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Central and South Asia: Is Integration Possible Without Conflict Resolution?

An expert from Uzbekistan, Ildar Yakubov, in the article specially for CABAR.asia, analyzes the activation of the country in the southern direction and tries to understand what obstacles exist on the way to intensify interaction with the countries of South Asia

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On December 29, 2020, the President of Uzbekistan Shavat Mirziyoyev, announced the priorities of foreign policy for 2021 in his message to the country’s parliament. A fundamentally new point was the emphasis on the southern direction. The development of cooperation with South Asia and the promotion of peace in Afghanistan are highlighted as a priority for the current year.

The central event should be the “high-level international conference on the interaction of our region with South Asia” announced in the message, which will be held in Tashkent.[1] It should give impetus to the comprehensive development of interregional cooperation, and, possibly, create conditions for opening new transport corridors.

The article attempts to understand what results should be expected from the activation of Uzbekistan in the southern direction, what prerequisites and obstacles exist on the way of intensifying interaction with the countries of South Asia, what are the trends and development prospects.

Historical background

For the Central Asian nations, South Asia has historically served as important as Russia, China, or the Middle East destinations. In ancient times, a branch of the Great Silk Road went to South Asia. Ancient routes have retained their significance for thousands of years. For example, at the beginning of the 16th century, on the way from Central Asia, the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, crossed the Indus River just a few kilometers from the place where in the 4th century BC. passed the army of Alexander the great and where his legendary horse Bucephalus was buried.

The ties between the regions were interrupted in the 19th century, during and as a result of the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain, when Central Asia was behind Russia, and Great Britain secured its Indian possessions. Afghanistan became a state separating two empires and two regions. The reformatting of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union did not lead to the restoration of ties, as did the formation of independent states on the site of British India, which resulted in the geopolitical split of South Asia. The conflict in Afghanistan, which began over 40 years ago, has to some extent restored the buffer status of that country, and it continues to serve as the obstacle that separates Central and South Asia.

Prerequisites for cooperation

Meanwhile, the formation of independent states of Central Asia entailed a revival of mutual interest and attempts to restore interregional ties. The republics of Central Asia found themselves cut off from the oceans, and the southern direction became the geographically shortest route to seaports.

South Asia is a huge market with over 1.7 billion people. Pakistan alone, the geographically closest state to Central Asia, has a population of over 200 million.

Central and South Asia complement each other in terms of energy. It is no coincidence that over the past decades, projects for the export of gas and electricity from the Central Asian republics to Pakistan and India have been actively worked out.

Pakistan welcomed the formation of new and, which is important in the context of the role of the Islamic factor in the internal political processes and foreign policy of this country, Muslim states. Islamabad saw potential geopolitical allies in six countries of the Islamic world (five republics of Central Asia and Azerbaijan), an expansion of the zone of influence, new sales markets, and sources of raw materials, as well as a promising access to the spaces of inner Eurasia.[2]

For India, Central Asia was and remains a peripheral region. The concept of “Connect Central Asia”[3] and the inclusion of the region in the “Extended Neighborhood”[4] were partly intended to correct this deficiency, and partly reflected the growing capabilities of the emerging global center of power.

Establishing interregional interaction: intentions vs geopolitics

Attempts to realize the existing potential were made almost immediately after the formation of the Central Asian states. First of all, one can note the “super-enthusiasm” of Pakistan in the early 1990s. The traditional priority of geopolitics for this country and the inherent assumption about the initial advantages of its strategic location fully manifested itself in Central Asian politics: large-scale ideas and thoughts about gaining political and economic allies, based on the Islamic community, contrasted sharply with the shortcomings of the actual use of Pakistan’s favorable geo-economic location as international trade and transit economic hub and fundamental misunderstanding of the interpretation of Islamism as an existential threat in the republics of Central Asia.

Pakistan’s large-scale ideas and perceptions of gaining political and economic allies in Central Asia contrasted sharply with the fundamental misunderstanding of the interpretation of Islamism as an existential threat in the Central Asian republics.

