Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal TI(M)*
*The author is a retired Air Commodore of Pakistan Air Force and its former Assistant Chief of Air Staff. He is the founding Chairperson of online think tank, Pakistan Focus.
(Conceptually, connectivity and integration (collectively Connectegration) are not confined to building roads, rails, air links or ports; it also includes soft connectivity i.e. sharing of ideas, knowledge, information technology, culture, and unified action to tackle issues of common concerns, that may, at times, call for departure from traditional concepts of nationalism, sovereignty, etc. History is replete with evolution and evaporation of inter-region and intra-region connectegration initiatives. Making and breaking these ventures is critically dependent on economy of scales, security imperatives, popular acceptance and resource mobilisation under the broader umbrella of collective political will. Brexit has amply demonstrated anti-climax of the myth about EU which had been globally romanticised by proponents of connectivity and integration. President Trump’s walking away from Trans-Pacific Partnership 1 (TPP), alongside an expression of intent regarding renegotiation of North American Free Trade Agreement 2 (NAFTA), and Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” strategy 3 indicate that the global economic environment may be striving to transform from cooperative to nationalist sentiment. Notwithstanding, the World has become increasingly interdependent and many global multilateral and regional institutions continue to promote connectegration via peace, political stability and human resource development. China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is a new hope of connectegration within Asia and beyond 4. This paper examines the enablers and inhibitors to connectivity between Central and South Asia and draw qualitative conclusions with regard to extent and limits of its connectegration viability. – Author)
Contemporary connectegration efforts are also overshadowed by a large number of geo political conflicts, growing threats of violent extremism, forcible displacement of millions of people, accelerated environmental degradation and rising inequality. As a result, there is widespread pessimism among the common people about the present system of global, and as a corollary, regional governance 5.
There are a number of connectivity projects competing in the two regions—South Asia and Central Asia. On its part, Pakistan is committed to enhancing connectivity between the two regions through improvements in its transport, trade logistics and energy sectors. The flagship project in this regard is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), linking Western China to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea. It has fascinated a number of countries from these two regions and beyond. This connectivity venture is a potential game changer for the region as it would be a catalyst for economic activity and integration amongst Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It would benefit around three billion people of the region.
Energy connectivity to integrate surplus energy resources of Central Asia with large energy markets of South Asia is an international agenda point. Two projects, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity project are already under implementation. Two variants of the erstwhile Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipelines – the Iran-Pakistan pipeline and the Iran India Pipeline – are also at various stages of implementation.
While the EU and the US may be weary of their integration ventures, the connectivity urge between South Asia and Central Asia has gathered critical mass, in terms of political will, to manifest into appropriate structures and public support ventures leading to sustainable connectivity. It is premature to gauge whether or not this effort would lead to the EU model politico-economic integration. Britain is well into the process of exiting from the EU, even though it is striving to make it politically and economically less painful. Winston Churchill envisioned the EU back in 1946: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe”. The path his country chose 70 years later through a sheer political fiasco – an uncalled-for referendum – that threw up numerous paradoxes is ironic. Scottish chants for independence are just one of such fallouts.
Nonetheless, Britain’s decision to leave the EU is a lesson in moderation. During these seven decades, most of European states remained fixated on the idea of building an “ever closer union,” hoping to create a political federation. However, the contemporary leadership of Britain foresaw the dangers of a withering away sovereignty and had preferred to limit itself to market integration. Some analysts are of the view that Britain’s departure may only be notional and a status quo may be maintained through bilateral arrangements. One has to wait and see how things unfold. For the time being, the future of the EU hinges on how much heavy lifting Germany choses to do and for how long. As of now, Germany is supporting a couple of EU economies whose fault lines run far beyond temporary bandage action.
Asia is better dealt with as a continental level entity. Its compartmentalization entails attendant problems by adding ambiguities, and this limitation is valid in the context of connectivity and integration issues as well. Asia’s infrastructure needs are huge and growing. A candid Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimate in 2010 indicted that Asia required to spend approximately $8 trillion on developing its infrastructure between 2010 and 2020 6. The study said that if the required facilities were built, it could generate an income of additional $4.5 trillion through 2020 and another $8.5 trillion after that 7.
With demand for funding in the infrastructure sector running so high in Asia, and still ticking upwards, infrastructure is now at front and centre with most international and national financial institutions 8. While the Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank AIIB focuses exclusively on the development of Asia’s infrastructure, the World Bank has also launched the “Global Infrastructure Facility” for infrastructure projects that can mobilise private investment as well. Asia Development Bank and some flag ship national institutions such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation are also focusing on financing transport and other infrastructure projects. Japan has announced a credit package of $110 billion for infrastructure financing in Asia 9.
