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Pakistan must cultivate an Eurasian identity for its growth

SAM SPECIAL-ENG-16-11-2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out earlier this year, it was believed that it would stall ongoing changes in global relations. Some people were hoping that China’s march towards a leading role in the international economy and politics and the newly evolving alliance between Russia and China would not be sustainable. But reality has been different. 

The contrast between the dismal handling of the corona crisis by the US and its efficient handling by China coupled with its success in bringing about fast economic recovery, have reinforced the perception that there has been a shift of economic and political leadership from the West to ‘Eurasia’. 

Pakistan has an identity crisis, physically and to an extent commercially, because of its geographical location. Culturally and historically it is part of three areas: South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Eurasia constitutes the consecutive land mass from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. It includes these areas as well as East Asia, South-East Asia and Europe. Predicted to be the centre of development or the ‘Pivot of History’ a hundred years ago, this vision is about to come true. 

China’s far-sighted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims at physically connecting the huge land mass by road, rail and pipeline as well as by establishing and securing maritime connections. Having risen Phoenix-like from the ashes after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia, which for a short period of time tried to come to terms with the West, has now directed its gaze firmly Eastwards by forging a strong alliance with China and also towards the Indian Ocean.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and other mainly economic organizations have been created to work out the details of the new “Eurasian” connection. There are tensions and problems, but the underlying fundamental new accord holds fast. Attempts from the outside to break it have not succeeded.

New members in this alliance are Turkey and Iran. Mistreated by the West and the US despite being a NATO member, Turkey is a developing regional power that needs to be acknowledged as a land bridge to Eurasia. Suffering from nearly four decades of economic sanctions which have prevented it from realizing its economic potential, Iran stands ready for its potential to be exploited because of the new reality. With corporate integration into the Eurasian community, Pakistan will also be in a much better situation.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has developed into an international community of leaders from business, politics, arts and media. Its growing influence on the decision-making process in economics and politics in the global arena can be seen. With the world moving towards a multi-polar order, leaders and experts urgently need to collaborate across regional, political and national boundaries. 

The WEF’s “Global Platform for Geo-strategic Collaboration” brings top quality, evidence-based research to a wider audience and creates a space to promote shared understanding. 

Represented in this important organization through several Pakistani business groups, Pakistan is taking an active part in its work and making its presence as a member of the global community felt. 

So far, Pakistan has been working within the Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) group. Recent developments in the Middle East and the Gulf region are not in conformity with existing foreign policies. So, the Middle East and the MENA Region do not have Pakistan’s primary attention anymore and vice-versa. Not grouped with South Asia, Pakistan was only a bystander in the context of the MENA group. The growing alliance with China through BRI and CPEC makes Iran and Central Asia much more important for Pakistan.

The BRI and its principal component, CPEC, have brought into focus the ECO. This was established in 1985 as a substitute for the US/UK-inspired Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) comprising Iran, Pakistan and Turkey as the economic arm of the anti-communist Baghdad Pact and its successor, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). 

The ECO was expanded in 1992 to include seven new members i.e. Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Republic of Uzbekistan. 

Twice the size of EU, the world’s most successful regional grouping, ECO occupies 8m sq kms with a population of 440 million (2013 figures), making 6.20% of total global population. It enjoys proximity to Russia, China, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. ECO’s total trade was US$688 billion in 2015 with the combined GDP of around US$1.96 bn. The average GDP per capita was US$ 4300. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows reached US$37.7 billion in 2015. The BRI of China will certainly commit much more to ECO. 

A land bridge between Europe and Asia, ECO’s railway transport network is presently 55,000 km long. It covers: (1) Turkey-Iran-Pakistan Train Network, a part of their Trilateral Connectivity Networks covering connectivity through rail, road, air and optic fibre. The journey (6566 km) from Islamabad to Istanbul via Tehran takes 14-16 days, as compared to 40-45 days from Karachi to a Turkish sea port. An agreement has been reached to cut the journey time from 15 to 10 days through swift trains (2) Turkey-Iran-Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan train network. This will bring together the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, Asian countries, China, Russia, Turkey and Europe, shortening the previous route that ran from Kazakhstan along the Turkmen-Uzbek border and to Iran by 600 km, making the journey two days shorter (3) 80% progress has already been achieved in Qazvin-Rasht Segment (164 km) of Azerbaijan-Iran which means 60% progress in the whole Qazvin-Rasht-Astara route (4) Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway. This link is strategically situated for the parties involved as it connects Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, via Iran, to be connected to the railway network for access to ports. The railway will facilitate the access of European countries (direct route) to the Persian Gulf ports. 

Three times shorter than the Suez Canal route, the several Eurasia Corridors will play an important role in creating new commercial and social environments in the region near the Caspian Sea and north territories from Bereket to the border with Kazakhstan.  

Establishing road corridors serving as trade enhancement projects for the region creates a solid foundation of economic complementarities. With the biggest reserve of oil, natural gas and mineral resources and its unique geo-strategic position of being the shortest trade and transit route to Europe and Africa, this region is ideal for developing transport and communication facilities. The abundance of rich energy resources makes ECO potentially an engine of world economic growth. 

Recognizing this new reality, the WEF invited Pakistan, the eastern anchor of the ECO grouping, to join the Eurasia Group, “a community that drives a pan-regional and cross-industry dialogue, with the objective of helping navigate Eurasia’s economic development and recovery in an era of crisis-induced uncertainty. The Group interacts regularly in order to define key growth opportunities for the region and develop new perspectives and recommendations to drive Eurasia’s digital transformation, enhance competitiveness and bolster resilience.”

Pakistan will take part in the next (virtual) meeting of the group in December. This is a quantum leap for Pakistan’s geo-political and economic options. Pakistan has been in a bit of an identity crisis with its major attachment to the US about to vanish. What is overdue is improved relations with its immediate neighbour Iran. Relations with a strong and self-assured Turkey are also key. 

Under the Imran Khan government, Pakistan has started on the path of reform. That has become necessary in view of the deplorable state of Pakistan’s administration, bureaucracy, and educational system. First, steps for improvement are being taken. The corona pandemic that has hit Pakistan’s economy hard has been handled so far quite successfully especially in the face of a weak healthcare system. While talking to CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently, former US Treasury Secretary, former President Harvard University and renowned economist Lawrence Summers, has opined that had America handled the coronavirus pandemic, as well as Pakistan, has done, it could have saved trillions of dollars. Thus, despite of all problems that are chasing us, there is some success as well and there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Pakistan now needs to make itself more aware of Eurasia and communicate this to our people. A good example in this regard is Turkey which has been successfully handling its economy based on its new analysis of what the national interest of the country would be in future. Similarly making its choices freely and confidently, Pakistan’s being represented in the Eurasia Group is a step in this very direction.

(The writer is a defence and security analyst).