Geocultural interactions between Central Asia and South Asia date back a long time. But as the skies turned from east to west, a link was broken, and the glory was lost. On closer inspection, what may at first glance look like China’s ambitious revitalization of the ancient Silk Road turns out to be a grand strategy with a trickle-down effect, awakening low-income countries in the region to their importance as pivots and the essentiality of forging ties and erecting connectivity along geographical, cultural, and historical proximities. Xi Jinping was in Kazakhstan in the year 2013 when the world, for the first time, heard of the Silk Road Revival; the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was its new name.
Central Asia: The Old Route
The fact that the first mention of this huge maritime and economic connectivity plan emerged from a country in Central Asia speaks clearly of how China was envisioning its execution. For the ancient Silk Road, Central Asia was the westward outlet, as were today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. But with Central Asian countries and Afghanistan being landlocked, Pakistan and Iran assumed centrality in the maritime projection of the BRI.
With 261 Chinese projects in Central Asia as of 2019, the whole project-driven activity enhanced a sense in the host countries that economic gains and large trade volumes are not just a possibility but a desirability. And that they do not have to look far west to walk out of the stagnant puddles stroking them at their feet; exchanging commodities, energy, and services with nearby countries will reap magnanimous fruit.
While Europe has lived through the climax of regional integration, Asia’s century of regionalism has just started. It would not be wrong to credit China for the dawn of this age. The Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation, mediated by China, is another development in Asia’s regionalism before countries in South and Central Asia, as well as West Asia in some cases, began thinking in terms of infrastructure projects. Aside from China’s unrivaled role as a mediator, the agreement, whose implementation will soon follow, serves as a case study demonstrating how an ideological rivalry as well as a competition for dominating the region can change and weaken when the two sides see opportunities for gains from cooperation and interdependence.
China’s Grand Ambition
Another illustration that Asia, and South Asia in particular, can provide is that of China and India. The Galwan Valley confrontation of forces in 2020 is too fresh in the memories of both countries. A level of escalation not seen in four decades could not stop the two sides from keeping the flow of bilateral economic activity smooth and uninterrupted. In fact, the following year saw a 43.2% increase in trade. As strategically divergent as two countries can be, no compromise has been observed in the spinning of the economic wheel. Though mutual trust is affected by this episode and the limited confrontation at Tawang in 2022, and a consequent increase in India’s defense budget for 2023–24 by 13% speaks well of it, no major cut-off in economic exchange has ever surfaced over these past 2 years.
Coming back to the BRI and how it served as a doorway to the imagination for the low-income South and Central Asian states, who got a glimpse of what can be achieved if small and big corridors of transit are materialized, Here, as a case in point, I will speak specifically of Pakistan and Afghanistan—the two countries that look forward to infrastructural connectivity projects as a redemption and sustained solution to their common and shared problems.
With Afghanistan’s control coming back to Afghans, the country sure needs a firm economic base to stand on, because being trapped in a circle that takes them back to foreign intervention and control would be the last thing the Taliban want. This means utilizing to the fullest the help and cooperation coming from the nearest countries. Though the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s extension to Afghanistan is a proposal that remains in consideration, it was Uzbekistan that floated the idea of a trilateral Trans-Afghan Railway Line Project in 2018. At a time when hopes were high in Pakistan pertaining to CPEC, it welcomed Uzbekistan’s proposal as well.
Pakistan and Afghanistan: A New Era
By providing a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia to the world through its ports, with Gwadar being a new addition under CPEC, Pakistan hopes to maximize energy imports from Central Asia and its routine bilateral trade with Afghanistan. Owing to the situation in Afghanistan, the Trans-Afghan Railway Project was slow in the beginning until recently, when feasibility studies inside Afghanistan were completed and shared in a trilateral working group meeting. The railroad is already laid down until Mazar e Sharif, and the major work now is extending it to Torkham, where it will enter Pakistan and merge with the already-existing rail network.
As Uzbekistan will get a rail transit for its imports and exports to travel via Afghanistan and Pakistan to and from the latter’s ports, Pakistan and Afghanistan will get a direct rail link for bilateral freight to be transported without having to face delays as is usually the case at border crossings. The railroad will be electric, and this means the trade will be quicker.
In addition, there are a few other similar projects that hold the promise of quicker and smoother trade and transit as well as swift energy transmission to the energy-starved Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Plans to construct a highway that connects Pakistan’s Chitral to Badakhshan in Afghanistan are in the early stages, while the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline is underway and will fulfill huge natural gas demand inside Pakistan and Afghanistan upon completion.
As the distribution of resources has it, the central and southern zones of Asia are abundant in resources, and their exchange inside the region is the best alternative to looking west. Timely investments in connecting infrastructure can bring self-reliance to the region and make these countries the pivots they once were along the magnificent Silk Road.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.