Most recently, it is China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative that has grabbed international attention. It has a liquidity backing of 40 billion US dollar by Silk Road Fund and $100 billion by the AIIB 10. Initial activities will be geared towards building basic infrastructure.
Beijing is planning six economic corridors along the OBOR route: China-Mongolia-Russia; New Eurasian Land Bridge; China-Central and West Asia; China-Indo-China Peninsula; China-Pakistan; and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar 11. Of these, the flagship project is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), linking Western China to Pakistani ports of the Arabian Sea. 12 It has also fascinated a number of countries from South Asia, Central Asia and beyond. It is being perceived as a catalyst for economic activity and integration amongst Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, West Asia, North Africa and Europe, benefiting around three billion people of three continents 13. CPEC is indeed the project of the future, with a number of countries of South Asia and Central Asia gravitating to it.14 The expression on intent has been phenomenal 15. During coming years, all routes for access to and from markets of China, and projects like TAPI and CASA are likely to need a ride through CPEC.
History is replete with mushrooming up and melting down of inter-region and intra-region connectivity initiatives. Making and breaking of these ventures is critically dependent on collective political will. Both South Asia and Central Asia have numerous intra-regional issues 16. Viable land route for connecting the two regions passes through Afghanistan 17, often included in both regions. However, there are only remote chances of Afghanistan becoming stable and peaceful enough to provide route security. Apart from Gwadar, the only other port is Chabahar that has serious capacity issues 18. CPEC sidesteps both these problems. It is Gwadar focused and can provide alternative land route to enter Central Asia from Khunjrab via Tajikistan. The people of South Asia and Central Asia romanticise with the concept of integration and draw their inspiration from various historic narratives. The two sub regions enjoyed fairly good connectivity till the beginning of the Great Game characterized by Anglo-Russian rivalry during the 19th and 20th centuries 19.
South Asia, denoted by the present-day countries which were under the British Raj, inherited a well-knit rail/ road infrastructure from the colonialists. These countries could interconnect at, proverbially, an instant’s notice 20. However, the powerful faultlines intentionally seeded by the colonial rulers before their departure have since grown into powerful trees, making meaningful interstate connectivity leading to a viable economic integration a distant dream. India’s economic blockade of Nepal in 2015 after promulgation of the latter’s new constitution 21, frequent disruption of intra-Kashmir trade 22, difficulties faced by Samjhota Express 23, and the recently unveiled Indian plan to seal its entire border with Pakistan by end 2018 24 are some of the indicators in this regard.
Moreover, elements of the Neo-Great Game characterized by America’s “Asia-Pacific Rebalance Strategy” have reinforced the existing fault lines in South Asia while adding more at the continental level 25. Now Asia stands clearly divided in two camps, those who support the Indo-US ‘contain China doctrine’ and those who oppose it. Moreover, American vision of the World Order is to have a unipolar world led by the US itself; and a multipolar Asia divided in 4-5 and competing power centres 26. Countries within South Asia and its neighbourhood are aligned with opposite camps. With battle lines clearly drawn and visible, a doomsday shadow on the prospects of meaningful intra South Asia connectivity is clearly discernable. And, as a corollary, South Asia-Central Asia connectivity is marred by expediency driven political considerations 27.
Likewise, Central Asia comprises of the republics that remained victim of the legendary iron curtain by erstwhile USSR for about seven decades 28. This prevented contact between the two regions, and direction of intra Central Asia connectivity was Moscow oriented 29. During the Soviet era, most of the Central Asian Republics were reduced to single commodity economies 30. Thus, these republics became increasingly dependent on each other as well as the USSR; in the bargain, however, they became and remain adequately connected. Russia still considers these republics as its backyard and is zealously guarding these against any foreign, especially American, intrusion, be it military or economic. This approach has become more entrenched since the Crimean crisis in 2014 31, and subsequently NATO’s elbowing actions in Ukraine and other close proximity pressure points of the Russian Federation 32.
Afghanistan is a bridgehead for Central Asia and South Asia (CASA) interregional connectivity. Multiple invasions of Afghanistan during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries by major powers led to raising of connectivity infrastructure to Afghanistan from and to all directions of CASA. Earlier on, rulers of Afghan and Central Asian origin had invaded India to its farthest extents, multiple times. That is another way of assessing the viability of connectivity infrastructure.
