An Afghanistan vista of part of the proposed route
by Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai 2 August 2021
Pakistan-Uzbekistan relations in recent times are growing and cooperation is on the rise between the two important countries of South Asia and Central Asia. The recent visit of Pakistani Prime minister Imran Khan to Uzbekistan was an indication the two states are expanding their multi-faceted mutual cooperation. During his two-days visit, Imran Khan addressed Uzbekistan-Pakistan Business Forum on ‘Central and South Asia 2021: Regional Connectivity and Opportunities’. Mr. Khan expressed his hope for connectivity of both the states through aviation, road, and rail. “Pakistan has immense potential to connect Central Asia with the rest of the world and become a hub of trade,” Khan added.
The recent cooperation is happening in a time where there is a change in the regional dynamics. The U.S. and China are trying to make their clout strong in Central Asia while the change in Afghanistan is going to happen once the U.S. completes its withdrawal. Islamabad sees the potential to connect with Uzbekistan through Afghanistan. In his address, Mr. Khan said, “Pakistan is keen for peace in Afghanistan and considers it vital for trade connectivity among the regional countries.” Pakistan aims to link Uzbekistan through a rail link with Pakistan via Afghanistan.
An agreement has been signed in February this year to develop a railroad through Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar, an important connectivity project that would boost trade between the three states and get two important regions connected in addition to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan access to Pakistani Seaports. The project will take five years which is 600-kilometer-long. Tashkent aims to diversify its Sea access option beyond its reliance on Iranian ports. On the other hand, Pakistan will also get access to Central Asia and beyond which it has sought since the independence of the Central Asian States in early The 1990s. the said railroad will decrease Pakistan’s transportation costs to Russia by 15-20 percent.
For two major reasons, Uzbekistan prefer Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad: its shortest one. Secondly, it connects the Uzbekistan-Kyrghizstan-China corridor with Europe and South Asia.
Among other reasons, the U.S.-Iran rivalry is also a factor because of that reason Uzbekistan want a safe passage and option. Tashkent has hugely invested in the transportation sector to connect the Iranian ports with Uzbekistan but it fears Tehran’s escalation with Washington can cost Tashkent of heavy price. Bandar Abbas is the main port Tashkent is using for its trade. Once these projects are materialized, it will add great value to the objectives of both states.
Pakistan’s strategic policy vis-à-vis Central Asia has five broad objectives: trade and connectivity, strong political link, investment, and energy sector cooperation, defense and security and people-to-people contact. Islamabad has made many endeavors since the independence of the Central Asia to get access to it yet due to Afghanistan’s precarious security situation, this plan did not come true. Now at the moment when a change is going to occur in Afghanistan, Islamabad sees a ray of hope to get safe access to Central Asian states.
On the other hand, Pakistan is the shortest, easiest and economical connectivity route to the Arabian Sea for Central Asian states and specifically for Uzbekistan. Islamabad is willing to help facilitate Central Asian states to engage in trade via its sea routes. Similarly, Uzbekistan and Pakistan can engage in various sectors including trade, tourism, education, health, and energy projects. Moreover, Pakistan’s renewed focus is geo-economics which can strengthen Pakistan-Uzbekistan relations. However, for the said purpose, peace in the region and particularly in Afghanistan is essential for any trade, investment, and connectivity initiative. Similarly, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will further bring both countries close to each other as it has to connect Pakistan with Central Asia and beyond.