Without arousing much attention in Pakistan, an important four-power summit has concluded in Dushanbe in Tajikistan after discussing “an increase of foreign investment in the sphere of hydropower projects, construction of transmission lines and development of transport infrastructure”. The four presidents who signed the summit joint statement were Mr Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Mr Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, Mr Dmitri Medvedev of Russia and Mr Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
Significantly, there was a separate three-power discussion involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which signed on implementing the construction of rail, roads and highways on the Panji Poyon-Sherkhon and Bandar-Kabul-Peshawar routes, giving Tajikistan access to sea through Pakistani ports. President Zardari ended up saying the Dushanbe summit decision would be appreciated by generations to come.
The Russian president was there when the summit appealed for investments and control of the smuggling of drugs and weapons and cross-border crime. Pakistan and Russia promised to push their stalled relationship forward by agreeing that “terrorism and militancy were not only a threat to peace and stability of the region, but to the world as a whole” and that the two would strengthen bilateral trade.
Around the same time last year a Pakistani delegation had gone to Dushanbe to talk about importing 1,000MW of electricity from Tajikistan and its neighbour Kyrgyzstan at a rate which was four cents less than the one Pakistan was paying to the IPPs. This year, too, there is talk of Central Asian electricity; and the summit declaration has talked about doing something about the “transport infrastructure” in the region. It is obvious that transport infrastructure is what is lacking, and Pakistan in particular should worry about facing the same kind of difficulties with electricity pylons as it is facing with its indigenous gas pipelines.
The Central Asian region is silently moving to a new political configuration and Pakistan can no longer separate itself from it just because it is negatively preoccupied in South Asia. This is more important because the time has come to think of connecting South Asia economically with Central Asia where Russia and China are the big factors of change. Those who say that Central Asian states are sparsely populated and therefore not important from the point of view of exports from India and Pakistan, must have also taken note of how Pakistan has been consistently looking to Tajikistan for the strengthening of its national power grid; and that Tajikistan has been eying Gwadar for an outlet to the sea through Pakistan.
Pakistan has been quietly supplying the food markets of Central Asia through smuggling. The Pakistani potential for growing food crops can only be realised if it becomes a permanent source of supply to the region through secure trade routes. Food in return for electricity would be a fair deal under any circumstances. Other countries including India can also share the route facilities provided by Pakistan — an MoU in this regard has already been signed by the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan — while a recently built bridge across the Amu Darya, the river which divides Afghanistan and Tajikistan, will allow Chinese goods to be sent down to Pakistan for export from Gwadar. China has already built a new road linking Xinjiang, its westernmost province, with Tajikistan.
Where China and Russia lead the regional groupings — as they do in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — the effort is to replace terrorism with trade as the mode of communication between states. China was not in Dushanbe but its influence was unmistakable. It is the largest investor in Afghanistan and it is the closest strategic ally of Pakistan. The SCO to which all the summit members send their delegations targets Islamic extremism as the main source of terrorism in the region. President Rakhmon — he used to be Rakhmonov not long ago — guards the interests of Uzbekistan which is targeted by Tahir Yuldashev, the Uzbek warlord, who is hiding in Pakistan today and also operating against Pakistan’s interests.
It is important for Pakistan to become a player in the Central Asia region through trade and trade routes and stand firmly against the export of extremism from its non-state actors. Its geographic location sets it apart from other states of South Asia. It can enhance the importance of Central Asia and become a key regional state in the process.