The connectivity gaps that existed were filled by the Americans out of necessity of supplying their troops in post 9/11 Afghanistan. First, it used two routes connecting Karachi port to Afghanistan via Torkham and Chamman. 33 Later the Northern Distribution Network to connect the Baltic and Caspian ports with Salang pass of Afghanistan via Central Asia was developed 34. India filled another gap by developing a ring-road in Afghanistan 35. And the good old Grand Trunk road connects Kolkata with Torkham 36. India is already trading with Afghanistan through Karachi port and importing Afghan perishables through Wagah border 37. Thus, both regions carry a legacy of inter connectivity.
The South Asian Region is grappling with major developmental challenges like poverty, inadequate social development, energy insecurity, insufficient infrastructural development 38, etc. The region has had its own share of political strife as well. However, some studies suggest that “given the rich natural and human resource availability, industrial base, services sector dynamism and macroeconomic resilience, the South Asian region offers complementary economic structures that are quite conducive to South Asia – Central Asia economic integration” 39.
SAARC is the main body for governing South Asian regionalism. Since its inception three decades ago, SAARC has developed an impressive thought process. The institutional framework has had some achievements, but in economic areas like trade and investment, SAARC’s performance remains far from satisfactory 40. Intra-regional trade still accounts for only 5 per cent — despite 12 years of regional trade stimulus by the SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) and 10 years of SAFTA. Trade in services is also low and the progress of South Asia Trade in Services (SATIS), which came into operation in 2010, has been uneven and slow. Furthermore, intra-regional investment also remains low — below 5 per cent 41. SAARC’s ability to promote economic integration in South Asia has all along been questionable. One of the biggest impediments to SAARC’s progress has been the continued conflicts between India and Pakistan, India and China, alongside instability in Afghanistan.
In 1947, more than half of Pakistan’s imports came from India and nearly two-thirds of its exports went to India. At that time, trade among South Asian countries accounted for around 20 per cent of their total trade. Presently, it stands at a mere 5 per cent. To bypass Pakistan, India is showing inclination towards the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) 42, which is not a substitute of SAARC, as Pakistan and Afghanistan are not its members. With Pakistan and India joining SCO, SAARC may further loose its priority 43.
According to Professor S.D. Muni, India’s policy towards China revolves around 4 ‘C’s: containment, conflict, competition and cooperation 44. Various groups in India support different ‘C’s: the Indian business community supports competition, while part of the military supports containment, the bureaucracy calls for cooperation, and so on. Thus, India’s overall policy stance toward China is confused and diluted by the interests of various lobbies 45. Likewise, India’s Afghanistan policy is aimed at marginalizing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and to block Pakistan’s access to Central Asia 46. This zero-sum approach by India has resulted in a political stalemate amongst China-Pakistan-India triangle, thus impeding the prospects of any meaningful cooperation within South Asia.
There are significant constraints to trade and investment integration internally within Central Asia and South Asia, as well as between Central and South Asia, especially pertaining to: trade policy, connectivity, banking infrastructure, insurance, interstate territorial and resource disputes, impacts of neo-great game, etc 47. Apart from trade barriers, other issues include: complex tariff schedules, relatively higher tariffs, double taxation and, in some cases, restrictions on access to foreign exchange. Constraints are also faced in trade facilitating customs procedures as they are at differing levels of evolution in the Central and South Asian regions and they lack harmonization across countries 48. There are deficiencies of transport networks and logistics services. Non-trade barriers of various hues are another challenging issue. Shortfall in transit facilities is another handicap. Limited air connectivity also restricts business-to-business contacts, educational & health services, tourism linkages, etc. Likewise, requisite upgradation of the banking sector for trade and investment integration at the regional and inter-regional levels for economic growth and development needs attention. Furthermore, several areas of trade finance, credit guarantee and insurance facilities remain underdeveloped in the two regions. Lack of adequate financial intermediation is acting as a major constraint on trade-related issues and flow of FDI, thus preventing a trustworthy business environment.
The investment climate also remains unpredictable in Central Asia. It is characterized by confusing laws and regulations, often enforced arbitrarily 49. Problems for investments have been identified in the realms of land property rights that have not yet been fully established in most of the countries 50. Policy reforms focusing on privatization and restructuring of the larger economic entities are far from complete. Moreover, registration and licensing procedures are time-consuming and need rationalization. Some South Asian countries too are under-developed in this respect. In a nutshell, doing business in these two regions is difficult 51.
The moment has come when both regions need to connect and integrate to address their developmental challenges. In this regard, some internationally sponsored initiatives to facilitate connectivity are: Istanbul Process- Heart of Asia Initiative, United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC).
Afghanistan has a key role to play in the connectivity of Central Asia and South Asia. Its sinking economy is a point of concern. The United States has spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan to cushion the sinking ship of the country’s economy, but there are no visible signs of improvement. Connectivity of the two regions via Afghanistan would, inter alia, help its economy through transit fee receipts.
