Pakistan sits between two economically very dynamic regions: Central Asia (and Western China) and South Asia. Which region is better suited for its economic connectivity and integration? Should Islamabad focus on CAREC (Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation) rather than SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation)?
Ideally, Pakistan should be a major player in both vibrant regions. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's policy of attempting to isolate Pakistan has essentially forced it to choose.
First, Mr. Modi decided to boycott this year's SAARC summit that was scheduled to take place in Islamabad, Pakistan. Then, he unsuccessfully attempted to hijack the BRICS economic summit in India to use it as a political platform to attack and isolate Pakistan. The signal to Pakistan was unmistakable: Forget about SAARC.
Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC):
CAREC is a growing group of nations that is currently made up of 11 members, including China and a list of STANs. The current membership includes Afghanistan (joined CAREC in 2005), Azerbaijan (2003), People's Republic of China (1997), Georgia (2016), Kazakhstan (1997), Kyrgyz Republic (1997), Mongolia (2003, Pakistan (2010), Tajikistan (1998), Turkmenistan (2010) and Uzbekistan (1997).
The last ministerial meeting of CAREC nations was held in Islamabad in October, 2016. The conference theme was “Linking connectivity with economic transformation".
Welcoming fellow ministers, Pakistan's Finance Minister Ishaq Dar talked about the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to improve trade flow within the region and with the rest the rest of the world.
Dar said CPEC offered a massive opportunity for connectivity between Central Asia, Middle East and Africa and was bound to play a defining role in economic development of the regions.
Dar said improving the transport corridor was not an end in itself but it was an investment in establishing sound infrastructure and complementary frameworks for shared prosperity of the present and future generations in the region, according to a report in Pakistani media.
CAREC region is building six economic corridors to link Central Asian nations. Six multi-national institutions support the CAREC infrastructure development, including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, according to Khaleej Times.
Out of the total $27.7 billion CAREC infrastructure investment so for, $9.9 billion or 36 per cent was financed by ADB, a senior officer of the Manila-based multinational bank told Khaleeej Times.
He said other donors had invested $10.9 billion while $6.9 billion was contributed by CAREC governments. Of these investments, transport got the major share with $8 billion or 78 per cent. Asian Development Bank Vice President Wencai Zhang said: "There are huge financing requirements in Carec for transport and trade facilitation, for which 108 projects have been identified at an investment cost of $38.8 billion for the period 2012-2020. Investment for the priority energy sector projects will be $45 billion in this period."
CPEC North-South Corridor:
China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a major part of the north-south corridor that will allow trade to flow among CAREC member countries, many of which are resource-rich but landlocked nations. The corridor will enable the group to access to the Pakistani seaports in Gwadar and Karachi as part of the new maritime silk route (MSR) as envisioned by China and Pakistan.
Pakistan's Finance Minister Dar says the CPEC would complement the regional connectivity initiatives of CAREC. "Once the six CAREC corridors and mega ports, now under construction, start operating, they will provide access to global markets. They will deliver services that will be important for national and regional competitiveness, productivity, employment, mobility and environmental sustainability. All of us should gear our national policies to achieve these targets."
CPEC consists of transport and communication infrastructure—roads, railways, cable, and oil and gas pipelines—that will stretch 2,700 kilometers from Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to the Khunjerab Pass at the China-Pakistan border in the Karakorams.
China and Pakistan are developing plans for an 1,800 kilometer international rail link from the city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in Western China to Pakistan's deep-sea Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea, according to Zhang Chunlin, director of Xinjiang's regional development and reform commission.
"The 1,800-kilometer China-Pakistan railway is planned to also pass through Pakistan's capital of Islamabad and Karachi," Zhang Chunlin said at the two-day International Seminar on the Silk Road Economic Belt in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, according to China Daily.
"Although the cost of constructing the railway is expected to be high due to the hostile environment and complicated geographic conditions, the study of the project has already started," Zhang said. "China and Pakistan will co-fund the railway construction. Building oil and gas pipelines between Gwadar Port and China is also on the agenda," Zhang added.
Pakistan is making a serious effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a member of CAREC. A trilateral conference of China, Russia and Pakistan is scheduled this month in Moscow as part of this effort. Afghan instability has prevented Pakistan from connecting with other STANs for commerce and trade. Now the development of CPEC will enable Pakistan to bypass Afghanistan, if necessary, to connect with Central Asia region through Western China.
History shows that growth of regional and global trade in East Asia, Europe and North America regions has been a major driver of economic opportunity and prosperity. Unfortunately, SAARC has been a huge disappointment for Pakistanis. With the development of CPEC and CAREC, Pakistan can now begin to participate in the growth of regional and global trade that will benefit the people of Pakistan. The path to Pakistan's participation in SAARC will open up if or when India-Pakistan relations improve.