The picture was complemented by the hypertrophied notions of some Pakistani experts about the possibilities of the Central Asian market, estimated at 80 billion USD at the beginning of the 1990s, and any tangible share of Pakistan would be a significant contribution to the development of economic cooperation and would be of great importance for the country’s economy.[5]

Based on these notions and seeing the lack of security of the trans-Afghan routes as the main obstacle to the realization of the existing potential, in 1994 Islamabad supported the Taliban, referring to its ability to ensure security in Afghanistan. Around the same period, the idea of ​​a trans-Afghan gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India emerged.

However, the reality turned out to be different. Pakistan experienced chronic problems with political and economic stability, was unable to offer favorable conditions for cooperation,[6] and its vision of resolving the conflict in Afghanistan turned out to be exactly the opposite of understanding the situation in the Central Asian republics, which were frightened by the radical ideology of the Taliban and their support for terrorist organizations – from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

New impulses were given to the ideas of interregional ties as a result of the start of international operations by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. This country began to be seen as a center of regional policy, and the involvement or integration of neighboring countries and regions or the establishment of ties between South and Central Asia – as an opportunity to alleviate the situation in the country and the burden on the states that have assumed the main responsibility for resolving the conflict and forming a new Afghan statehood.

The concept of “Greater Central Asia”[7] put forward in 2005 was subsequently transformed into the idea of ​​a single region of South and Central Asia and the American project “New Silk Road”,[8] with Afghanistan as its center.

The Afghan-centric New Silk Road included the development of transit communications and new trade routes, and the United States, relying on its military and economic presence, as well as institutional development projects, was to contribute to strengthening cooperation in the “least integrated region of the world”. Four directions were put forward as priorities:[9]

  • energy: export of energy resources from Central Asia through Afghanistan via the implementation of CASA-1000 projects – development of the electricity industry in Afghanistan and the creation of a regional power grid with the participation of Pakistan, and in the future – India, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.
  • trade and transport: development of transport communications and multilateral institutions.
  • customs and border cooperation: facilitating customs procedures, strengthening cooperation at major border checkpoints.
  • humanitarian cooperation: expanding opportunities for exchange, increasing opportunities for youth, women, and minorities.

At the same time, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Washington’s inability to achieve at least relative security and stability even at the peak of its military presence, which fell on this period, made it impossible to implement priority transport and energy projects, and significantly limited the potential of other areas of cooperation.

In addition, the United States refused to subsidize its New Silk Road project on a scale that would be consistent with its stated goals, and as a result, most of the promises were only disappointing or irritating.

Excluding Afghanistan

In the last decade, transport corridors bypassing Afghanistan have developed. One of them, North-South, was opened in November 2018 with the participation of Russia, India, and Iran. The route from Mumbai to St. Petersburg must pass through the Caspian Sea,[10] however, it is adjacent to the transport infrastructure of Central Asia and can be used to develop interaction with India.

ITC “North-South”

The Ashgabat agreement, signed in 2011 by Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, aims to implement a transport corridor project that could also potentially link Central and South Asia. Iran and the port of Chabahar, which was reconstructed with Indian funds, play the main role in these projects, and this project opens the way to India.[11]

Another direction bypassing Afghanistan is communications through the People’s Republic of China. The key transport route is the Karakorum highway, which connects the territories of China and Pakistan. Back in 2004, there was an agreement on the creation of a transport corridor Karachi – Kashgar – Bishkek – Almaty,[12] which actually started working since 2008. In October 2017, a new transport corridor Tashkent – Andijan – Osh – Irkeshtam – Kashgar was opened, with the prospect of entering South Asia.[13]

Transport corridor Tashkent – Andijan – Osh – Irkeshtam – Kashgar

However, bypass routes are primarily distinguished by their length, which neutralizes the main advantage of the southern direction. Both directions deprive Central Asia of the main thing – the possibility of the shortest access to the World Ocean, and the region itself is considered only as a small part of larger projects. For these reasons, none of the plans brought about strategic changes, proving their irrationality. In addition, the Trans-Iranian route is distinguished by the fact that it connects Central Asia only with India, and the Trans-Chinese route – with Pakistan.

Geopolitical obstacles

Peace in Afghanistan is necessary for the full-fledged establishment of interregional cooperation, especially a breakthrough in the development of interregional ties. In the past, Pakistani and US initiatives have not stood the test of geopolitical realities.