- According to a 2016 report published by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), multibillion-dollar American investment in Afghan economy was spent uselessly 52.
- Though the US poured $113 billion into the Afghan economy from 2002 to 2015, the socio-economic situation in the country showed no signs of improvement and continues to worsen 53.
- From a total of 44 projects sponsored by the US, only 20 were completed and received by Afghan officials 54.
- Report cited different problems for the failure including illicit and unprofessional planning of the programmes and baseless projects, for instance, the Taliban reintegration support fund.
- Low efficiency of anti-drug projects on which billions of dollars were spent.
- Misappropriation of huge amounts of money invested in the construction of schools and hospitals by local officials.
- According to the World Bank, the deteriorating security environment and persisting political uncertainty continue to undermine private-sector confidence 55.
- A report from the United Nations estimates that regional trade and construction of the energy transmission market will increase the GDP of Central Asian countries and Afghanistan by 50 percent within a decade 56. For Afghanistan, these projects will increase the annual GDP growth from 8.8 percent to 12.7 percent, which has the effect of creating 771,000 full time jobs in the economy 57.
Broader Prospect of Regional Connectivity
This is the moment for Afghanistan to work towards intra-Afghan integration and strong regional cooperation in order to steer out of economic problems. Instead, the Afghan government is engaged in a blame game with Pakistan. CPEC offers numerous opportunities for all countries of the two regions. Almost all Central Asian states have expressed interest in becoming part of the CPEC. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran want to join as well as invest in CPEC; some other ME countries are also contemplating to participate and invest. Of all neighbours, Iran has acted prudently. Despite owning Chabahar, it has not overlooked its limitations 58 and has opted to participate in CPEC.
Through CPEC Pakistan would be able to act as a bridge between the Asian, European and African continents. During the first International Silk Road Cultural Expo at Dunhuang in September 2016, 85 countries participated. This sent a powerful message regarding the project’s focus on inclusiveness 59. In July 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had also announced the ‘New Silk Road Strategy’ 60 for stabilizing Afghanistan, promoting trade, economic cooperation and development in the wider Central Asian region. This was a much smaller project than OBOR, and it fizzled out rather soon.
Asia is going through a huge process of connectivity through numerous infrastructure related projects. Some important ongoing connectivity projects in South Asia and Central Asia are 61: the Five Nations Railway corridor (linking China to Iran via Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan); and the regional energy integration projects, including: the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) natural gas pipeline, CASA-1000 and the TUTAP(Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) electricity transmission line. Organizations focusing on various aspects of connectivity in these regions are: AIIB, ECO, HoA, SCO, REECA (Regional Economic Conference for Afghanistan), SAARC, ADB, World Bank, Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and the Colombo Plan, the Desk for the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Centre on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific (CIRDAP), Asian Europe Meeting (ASEM), etc.
According to China’s Department of Outward Investment and Economic Co-operation in the Ministry of Commerce, China has established 118 economic and trade co-operation zones in 50 countries around the world 62. These are set up in the host countries, with Chinese enterprises forming the mainstay, based on the market situation. Of these zones, 77 are established in 23 countries along the Belt and Road. There are 35 co-operation zones in countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt 63.
China has been engaged in a number of bridge development projects in Bangladesh, as well as the development of power plants, communications and roads in Pakistan 64. It has also played a key role in developing sea ports in Pakistan (Gwadar), Bangladesh (Chittagong) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota). Such development work has gone a long way towards enhancing the production base, supply capacity and local connectivity of most South Asian countries.
Over the years, China has been involved in a number of key trade bodies in South Asia. Examples include China seeking ‘Dialogue Partner’ status in 2000 in the Indian Ocean Rim Association 65 (IORA) and, in 2001, seeking membership in the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA). India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are all members of both IORA and APTA. More recent examples include China seeking ‘Observer Status’ in SAARC in 2007, initiating the annual Kunming Trade Fair for South Asian trade promotion in 2007, and a dialogue with some SAARC countries to revive both land and maritime silk routes in 2013 and early 2014.
China’s economic outreach in the South Asian region has grown considerably since the late 1990s. In 2012, India’s trade with its South Asian neighbours — those in the SAARC — amounted to US$17 billion, compared to China’s trade with the same countries to the tune of US$25 billion 66. China is currently the largest trading partner of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the second largest trading partner of Sri Lanka and Nepal 67.
