has been trying for a long time to take the lead in Central Asia, but the civil war in Afghanistan and the lukewarm support of Central Asian governments who were afraid of Islamabad’s support for the Taliban regime kept them from doing so.

Two big parts of the project to join Central and South Asia are the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India gas pipeline (TAPI) and the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA 1000) electricity corridor. If these projects had been completed, they would have made a big difference in both areas. These two projects, which would have made it easier for people in Central and South Asia to get energy, are still on paper, but they are very far from being done because of problems with funds and the situation in Afghanistan. At the SCO meeting in Goa, people talked about other ways to work together in trade, tourism, education, culture, and dealing with the very serious problem of climate change.

In the form of melting glaciers, climate change poses a serious threat to Central and South Asia. There is a lot of water in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, and Pamir mountain ranges, but the fast melting of glaciers means that drought and hunger could happen in the next few decades. In the same way, the lack of good, affordable air connections between Central and South Asia is a big problem. So are the lack of connections by road and rail between the two Asias. Russia and China, along with India, are the most important members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They need to come up with a plan for linking Central and South Asia so that the dream of free movement of people, goods, services, and money can become a reality.

There are two ways to bring Central and South Asia back together.

First, Afghanistan needs real attempts to make peace. The Taliban government, which doesn’t have international legitimacy, is trying to show the world that it means business by connecting different cities in Afghanistan by train and linking them to Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan. This will help trade and business between Pakistan and Central Asia grow. It remains to be seen how much the Taliban regime has the ability, capability, and resources to connect Central and South Asia through railways. If half of Afghanistan’s population doesn’t have basic rights like the right to education, work, and free travel, how can it take steps to build infrastructure? Even though Afghanistan says it has peace, the situation on the ground is tense because the Taliban government is cracking down on opposition groups, especially those who are protesting against violations of women’s rights.

Second, connecting South Asia and Central Asia would need the political will and drive of each country’s government to ease restrictions on travel, visas, and trade. It would also need connections between academic institutions, study centers that focus on policy, and institutes. In this way, it was a big step forward when the Department of Political Science and Pakistan Studies at the University of Punjab Lahore and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Berlin put on an international meeting called “Reconnecting Central and South Asia.” At the meeting, people from Pakistan, the UK, Germany, Turkey, and Central Asia spoke about how to improve trade, commerce, culture, tourism, education, and travel between Central and South Asia. Discussions from that useful conference should be shared with the right people, along with any conclusions or suggestions, so that real steps can be taken to improve connections between Central and South Asia.

Unresolved problems between India and Pakistan and the unstable situation in Afghanistan make it hard for Central and South Asia to link with each other. In addition to working on managing conflicts, SCO and ECO member states need to take steps that could make it easier for people, goods, services, and capital to move around freely.