In 2021, the complex and multi-level conflict in Afghanistan, in which both internal and external actors declare the need for peace but are silent about the fact that peace is desirable on their own terms, it seems as far from a solution as it was before the conclusion of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020. As a result, in the absence of acceptable compromises, trans-Afghan projects in the field of transport or energy will still be far from being implemented.

Despite the ongoing Afghan conflict, Tashkent is trying to conclude and implement transport projects in the south. In this regard, it is possible to single out attempts to reach an agreement with Pakistan on the construction of trans-Afghan communications, which intensified with the coming to power of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In the decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan PP 4892 of November 12, 2020 “On measures to further expand and strengthen economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”, among other things, a project for the construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul railway is laid down, which will provide an opportunity to seaports of Pakistan. The start of practical implementation is scheduled for September 2021.[14] The project for the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway worth over 4 billion USD was approved by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan.[15]

On February 2, 2021, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev held meetings in Tashkent with the delegations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, at which the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway was discussed.

If we imagine that thanks to some fundamentally new approaches, by some miracle, in the near future the Afghan conflict will suddenly be resolved, and Uzbekistan will achieve the implementation of plans to build a railway to Pakistan, which has a developed transport infrastructure, this breakthrough will mean entry into the two hundred million Pakistani market, and, even more important, to the oceans. For Central Asia, its entire geopolitics will radically change.

On February 2, 2021, representatives of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a roadmap for the construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway. International financial organizations have expressed interest in the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway.

At the same time, in order to fully “open” South Asia and enter the market of India and other South Asian states located to the east of Pakistan, it is necessary to overcome an even more significant obstacle – the Indo-Pakistani conflict. It was formed during the formation of India and Pakistan. For both countries, the confrontation is fundamental.

The Kashmir problem is the embodiment of relations between the two countries. For Delhi, Kashmir is the personification of the unjust division of British India on religious grounds and claims to the entire territory of the former princedom, emphasize not only the principle of territorial integrity, but also the original position of a single “Mother India”, according to which all other parts of the former colony must sooner or later become part of one state. For Islamabad, Kashmir, whose majority is Muslim, is a symbol that emphasizes the principle of the formation of Pakistan as a “refuge for South Asian Muslims.” Rejection of its traditional position on the Kashmir problem also means the denial of Islamic identity as the ideological basis of the country’s existence.

Thus, for both countries, the Kashmir problem has to a certain extent existential significance. The transition to a more compromise position also means abandoning the fundamental principle of the formation of an independent state, especially for Pakistan, for which Islamic, and not national, identity has become a system-forming one.

Different ideas about the foundations and principles of statehood have led not only to the Kashmir problem, but also to a “zero-sum game” across the entire spectrum of bilateral relations, which is reflected at the regional and global levels. Pakistan and India refuse to transit each other through their territory. It is no coincidence that transport corridors bypassing Afghanistan, connecting Central and South Asia, lead to only one of these states.

In general, the prospects for resolving the conflict in Kashmir, as well as the entire complex of relations between India and Pakistan, seem even more uncertain than the conflict in Afghanistan. 

Competition between India and Pakistan is also manifested in Central Asia, but due to the peripheral nature of this direction, this rivalry is not as active as, for example, in Afghanistan. Thus, according to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan, trade relations with India in the crisis year 2020 for the period from January to August amounted to only 198.4 million USD,[16] and with Pakistan, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, in 2018 trade turnover amounted to about 100 million USD.[17] However, competition between India and Pakistan in Central Asia could intensify in the event of a “increase in rates”.  

Conclusion: Geopolitics Still Determines the Level of Cooperation

The expansion of interregional ties and the realization of the enormous potential looks natural and conditioned, it would seem, by the very history and mutual aspiration of the key states of the macro-region. The complementarity of markets, transit potential and the possibility of the shortest access to the World Ocean create natural conditions for cooperation. It is no coincidence that attempts at integration have been observed since the first years of the formation of the independent states of Central Asia. However, each of them ran into geopolitical obstacles. The security situation in Afghanistan leaves each of the projects for the development of interregional cooperation to a greater extent only an intention, while the Indo-Pakistani conflict finally closes the possibility of full-fledged interregional integration. In this regard, it is possible to note the periodically signed documents on the construction of TAPI with an indication of the specific time frame for the implementation of the project, however, the lack of security guarantees makes it necessary to rewrite plans over and over again.