China has overtaken traditional donors to South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; since 2009, China has become Sri Lanka’s largest donor. China’s financial assistance to Pakistan is also substantial. During the last three years Chinese investment has grown rapidly in some South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The current financial assistance-based entry of China to South Asia has some similarities with the FDI based entry of Japan to East Asia in the 1980s 68. China’s investment in infrastructure projects has begun to deliver results.
India has chosen to oppose CPEC publicly and has setup a fund of the tune of US$ 300 million under its National Security Adviser to impede its execution. Its public standing on the issue is that a portion of CPEC is passing through disputed territory 69. The Trump administration has also adopted the Indian stance, “The One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate,” US Defence Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee 70. Indo-US convergence on this point is weak as both have been living with the passage of Karakoram Highway through the same territory. Actually, both these countries feel that CPEC counter balances their collective vision of containing China.
Global Trends: Comparative Analysis of Major Regional Integration Initiatives
Soon after Brexit, Strategic Forecasting Inc. Stratfor issued a seven-part series examining how the world’s regional economic blocs are faring. This study traced the evolution of six other regional blocs — Mercosur, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the East African Community, the Eurasian Economic Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — assessing the geopolitical forces that first drew them together and the underlying constraints that will ultimately keep their integrationist appetites in check. Pertinent conclusions were 71:-
- More often than not, the spectrum of integration among states begins with free trade agreements, which can then be upgraded to customs unions with common external tariffs and common markets that enable the free flow of labour, goods, services and capital.
- From there, blocs can evolve into more extreme forms of integration, such as monetary unions or political federations.
- Of the regional organizations covered, most tend to fall somewhere on the earlier part of the spectrum, hitting walls as they contend with the thornier aspects of merging into common markets and beyond.
- The motives behind the formation of these blocs, however, vary widely.
- Economic unions can be great enablers, as East Africa has found in its attempts to overcome arbitrary colonial boundaries and unlock the Great Lakes region’s full potential.
- But once the benefits of these blocs expire they can become more straitjacket than life jacket, as Mercosur has discovered in its inability to break out of its own rules and seek growth in new markets.
- To simplify matters and keep members focused on mutual economic gain, regional blocs tend to keep economic integration efforts separate from security cooperation.
- Even then, security issues can bleed into and, at times, undermine the unity of regional blocs when surrounding geopolitical pressures mount.
- The United States, Japan and India, for example, may try to work with ASEAN to counterbalance China, only to find the bloc riddled with divisions over how to manage tension with Beijing.
- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are working hard to build stronger intra-regional networks through the “ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity”, adopted in Hanoi in 2010.
- Then again, security, rather than economic integration, is the glue that holds the GCC together.
- After more than 20 years, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is still a source of controversy.
- Mercosur has succeeded at more closely integrating South American economies, which historically have been focused overseas. Political integration, however, has lagged.
- ASEAN is divided between maritime nations on the front lines with China and those that are able to hunker down in the interior.
- Europe’s interests are fundamentally split between north and south; and east and west, making it exceedingly difficult for a wealthy northern country like Germany to make sacrifices to ease the plight of a southern Mediterranean state like Greece.
- East African Community members are earnestly trying to forge ahead, reaching toward a political federation in spite of the obstacles in their way.
There are many good reasons for countries to band together in the name of economic gain, political influence and security. But the ambitions of such unions are inevitably moderated by the limits to each nation’s willingness to sacrifice sovereignty for the sake of its neighbours. The concept of South Asia-Central Asia connectivity has gathered critical mass, in terms of political will, to manifest itself into operationalization of existing structures and their upgradation on an as required basis. Effort is also being put into mobilizing public support for evolving into sustainable connectivity, leading to integration. Actualization of the concepts is doable, yet a far cry.
Like a torrent, OBOR is set to submerge all ongoing smaller connectegeration projects. CPEC shall gravitate all nearby states towards it. Two likely connectegration patterns could evolve for Central Asia and South Asia. First, assuming that India retools its approach toward China and Pakistan and settles all territorial and other major disputes with them to become part of CPEC, and Afghanistan becomes peaceful and stable. In that case Central, South and West Asia shall climb the CPEC band wagon. The second pattern is with India continuing its current policies and Afghanistan remaining instable. In this case India and a portion of South Asia lying east of India and Afghanistan will be left out of OBOR/CPEC initiative.
It is not an overstatement that both regions are already connected physically, however there are psychological disconnects resulting into political denials and economic disruptors in the form of trade and non-trade barriers underwritten by lingering territorial and resource sharing disputes. China has a reputation of treating all states equally. It has requisite economic muscle to underwrite OBOR. Therefore, the path to all connectegration initiatives in Central and South Asia goes via Beijing.
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