Asia in general and South Asia in particular are trapped in a poor connectivity syndrome. Political inhibitions prevent progress on trans-border connectivity. Intra South Asia trade is just 5 per cent of the total trade. Despite inter-state geographical contiguity, South Asia is one of the least integrated regions of the world. SAARC initiatives towards improving connectivity are not likely to lead anywhere due to India’s big bully attitude. Indian is campaigning with remaining SAARC countries to impose a transit trade regime of Pakistan which is detrimental to its security concerns.
Nevertheless, Pakistan stands committed to enhance Regional connectivity in the SAARC region. The 18th SAARC Heads of State and Government Summit considered three draft agreements to promote regional connectivity in South Asian region. These included Agreement on Energy Cooperation and Infra-regional movement of motor vehicles and Railways. While the Agreement on Energy Cooperation was signed during the summit, the other two agreements on motor vehicles and Railways could not be signed due to legal and technical deficiencies. The summit declaration stated that: “SAARC Heads of State/ Government welcomed the significant progress towards finalization of the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement and SAARC Regional Railways Agreement and agreed to hold a Meeting of the Transport Ministers within three months in order to finalize the Agreements for approval”. Given the far reaching implications of these agreements, the government of Pakistan is actively pursuing these agreements to enhance regional connectivity in SAARC region in a seamless manner.
Apart from SAARC framework, Pakistan is well on its way for improving intra-city and inter-city connectivity; and mobility within the country as well as with its neighbouring countries. A number of time bound mega projects are at various stages of planning and implementation. Completion of trans-border projects shall ensures Pakistan’s high quality all weather connectivity to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia, ensuring speedy movement of personnel, goods and services between these countries. This coupled with three alignments of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would result in qualitative up-gradation of Pakistan’s land connectivity related infrastructure. The CPEC provides a unique opportunity for Pakistan to boost its strategic and economic position. Connectivity projects and associated economic development ventures are expected to generate millions of direct and indirect jobs. As a results, within a decade or so, there would be significant change in the patterns of personnel and goods movement, quality of services would improve significantly, new trade flow patterns and economic profiles would emerge and glimpses of peoples’ prosperity shall be in sight. Much talked about missing link on western alignment connecting Gwadar with Quetta-Zhob is likely to complete by December 2016.
Pakistan has also announced the commencement of construction on two motorways and inter province connectivity projects connecting Pakistan with Central Asia. The Prime Minister recently told the National Assembly that the Gwadar-Termez motorway will connect Gwadar to Central Asia, as Termez lies between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. From Gwadar, this 650 km road which meets Chaman will be complete by 2016. The route from Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif, will go to Chaman vain Kandahar. As these projects come online Balochistan will be better connected to its near proximity areas; and Quetta will stand connected to the rest of the country as well as the Central Asian region by road. The motorway from Peshawar to Torkham and then to Jalalabad is also under construction and would be completed very soon. This motorway shall connect with Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Termez, thereafter Pakistan would have two routes to access Central Asia. Pakistan-Iran-Turkey container service is also on the cards.
Moreover, the federal and provincial governments are undertaking large projects for roads and communication in Pakistan, these costly projects will connect the whole country and each province to one another. These projects will go a long way in forging national unity due to better people to people interactions. The federal government has promised at least Rs 22.5bn in development funds for connectivity related projects in Karachi. The Green Line project, costing at least Rs 20-25 billion, will be funded by the federal and Sindh governments. The Green Line would ease the mobility of people in Karachi. Federal government has already released Rs5bn for the Green Line. The Lahore Metro Bus was built through provincial government funds. The Islamabad-Rawalpindi Metro was paid for by the Punjab government, while the federal government paid for the Islamabad portion. Work on the Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway is under way and that the project would be complete by the middle of 2017. This motorway would connect Karachi and Hyderabad to Lahore.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, the two countries signed 51 Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) and agreements to the tune of $46 billion. This wholesome spectrum covers everything from energy to key elements of infrastructure development – roads, highways, port facilities, airports and communication links. Gwadar-Kashgar road/rail link is an important portion of Chinese vision of “One Road One Belt” (OBOR), connecting three continents—Asia, Africa and Europe; it aims at connecting Pacific with Atlantic. Gwadar-Kashgar corridor has a pivotal role as it would be connecting the maritime and land components of the 21st Century Silk Route. Concessional Chinese loans will help finance the upgrading of a number of key highways of Pakistan and development of a deep sea port at Gwadar. Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor is another important component of the OBOR initiative.
Materialization of CPEC has the potential to transform Pakistan into a regional hub for trade and investment boasting infrastructure. It will go a long way in reversing the country’s fortunes, which have been held back for years by a dilapidated infrastructure base. This corridor will benefit all provinces and areas in Pakistan; it specially focuses on underdeveloped areas/zones. It will also enable China to create a much shorter and cheaper route for trade and investment in south, central and west Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Since President Xi Jinping put forward the “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiative and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” strategic belt, China has accelerated the pace of implementing the concept. BCIM has been included in the recently released vision and proposed actions have been outlined on jointly building the belt and road. Launching of this vision indicates that time for Asian century has come. However, putting it into action needs collective will and perseverance—even though full implementation of all these projects which may be few decades away. Nevertheless, owing to nation-wide political consensus, Gwadar- Kashgar component of the broader vision is likely to materialize sooner than expected. This would provide China shortest access to warm water deep sea port. This would also offset the pressures related to stirs in South China Sea and diminish the chances of any conflict in that region.
In recent years, Chinese influence has globally risen despite considerable inertia from regional counterparts as well as world powers that actively pursue a policy of containment in terms of China’s influence in the region. As part of its strategies in other parts of Asia, China has expanded its influence principally through its economic power and soft power projections and vision regarding regional connectivity and increasing trade that would ultimately help China to emerge as an alternative to the Europe and the United States. Pakistan is poised to gain from regional connectivity programmes, for this it should continue to consolidate the political consensus to be part of these projects and improve law and order situation, especially in the areas through which these connectivity arteries are planned to pass. In the context of globalization, connectivity, diplomacy and trade are not stand alone activities, rather these are parts of a comprehensive concept. If the political and territorial disputes are settled then borders become a source of flow and not obstruction. Connectivity and mobility are essential contributors towards prosperity and wellbeing of the people.