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Pakistan and the Silk Road project

Leaders from 12 nations are meeting in Istanbul on November 2 to plan a stable and independent Afghanistan after American withdrawal. Countries who will discuss regional economic cooperation in this context are: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, USA and the United Kingdom. This will be a prelude to the Bonn Conference, where delegations from 90 countries will discuss post-2014 developments in the region.

Some commentators in Pakistan are looking at this development as a strategy to cut China off from Central Asia and bring the United States into the region ‘by other means’. Pakistan therefore is being presented as a victim of an either/or situation: join the Northern Silk Road Project and ditch China or keep out of the project and prove its strategic loyalty to China who is presumed to be an outsider opposed to the project. This is a wrong assumption because China is very much there in Central Asia and any Silk Road Project will redound to its regional advantage. The project may at best be negatively described as a plan to diversify the rapidly developing economic domination of China in the region.

A former foreign secretary was right when he said on these pages: “It would be in Pakistan’s interest to become a partner in any regional arrangement, better sooner than later”. China has economic presence in Afghanistan after buying copper deposits in Central Afghanistan and winning the contract to prospect for oil along the Amy Darya River in Northern Afghanistan. It has completed the project of constructing an important ‘gateway’ to Central Asia — of which China is a part — at Gwadar in Pakistan. It can be said that it was Pakistan in tandem with China who thought of the Central Asian connection in the early 1990s. It is perhaps in answer to this move that America began researching the Northern Silk Road project in 2004. But organisations like the World Bank were thinking of the Pakistan-China plan when they took notice of it. In October 2008, an official of the World Bank in Islamabad said the bank was ready to lend Pakistan $2.25 billion for a trade and energy corridor focusing mostly on Gwadar Port and its land link with China: “The trade and energy corridor would serve as a gateway for commerce and transport between South Asia, Central Asia, China and the Gulf countries. Pakistan will set up a big oil terminal at Gwadar together with refineries, with Chinese help, because most of the oil will be transported to China from there.”

The Americans were already moving ahead with research. Scholars from 16 countries gathered in Kabul in 2006 at the First Kabul Conference on Partnership, Trade and Development in Greater Central Asia. Also present were the Kazakhstan Institute, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University, foreign minister of Kazakhstan, and the then US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia.

Pakistan is negotiating a Turkmen gas pipeline project through Afghanistan, which will serve both India and Pakistan, but China, beginning late on the project, has already got the Turkmen gas through one of the longest gas pipelines going to China. China is also the dominant buyer of Kazakhstan’s natural resources. Meanwhile, Pakistan has expressed readiness to allow India to take its exports to Afghanistan through a land route, a pledge in line with the ‘connectivity’ agreements signed by Pakistan as a member of Saarc. India and Bangladesh recently already agreed to allow a Myanmar gas pipeline to pass through Bangladesh to India.

Contrary to the myth of America-grabs-oil-through-invasion, the Iraqi oil contracts have gone to China and India. The latest ‘scandal’ of giving China the contract to dig for oil in Northern Afghanistan seems to be a case of America making a silent deal with China over Afghanistan in return for support to the Northern Silk Road Project. One can say with some certainty that the project will benefit Pakistan through the development of co-dependencies with its neighbours. No doubt, Islamabad will move after consulting with China. By the same token, Pakistan becomes an important participant at Istanbul.

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