Whether the current initiatives of Uzbekistan will be a breakthrough for Central Asia in a southern direction remains dependent on the situation in Afghanistan. It seems that only the launch of a real peace process and a change in the balance of power in Afghanistan can become the main factors in the development of key trans-Afghan projects. Tashkent, on the other hand, has extremely limited opportunities to influence the processes of peaceful settlement, and in this regard, in the absence of progress in the Afghan and Indo-Pakistani conflicts, the initiatives of Uzbekistan can be localized in areas that can only create preconditions or, at best, the foundations of the future transformation of interregional ties without solving fundamental issues “here and now”.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.

[1] Message from the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the Oliy Majlis, December 29, 2020. // Official website of the President of Uzbekistan. – https://president.uz/ru/lists/view/4057

[2] See: Pakistan and Central Asia Relations since 1991. Institute of Police Studies, Islamabad. January 5, 2018. – https://www.ips.org.pk/pakistan-and-central-asia-relations-since-1991

[3] See: Keynote address by MOS Shri E. Ahamed at First India-Central Asia Dialogue. – Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, June 12, 2012. – https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/19791/

[4] See: Anil Wadhwa, Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Keynote address at 6th IISS-MEA Dialogue on ‘India’s Extended Neighbourhood: Prospects and Challenges’. – Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (India), March 04, 2014. – https://idsa.in/keyspeeches/6thIISSMEADialogue_secretaryeast

[5] See: Meena Singh Roy. Pakistan’s Strategies in Central Asia. Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (India), 2006. – https://idsa.in/strategicanalysis/PakistansStrategiesinCentralAsia_msroy_1006

[6] See: Pakistan and Central Asia Relations since 1991. Institute of Police Studies, Islamabad. January 5, 2018. – https://www.ips.org.pk/pakistan-and-central-asia-relations-since-1991

[7] See: S. Frederick Starr. A ‘Greater Central Asia Partnership’ for Afghanistan and Partnership’ for Afghanistan and Its Neighbors. Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program – A Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center. 2005. – https://www.silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/SilkRoadPapers/2005_starr_a-greater-central-asia-partnership.pdf

[8] U.S. Support for the New Silk Road. – https://2009-2017.state.gov/p/sca/ci/af/newsilkroad/index.htm

[9] U.S. Support for the New Silk Road. – https://2009-2017.state.gov/p/sca/ci/af/newsilkroad/index.htm.

[10] See: Roshan Iyer. Filling In the North-South Trade Corridor’s Missing Links. The Diplomat. February 28, 2018. – https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/filling-in-the-north-south-trade-corridors-missing-links/

[11] See: Stobdan P. Significance of India joining the Ashgabat Agreement. Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (India), February 12, 2018 – https://idsa.in/idsacomments/significance-of-india-joining-the-ashgabat-agreement_p-stobdan-120218

[12] See: Presentation on the Quadripartite Agreement. Pakistan Government Ministry of Communications, 2015 – https://www.carecprogram.org/uploads/2015-2nd-QTTA-PAK_FIN_RU.pdf

[13] See: CPEC is now connected with Central Asia by road network while bypassing Afghanistan. Obortunity Info. February 20, 2018 – https://obortunity.org/2018/02/20/cpec-now-connected-central-asia-road-network-bypassing-afghanistan/

[14] Resolution of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan PP-4892 of November 22, 2020 “On measures to further expand and strengthen economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” – https://lex.uz/ru/docs/5100022

[15] The project for the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway between Pakistan and Uzbekistan was signed. 04.01.2021. – https://review.uz/post/premer-ministr-pakistana-utverdil-proekt-stroitelstva-transafganskoy-jeleznoy-dorogi-mejdu-pakistanom-i-uzbekistanom

[16] The Uzbek-Indian business forum was organized, October 2020. – https://chamber.uz/ru/news/6879

[17] Cooperation of the Republic of Uzbekistan with the countries of the Middle, Middle East, and Africa. – https://mfa.uz/ru/pages/with-asia-africa


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