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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Regional Connectivity Challenges

In pursuit of their geo-economic and geo-strategic security interests, the two global superpowers namely USA and China seem to have locked horns on domination of global commons i.e. land, sea and air lines of communications, outer space and cyberspaces. Besides, the phenomenon of guarding respective spheres of influence by big three including Russia, involves most of the other countries wittingly or unwittingly in the global chessboard. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), labelled as the world's largest infrastructure program, has so far directed investments mainly to energy and transportation networks in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. BRI investment projects are estimated to add over USD 1 trillion of outward funding for foreign infrastructure over the 10-year period from 2017. According to official data, China had invested USD 139.8 billion by 2020 in BRI projects, including USD 22.5 billion last year alone. This includes the BRI's flagship project the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in which Beijing has so far invested over USD 25 billion. Since its launch in 2013, the BRI has been well received across the globe due to its easy loan parameters. However, unsustainable loans and cases of debt traps in countries like Sri Lanka and Malaysia as well as the use of sovereign land for building China's military installations have made the BRI a cause for concern.

In response to Chinese BRI and String of Pearls, the U.S. strategic response came as Asia-Pacific Rebalancing Policy giving birth to The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the QUAD), which is a strategic security dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia. Quad is to checkmate China's growing profile as a nation giving humanitarian aid to nations across Asia and Pacific, and it wants to challenge China's soft power bid in the region. Moreover, little is known about the new quadrilateral framework announced in July 2021 between the United States, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan except that it is aimed at enhancing regional connectivity. A July 16 statement from the US State Department said the four countries aimed to “expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties” with an eye on “the historic opportunity to open flourishing interregional trade routes”. But analysts remain divided over whether the new grouping is aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region, especially its Belt and Road Initiative as some saw it as a US attempt to keep military supply lines into Afghanistan open then and after exit, remain relevant in Afghanistan and the region by ultimately seeking basing facilities for its military drones and intelligence operators.

China sees the U.S. led QUAD grouping, as part of the latter’s policy of encirclement. Therefore, besides SCO bloc, during mid-2021, ‘Himalayan Quad’ came under discussion in Chinese strategic circles raising the question whether China was about to start its own security bloc with Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan? The sudden mass uprising in Kazakhstan, quelled by deployment of Russia led CSTO’s troops and offer of similar support by China was a confirmation of the contemporary Great Game; that further gets validation by ongoing dangerous standoff between Russia and USA / NATO, on Ukraine attempting to cross Russian red-lines in her jealously guarded sphere of influence.

In addition to the bad impact of super powers’ rivalries, almost all South Asian countries have their regional borders and other political disputes, which prohibit fully capitalising on the regional connectivity as a part of above mentioned mega initiatives by China as well as USA. Indian occupied Kashmir remains the number one nuclear flash point between Pakistan and India despite fighting four wars in addition to misuse of Indus Water Treaty by India, Sir Creek and Siachen issues. Consequently, Indian quest to reach out to the big Pakistani market, Central Asia and beyond by land routes remains an unrealized dream. Pakistan also fails to benefit from close export to the Indian big market; people to people contact and bilateral tourism potential remains hostage to above stated unresolved issues due want of visionary political leadership and far right extremist state of mind reflecting in Indian state policies. Pakistan's government in August 2019 put a hold on restarting limited imports of sugar, cotton and wheat from India until New Delhi reviews its 2019 decision to revoke the Kashmir region's special status. Pakistan’s exports to India was US$167.79 thousand and India Exports to Pakistan was US$282.38 Million during 2020, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade. It is ironic to see that trade within the South Asian region makes up only 5 percent of its total commerce. The World Bank has characterised South Asia as one of the least integrated regions in the world because of this low level of trade. It is painful to see that instead of taking advantage of the ongoing mega connectivity projects, the South Asian countries continue to drift apart due foreign influence, camp politics and narrow minded self-interests. India is pursuing initiatives to its East and Pakistan is exploring opportunities in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan’s greatest connectivity project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as flagship of BRI in South Asia. CPEC lost momentum last year due to security and financing concerns, but it remains a priority for Islamabad, which hopes to expand CPEC to Kabul. Pakistan is also a part of two older projects hindered by funding difficulties: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia-1000 project, which intends to bring hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Jan. 15, Pakistan’s energy minister announced that negotiations are underway with Russia to build a gas pipeline from Kazakhstan to Pakistan. The envisioned new pipeline marks Islamabad’s latest effort to strengthen connectivity with Kabul and Central Asia—but not the rest of South Asia. Last year, Pakistan concluded a railway development agreement with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It also finalised an arrangement with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States to explore connectivity cooperation. The Taliban have previously endorsed cross-border infrastructure projects, including TAPI. Pakistan’s growing relations with Russia will help it navigate Central Asia, where Moscow exerts great influence and Islamabad seeks to outcompete New Delhi. Russian President Putin is planning to make maiden visit to Pakistan soon.

On the other side, India is hosting a virtual summit for Central Asian leaders on 27 January 2022 to discuss Afghanistan and regional connectivity options. India has also leveraged its membership in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) toward integration, which includes five South Asian states—but not Pakistan—along with Myanmar and Thailand, resulting in electricity-sharing deals with Bangladesh and Nepal. Bimstec is an attractive commercial partner: Its members boast a combined GDP of nearly $3 trillion. Nevertheless, on Jan. 16, Nepal objected to India building roads on disputed territory. On Jan, 13, India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka confirmed a $400 million currency swap between the countries to replenish Sri Lanka’s plummeting foreign reserves. India’s move comes against a backdrop of intensifying competition with China in Sri Lanka. India capitalised on a spat between Sri Lanka and China over contaminated fertiliser. Another interesting development in the region is a proposed $500 million MCC (a U.S. government agency) grant to Nepal for new road and power projects to promote economic growth.

If South Asia is to meaningfully benefit from the regional connectivity, the biggest challenges of staying away from becoming a pawn in the Great Powers’ Politics and overcoming bilateral or multilateral disputes through peaceful resolution by exploring the middle grounds is the only way forward. A Utopian dream the realisation of which is prone to remain elusive sans great leadership and providence.

27 January 2022

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