Pakistan, Central and South Asia and changing world order


By Salman Bashir

Not too long ago, global interdependence was considered the underlying constant for a prosperous and peaceful world. But now, power competitions and rivalry introduced by the US have become the new defining theme of global politics in this century. 

After a period of uncertainty, US-China relations now seem to be heading towards greater friction than ever before. For all intents and purposes, the cold war’s phraseology is being revived and reintroduced. China has not reacted to the US’ jargon yet, but seems confident that its progress can no longer be impeded. Incidentally, the interests of US and China converge in our region.

As the world order begins transforming, the choice for Pakistan and other Central Asian and South Asian states is a stark one. Either line up behind one or the other of the world’s major powers and be used as a proxy in the global power play, or forge a way forward and minimize the fallout from the collision of the two powers.  

In this context, regrettably very little has been done so far to develop common thinking. The propensity to ally with the powerful is immense especially for those aspiring for regional dominance and glory-by-association. India has for its own reasons concurred to join the US Indo-Pacific strategy against China. Of course, the Indians don’t quite like to put it as bluntly but nuances aside, their present trajectory is to be in-step with the US.

For its part, Pakistan has had solid, mostly beneficial ties with China for almost seventy years. It has also managed good relations with the US despite being at odds over the Afghan war. Still, when US concerns about China extend to the entire Indian ocean region, it will pose a difficult circumstance for Pakistan and its western and northwestern regions (namely the Gulf and Central Asia).

China has been making relentless efforts to improve relations with the US and India and would prefer Pakistan to have better ties with both the countries as well. But so far preoccupied with securing a political settlement that would enable it to disengage militarily from Afghanistan, the US has yet to delineate clearly its interests in Pakistan post the Afghan settlement.

Under these circumstances, it is imperative that Pakistan and the Central and South Asian states ensure that their own strategic space is not constricted by global power politics. This will best be achieved by pursuing policies based on their respective national interests and joining their strengths in a trans-regional vision of economic, trade and energy cooperation. 

Interestingly, Central Asian and South Asian connectivity was an idea first promoted by the US as the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India gas pipeline. Subsequently, the Chinese proposed the Belt and Road Initiative with the same connectivity theme of which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a fine demonstration.

US and Chinese interests converge in stabilizing Afghanistan but Afghan stability can only be secured if it is underpinned by a solid economic foundation. Alongside other states in the region, Pakistan and China can contribute to building such a foundation based on the concept of regional connectivity between Central and South Asia of which Afghanistan and Pakistan would become the rail and road conduits.  

The natural resources of Central Asia and the huge markets of South Asia could potentially build inimitable economic synergy. Moreover, the Central Asian hinterland would get the shortest access to the sea through the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar. In fact, this region, extended to the Gulf, could become an oasis of peace and prosperity and a veritable engine driving the global economy.

Existing regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Economic Cooperation Organization can play an important role in realizing this mutually beneficial connectivity vision. But the great question mark in the trajectory of progress remains Pakistan-India relations.

(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)