In this highly globalized post-modern era, no country can exist in isolation nor can it claim to become self-reliant. Therefore, we can witness that countries have tried to enhance their economic relations and dependency upon one another. That’s exactly why China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being hailed as a ‘game-changer’ or ‘flagship’ project not only for China-Pakistan but also for the entire region. This corridor unfolds immense opportunities for regional landlocked states like Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics (CAR’s). It decreases Chinese dependence on South China Sea as well as Malacca Strait while it provides a secure and the shortest route to China. Like other economic corridors, the prime focus of CPEC is to increase interdependence for business, trade, industrial development, and ensure overall societal growth. In real terms, China holds the key to connect the whole region for economic activities by ensuring a win-win situation. China as an emerging economic superpower needs to explore and build alternate routes for its energy security; therefore, this route not only reduces Chinese time and cost but also links China with Central Asia, Middle East and Africa. According to ‘Obama’s 2012 Regional Strategy-Pivot to East Asia’, CPEC is a strategy of China to reduce American influence in South East Asia, hence, has many implications for China-America strategic competition.
The phrase regional integration implies regional connectivity and developing infrastructure, communication, cooperation and interdependence for a successful growing economy across the globe. According to the theory of economic integration, the aim is to promote free market economy by minimizing tariff and other trade related restrictions. The regional integration process basically deals with both political as well as economic dimensions. In post-WWII, the emergence of liberal school of thought mainly focuses on economic integration. One success story is EFTA (European Free Trade Association) which has almost abolished tariff and other restrictions among its member states. The shared vision is to promote open markets, free movement of labor, capital transformation, and currency union for achieving regional connectivity. The European Union model for regional integration is yet another classic case study for emulation by Central and South Asian states for ensuring peace and economic prosperity in the region. But it is only possible when each country plays its positive role for integration and is willing to contribute to the shared vision.
CPEC is indeed a giant leap forward which is meant to integrate South Asia, Central Asian landlocked states, less developed western China, Iran and Middles Eastern states. Basically, it provides economic connectivity between resource-starving states and resource-rich regions. This kind of regional integration enhances peace, promotes tranquility and ensures economic prosperity for the whole region. Therefore, regional integration can only be achieved when whole region sincerely strives to improve infrastructure, transport connectivity and increase trading activities. Unfortunately, Pakistan is situated in a complicated neighborhood having a contentious relationship with its two neighbors ? Afghanistan and India. With Afghanistan, Pakistan shares extensive historical, cultural and social affinities owing to the presence of the Pashtun population on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. However, it is a happy omen to know that social and economic linkages have continued to exist despite tensions in their inter-state relations. With a population of approximately 32.5 million, Afghanistan as a landlocked country, shares its borders with Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and China. Being largely dependent on agriculture, it exports lumps to Pakistan, India, Turkey, and Russia. It carries its major trade through Karachi and Gwadar Port, making it a strong competitor to support CPEC. Through CPEC, Afghanistan can access Gwadar, saving nearly 600km distance for its trading activities.
Geographically, South Asia is bordered by Central Asia, West Asia and Southeast Asia on its different ends. The South Asian nations are also members of regional organizations such as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It reflects the political and strategic significance of South Asia in regional and international politics. South Asia is important because of the diverse traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Meanwhile, as political issues and security interests have taken precedence over economic cooperation in the region, active conflicts have also undermined prospects of regional cooperation. Despite strategic differences among the South Asian states, particularly between India and Pakistan, efforts have been made to promote regional integration and cooperation. Since transport connectivity influences trade patterns and regional production networks by directly impacting the competitiveness of goods, the South Asian countries have made efforts to improve cross-border transport connectivity, however, transport facilitation measures have lagged behind. Connecting inland production hubs and manufacturing centers across South Asia is crucial for enhancing regional trade.
Political interests in South Asia are not only confined to India-Pakistan relations. As the smaller South Asian nations attempt to find a balance between the Indian and Chinese influences in the region, differences have emerged between India and Nepal; and India and Sri Lanka. Despite occasional differences, smaller nations, however, have not held back the agenda of SAARC. As described above, India-Pakistan tensions have directly impacted the SAARC agenda. One of the prime benefits of linking Central Asian Republics with CPEC is that Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are rich in oil and gas, therefore, their petroleum products are exported to China or Russia mostly by pipeline through Russia land routes. CPEC would also provide Pakistan with an opportunity to strengthen its relations with Central Asian Republics and it would also import oil and gas to Pakistan at much cheaper rates.
It goes beyond saying that the region would have more peace, greater prosperity, and increased business through CPEC. Furthermore, one of the greatest dividends of this larger than life vision is people-to-people contact which refers to inter-cultural exchange to appreciate the cultural diversity that region is blessed with. Moreover, the CPEC is also significant in ensuring China as a central cohesive force across Asia and the world.
CPEC has enormous potential to drive economic growth and development. Production and trade have already multiplied through expansion in transport connectivity. However, the regional integration and bilateral cooperation in South Asia have been marred by mistrust and hostilities. Unfortunately, under the framework of SAARC, regional cooperation has not made much of headway. In recent years, Pakistan has focused more on investing in transport infrastructure to enhance national and regional connectivity. The CPEC is a North-South trade and transit corridor focusing on infrastructure and industrial development. Linking up the CPEC with Pakistan’s western and eastern neighbors, Afghanistan, Iran and India respectively, would address the challenge of navigating regional politics. It would also allow the Pakistani and Chinese businesses to tap into the markets in Afghanistan, Iran and India. For this purpose, the regional cooperation, under the framework of SAARC, to connect with Afghanistan and India, can be initiated to lower trade barriers, link road and railway networks and encourage regional economic cooperation. With Afghanistan and Iran, Pakistan can strengthen bilateral cooperation and also operationalise the ECO and European trade frameworks. East-West linkages with Pakistan’s neighbors can, in future, lead to the building of trust and confidence between Pakistan and India and also improve Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Afghanistan.