ISSI holds Round Table on “Pakistan’s Relations with Central Asia and Azerbaijan: Imperatives of Regional Connectivity”
Islamabad, December 28, 2023 – The China-Pakistan Study Centre (CPSC) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) hosted a round table on “Pakistan’s Relations with Central Asia and Azerbaijan: Imperatives of Regional Connectivity.” The distinguished experts included Dr. Najam Abbas, Senior Fellow (Central Asia and Eurasia) East West Institute, Brussels, Belgium; Professor Shabbir Ahmad Khan, Director Area Study Centre, University of Peshawar; Dr. Farhat Asif, Founder President of the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies (IPDS); Mr. Khalid Khan, Chairman Central Asian Cellular Forum; Ms. Reema Shaukat, Communication Strategist, Institute of Regional Studies.
In his welcome remarks, Director General ISSI Ambassador Sohail Mahmood shared insights into Pakistan’s relations with the region. He highlighted the multifaceted cooperation within the framework of ‘Vision Central Asia’ — encompassing five tracks, including political and diplomatic engagement; trade and investment ties; energy and connectivity; security and defence; and people-to-people exchanges. Ambassador Mahmood emphasized the importance of regional connectivity and its alignment with both Pakistan’s foreign policy vision and its recent ‘pivot to geo-economics.’
Earlier in his introductory remarks, Dr. Talat Shabbir set the stage by elucidating the deep cultural and historical affinities shared by Pakistan with Central Asia and Azerbaijan. His emphasis on increasing collaboration across sectors such as IT, pharmaceuticals, trade, energy, transportation, agriculture, and culture underscored the comprehensive nature of bilateral relations.
Dr. Najam Abbas’s keynote address focused on connectivity’s imperative, identifying trends and priorities for the next five years, emphasizing global freight potential, alternative routes, and regional corridors. Dr. Abbas, known for his expertise in Central Asian and South Asian affairs, highlighted the imperative of regional connectivity in its multiple dimensions. Among other things, Dr. Abbas outlined eight key points, providing food for thought and encouraging a process of thinking to guide stakeholders in the coming months. He emphasized the importance of understanding emerging conditions, changes, and initiatives in the region. Dr. Abbas stressed the need to focus on specific trends in connectivity and identified priorities for the next five years, particularly in the context of Pakistan’s post-election scenario.
Dr. Najam Abbas drew attention to the potential of global freight and logistics, pointing to alternative routes and corridors such as the ‘Middle Corridor’ and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INTC). He specifically highlighted the significance of connections involving Azerbaijan, Iran, and other Caspian nations, suggesting that these routes could offer recovery and opportunities for countries facing isolation. Dr. Abbas discussed the three routes across the Caspian Sea and their potential impact on Eurasian transportation corridors. He presented figures indicating the substantial growth in the freight potential and emphasized the need for stakeholders to meet conditions for successful connectivity. The keynote address concluded with Dr. Abbas identifying five priorities for the next five years, urging stakeholders to concentrate on elements that either hinder or harness cooperation for enhanced connectivity. The priorities included bolstering development in border regions, promoting knowledge and skill transfers, fostering academic partnerships, supporting local transport entities, and cultivating the capacity for diversification.
Professor Shabbir Ahmed Khan highlighted global shifts towards regional structures, emphasizing Pakistan’s strategic position and proposing regional connectivity as a vital transit hub. He expressed views on the Middle Corridor and the International North-South Transport Corridor and dilated in detail on feasibility of Pakistan-Afghanistan-CAR corridor.
Dr. Farhat Asif provided valuable insights from a practical perspective. She discussed the initiatives undertaken by her institute, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and establishing trade links with Central Asian countries. Dr. Asif highlighted the challenges faced by businesses, including banking constraints and the need for enhanced information sharing.
Mr. Khalid Khan said that connectivity sector promises a lot of opportunities. He noted that Azerbaijan has become a vibrant state and is producing skilled resource base of IT professionals. He added that Central Asia is a pivotal region with untapped potential. Pakistan needs to join hands with Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan for obvious benefits and dividends. He emphasized the importance of initiating joint ventures to reap benefits from Central Asia’s 10 trillion USD market.
Ms. Reema Shaukat said Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan provide a promising opportunity for engagement. Currently, China and Central Asian republics trade surpasses 70 billion USD, a promising opportunity for Pakistan. Moreover, Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan can benefit from Pakistan’s skilled expertise on Belt and Road Initiative and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, facilitating exchanges between professionals and skilled persons. Public diplomacy and people-to-people contacts are areas where both sides enjoy close affinity. Similarly, there are also collaborating opportunities in the film industry, media houses, and youth entrepreneurship.
The discussion concluded with a consensus on practical implementation, engagement with traders, and fostering strong diplomatic ties to realize regional connectivity’s full potential with Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The discussion explored challenges and opportunities for regional connectivity, addressing geopolitical dynamics, security, and regional stability. Participants expressed optimism about enhanced infrastructure, energy flows, trade facilitation, and people-to-people exchanges.