BACKGROUND: The June 17 announcement by the Finance Minister of Pakistan Mr. Aziz to build a rail link from Dalbandin via Panjgur to the Gwadar deep-sea port with Chinese cooperation has renewed the prospects for an alternate land-sea trade outlet for Central Asia through Pakistan via the Indus Basin corridor. The project would initially cost approximately $142 million, relying partly on traffic through Pakistan's existing road rail facilities. The entire project would be completed in two phases at an estimated cost of $1.42 billion.
The Indus Basin, via Afghanistan, has provided a warm water sea outlet to adjacent parts of Central Asia under various historical epochs under the Indian, Persian, Turkic, Mughal and British empires. The relatively recent Karakoram highway, built by China and Pakistan in the 1960s has added a new dimension to the traditional routes. It has connected the two countries by land and provides China a commercial window to access the Arabian Sea. For nearly two centuries, Russia and the Soviet Union unsuccessfully sought access to warm seawaters near the Indus Delta. British India conquered the Indus region in 1843 to support the logistics of great game strategies, intended to prevent Russian advances to the Indus ports. The geopolitical importance of the Indus Basin as an access route to the famous "Heartland" led the United States to engage Pakistan in its Cold War strategy among front line states against communism - until the Soviet Union collapsed. Due to its for its Indus Basin corridor, the significance of Pakistan in the expansion of future gas/oil pipeline routes toward South Asia and as a north-south land-sea transportation route facilitator remains vital for Central Asia and China. The term "corridor" was conceptualized during the 1992 Quetta conference of ECO foreign ministers to remedy the land-lockedness of Central Asian states. In March 1995, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed agreement to construct the Almaty-Karachi road connecting Central Asia with Arabian Sea. In addition to the north-south route via Iran, a new road link via Chinese Xinjiang and Pakistani Karakoram was proposed. Prospects for a route via Qandahar appear remote in the short term. However, a rail and road network connecting Almaty, Bishkek, and Kashgar to Islamabad and the Pakistani seaports of Karachi and Gwadar offered a relatively viable alternate. Economic and political concerns about the politics of regional passage, road construction, Karakoram renovation and individual country traffic permits delayed the project but these issues have been resolved.
With growing regional influence, China appears confident that all participating countries have agreed that ethnonationalisms and fundamentalisms of any kind threatening regional stability would not be tolerated to operate from Kyrgyz, Kazakh, or Pakistani territories. Link roads construction is underway and approximately 50-150 million dollars have been allocated by China to renovate the Karakoram, to enhance the highways ability to operate on a year-round basis. Moreover, agreement on traffic permits has been reached. China would operate with 1000 vehicles, Kazakhstan initially with 100 and Kyrgyzstan with 300 permits. A trial trade convoy from Pakistan sent last winter reached Almaty in time and returned. Pakistan has offered Tajikistan to join this quadruple arrangement through the Kulma-Murghab link, but the Tajik government has yet to respond.
IMPLICATIONS: The nature of the new great game and the ongoing power struggle in Afghanistan has complicated the land-lockedness of Central Asia. The absence of alternate land-sea trade routes has needlessly handicapped regional economic growth and development, as well as Central Asia's participation in hardcore economic transactions. Earlier positions taken by Turkey to act as cultural and economic bridge, and India's announcement to construct a railway line connecting Central and South Asia could not materialize for obvious geographical reasons: these countries do not share direct borders with the region. The high politics of oil and gas pipeline routes have sidelined the importance of land-sea transit routes, and the Indus Basin, as a natural corridor to Central Asia remains undermined. Land-lockedness and frustrating regional political environment cautions that even when oil and gas pipeline matters are resolved and the Silk road networks restored, Central Asia's geographical isolation is unlikely to ease without access to warm seawater ports. Cross-continental trade in agricultural and other non-hydrocarbon-related commodities as well as heavy machinery needed to modernize Central Asia's existing industrial base cannot on a permanent basis be accomplished through air cargo alone. Therefore, the proposed land-sea traffic routes fill this vacuum. It could stretch 3200-3400 kilometers from Almaty and Bishkek to Kashgar, from where it is linked to Islamabad through the Karakoram highway and connected further down to the Karachi and Gwadar seaports through the already established as well as some newly planned road and railway networks.
CONCLUSIONS: In time, with peace prevailing in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the Almaty-Karachi road/railway networks are likely to be extended and linked through other Afghanistan-Pakistan routes surrounding Bolan, Gomal, the Khyber Pass and Pakistans Northern Areas. This would allow Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to trade through the Arabian Sea on the doors of South and Southwest Asia and the Middle East with distances reduced by approximately 1200-1400 kilometers. Diplomatic circles and government officials in participating countries value the importance of Almaty-Karachi and related link roads as economically cost-effective, and relatively safe and uncontested when compared to other turbulent routes. Moreover, the possible normalization of India-Pakistan relations in the near future could convert the Indus Basin as a commercial corridor between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Amid the turbulence in Afghanistan, alternate corridors have an important role to play to slacken the ongoing transition pain, allowing Central Asia fresh breath to develop trade in several directions. The Almaty-Karachi road is likely to open up new commercial vistas for the regionally participating, as well as other countries.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Aftab Kazi is a research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
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