Crossroads Asia

Tajikistan: Pakistan’s Gateway to Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia

Tajikistan: Pakistan’s Gateway to Central Asia

Islamabad and Dushanbe have grown closer, pulled together by mutually beneficial energy projects.

Tajikistan: Pakistan’s Gateway to Central Asia
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Tajikistan, a Central Asian state formerly part of the Soviet Union, has an area of 143,100 square kilometers and a population of 7.1 million. The country borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It is separated from Pakistan by the Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan. This narrow strip of Afghan territory acts as a barrier between Pakistan and Central Asia, while stretching westwards to provide Afghanistan with a border to China.

The existence of the Wakhan corridor is a reflection of the 19th century geopolitical contest between the British Raj in India and the Russian Empire, the “Great Game.” Afghanistan became the buffer between the two powers; and thus no territory previously under the British Raj touches Central Asia directly.

The development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the larger One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative provides Pakistan access to Tajikistan from Gilgit-Baltistan via China using the Karakorum highway; therefore Pakistan is able to bypass Afghanistan to access Tajikistan. This also implies that Tajikistan is Pakistan’s nearest Central Asian neighbor and hence Pakistan’s gateway to Central Asia. It also highlights the vital importance of Gilgit-Baltistan in ensuring Pakistan’s linkages with China and Central Asia, which is essential for the geoeconomic future of Pakistan.   

Besides mere geographical proximities, Pakistan and Tajikistan share many historical, religious, and cultural linkages. During the 8th century, the land mass of what is today Pakistan and Tajikistan existed within the same entity under the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital in Damascus. Tajikistan later came under the rule of the Persian Samanid dynasty, which also extended to parts of contemporary Pakistan. Pre-independent India was also heavily influenced by Arab-Persian culture. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire and even the Sikh Empire.

Pakistan and Tajikistan share common membership in various multilateral organizations. As Muslim majority countries, both are part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); it is a core element of Pakistan’s foreign policy to develop fraternal bonds with Muslim countries. The two countries are also members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process. Such shared groupings between Pakistan and Tajikistan allow numerous opportunities for interaction to take place between the leaders, delegates, and diplomats of both countries on the sidelines of various summits. This is thus a contributory factor to the cordial relations between Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Pakistan and Tajikistan are also soon to be part of another agreement known as the Quadrilateral Transit Traffic Agreement (QTTA), the current signatories of which are Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. During the March 2017 ECO Summit in Islamabad, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon on the sidelines of the Summit and reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for the in-principle approval of Tajikistan’s accession to the QTTA. Perhaps the QTTA will soon have to be renamed as it would no longer be “Quadrilateral” but rather a “Pentalateral” agreement.

A very significant initiative that binds Pakistan and Tajikistan together is the CASA-1000 project (Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Program), one of the direct linkages between South Asia and Central Asia. CASA-1000 is a landmark energy export agreement between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (two Central Asian and two South Asian countries). As Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan generate electricity using hydropower, they enjoy a surplus of electricity during the hot summer months, while suffering from energy deficits during cold winter months. As the excess electricity generated in summer cannot be stored and used in winter, much of this electricity is wasted.

In Pakistan, demand for electricity peaks during summer and the country often experiences load shedding. Energy is currently the top issue on Pakistan’s public policy agenda, along with CPEC. Solving the power crisis is crucial to Pakistan’s poverty alleviation and economic development. Moreover, energy is critical to the ruling party; the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Now-former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been going around the country promising to end load shedding forever in Pakistan by 2018.

Energy is not just about electrical power, but also political power for the PML-N. Delivering on its electricity promises is instrumental in upholding the popularity of the PML-N amidst the recent judicial ruling that led to the dismissal of Sharif.

The CASA-1000 project is, if implemented, a win-win situation for both South and Central Asia. If Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can sell excess electricity to Pakistan in the summer, they will be able to use the revenue gained to manage winter shortages.

Afghanistan announced last year that it would abandon its proposed 300 megawatt share of energy imports via the CASA-1000 project due to a lack of demand. Its allocation would then be transferred to Pakistan, which is now set to receive 1,300 megawatts, rather than the initial 1,000 megawatts proposed. Thus Pakistan would be the main importer of energy under the CASA-1000 project.

In early July 2017, Sharif paid a two-day official visit to Tajikistan, his fourth since June 2014. Rahmon has visited Pakistan twice since November 2015.

In his speech during the joint press conference in Dushanbe, Sharif said, “Pakistan and Tajikistan have a common understanding on many issues. We believe that all regional and global issues must be resolved through dialogue and peaceful means within the framework of international law. We remain advocates of a ‘peaceful neighborhood’ and ‘peace for development.’ The courage to remain steadfast to the principles of ‘peace,’ however, must never be mistaken for ‘weakness.’” 

Shairf also went on to speak about the importance of road, rail, and air connectivity, which he said was “crucial for regional integration and the promotion of bilateral trade, tourism, and people-to-people contacts.”

Sharif also announced the joint resolve of Pakistan and Tajikistan toward “strategic cooperation in all spheres, particularly economy, trade, investment, energy, and defense.” This reflects the value that Tajikistan holds for Pakistan which translates into a mutual desire to develop bilateral relations further.

During the same press conference, Rahmon stated,“Both parties believe that comprehensive and constructive cooperation fully meets the long-term interests of the peoples of our countries. At the same time I have to emphasize that it will give a serious impetus to boosting regional integration and strengthening of peace and stability in the wider Central and South Asia.” This indicates that the relationship between Pakistan and Tajikistan is not just an ordinary one between two countries but ties that connect two regions.

Rahmon also expressed his desire to “use the opportunities provided by Pakistan’s seaports and existing transit networks to expand trade at the regional level” given that his country is a landlocked state.

During the visit Pakistan and Tajikistan also signed a joint declaration titled “Road towards strategic partnership for regional solidarity.”

On the second day of Sharif’s visit Rahmon hosted a tripartite meeting; the two leaders were joined by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In those meetings, the three leaders “discussed economic and security challenges being faced by the region due to poor connectivity and infrastructure and resolved to jointly work together to promote regional cooperation and connectivity for shared prosperity.”

According to Asia-PlusSharif also emphasized “Pakistan’s commitment to modernize facilities for speedy transit of goods to and from Afghanistan and Tajikistan through Pakistani seaports. In order to streamline regional transit traffic, he emphasized early finalization of Trilateral Transit Trade Agreement.”

This shows that Pakistan’s infrastructure developments, supported by CPEC, can function as a mechanism to provide Afghanistan and the Central Asian states access to the Arabian Sea and thus potentially lead to higher regional trade volumes.

Pakistan is not just a South Asian country; it is a country with multiregional characteristics. Pakistan’s geostrategic location, situated along major trade routes that link regions with each other, plays the role of a catalyst in boosting not only trade levels within the region but also the aggregate global trade volume. The focus that Sharif has placed on infrastructure development, though often criticized for being at the expense of the social sector, has provided Pakistan with something to offer its neighbors in Central Asia in terms of access to the Arabian Sea, as well as other spillover effects from CPEC. From observing the manner in which Sharif promoted the economic attractiveness of Pakistan abroad it can be inferred that infrastructure is now not only a developmental issue but it can also be a used as a tool to achieve foreign policy objectives. This increases Pakistan’s bargaining power when dealing with regional powers. Tajikistan is the most important Central Asian country for Pakistan, as it is Pakistan’s gateway to Central Asia.

Anish Mishra is an expert analyst on Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. He was a former Research Intern at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly personal.