PAKISTAN AND UZBEKISTAN AGREE TO STRENGTHEN BILATERAL TIES
By Alex Pollock
Pakistan and Uzbekistan on Thursday [15 July] reaffirmed their commitment to further strengthen their fraternal ties based on religious, cultural and historical commonalities. Moreover, the two countries, expressing satisfaction at the continued progress in bilateral relations, announced the establishment of a strategic partnership for the mutual benefit of the two nations. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, after holding wide ranging bilateral talks, signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership between the two nations, with a focus on increased cooperation in the areas of trade and the economy. (The Express Tribune)
Pakistan-Uzbekistan Bilateral Political Consultations
The two leaders signed the joint declaration during Mr Khan’s two-day official visit to Uzbekistan (15-16 July) for Pakistan-Uzbekistan Bilateral Political Consultations. The agreement aims to strengthen strategic ties between the two nations. In a previously held virtual meeting (14 April), the two leaders discussed several topics including trade, visa procedures, business and tourism protocols, military and education initiatives, and the development of a cultural exchange programme. Eight agreements were signed during the meeting, including one forming the Uzbek-Pakistani Business Council. Mr Mirziyoyev welcomed the trade agreements, saying the two nations have a lot of “untapped potential” when it comes to trade. The goal is to increase the amount of trade between Uzbekistan and Pakistan by four to five times. The Trans-Afghan railway project was also on the meeting agenda, coupled with talks about improving stability and security between Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. According to Zaki Shaikh, a UK-based Central Asia analyst, the proposed railway, that would run from Kabul (Afghanistan) to Peshawar (Pakistan), would have three major benefits to the Central Asian region. Firstly, it would significantly reduce transportation costs between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan; it would also provide easier access to seaports, allowing more goods to be imported along this route; and thirdly, it would help solidify relations between Central Asian nations, thus encouraging more European countries to increase their economic dealings with the region.
Syed Ali Asad Gillani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in a piece for International, that the meeting between Mr Mirziyoyev and Mr Khan was one of two major initiatives that have the potential to bring peace and stability to the region, the other being Mr Khan’s intention to further strategic engagement with other Central Asian countries, including the railroad project. Both initiatives could drastically change Central Asia’s geopolitical dynamics, potentially moving the region towards greater political and economic prosperity.
Pakistan’s regional relations
Pakistan-Uzbekistan: Mr Khan’s trip to Uzbekistan marked his first official bilateral visit as Prime Minister. Pakistan was one of the first nations to recognise Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, and the two have enjoyed a stable relationship since. This most recent agreement between the two, to further strengthen the relationship, is part of Pakistan’s broader goal of uniting Central Asia. Since Uzbekistan shares borders with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, it is a crucial partner in achieving that goal, providing a gateway for Pakistan to reach several other Central Asian countries. In return for Uzbekistan being the ‘gateway,’ Pakistan will offer a seaport for trade, significantly increasing land-locked Uzbekistan’s trade opportunities.
“It has been an eventful year for Pakistan and Uzbekistan’s trade relations,” said Abdul Razak Dawood, Pakistan’s advisor of Commerce, Textile, Industries, Production, and Investment. “The current momentum of trade and economic relations would go a long way in cementing bilateral ties for the benefit of both countries.”
The Central Asian region is estimated to have a trade potential of $90 billion, and according to Dawood, this trade agreement will help the region reach that potential, boosting the economies of several countries in the area. The focus on economic development shared by both Pakistan and Uzbekistan is predicted to lead to other areas of cooperation as well, including business, education, and tourism.
Pakistan-Afghanistan: As part of the plan to bring long-lasting peace to Central Asia, Mr Khan and Mr Mirziyoyev discussed their support of an Afghan-led peace process in Afghanistan. However, the discussion of the topic comes as Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have hit another low point. A US peace envoy visited Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital) on 18 July, after Afghanistan withdrew its ambassador over an incident involving the ambassador’s daughter. The envoy met with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, but little has been released concerning these discussions. Afghanistan and Pakistan have a turbulent history. Over the last several years, there have been multiple incidents of violence along the countries’ shared border and both nations have accused the other of incitement. Pakistan is home to almost two million Afghan refugees, due to the four decades of war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan also accuses Pakistan of hindering the peace process, as it hosts the Taliban’s leadership, however, Pakistan claims it can use its proximity to the Taliban to encourage them to engage in peace talks. Mr Khan has said that Pakistan gains nothing from the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. He was quoted in a statement saying, “Conflict and instability in Afghanistan are not in Pakistan’s interest as it leads to serious challenges for Pakistan in areas of security and influx of refugees.” Despite this statement, Pakistan continues to provide hospital treatment to injured Taliban fighters, aggravating tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.
As two of the major players in the Central Asia region, however, if lasting peace and stability is the goal, the two will have to find a way to cooperate. The railway project will hopefully act as a bridge between Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing new economic prospects for both nations.
Pakistan-China: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also formed part of Mr Khan and Mr Mirziyoyev’s discussions. A part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the ‘Corridor’ is a $46 billion venture that includes several infrastructure projects throughout Pakistan. It was announced in April 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad. The ‘Corridor’ is the most expensive and most expansive project within the Belt and Road Initiative. The plan includes creating better connectivity between China and Pakistan, as well as other Central Asian countries, by providing new fibre optic cable capabilities, new energy pipelines, and several other investment opportunities. China and Pakistan have shared diplomatic ties since the 1950s. An analysis from the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), an organisation that focuses primarily on Indian policy, suggests that one of the most binding ties between Pakistan and China is their mutual discord with India. China’s use of the Belt and Road Initiative to improve Pakistan’s infrastructure, demonstrates its influence in the region, while better preparing its ally for future interactions with India. China also seeks to rival the United States for influence in Central Asia, and thus, through its increased investment in Pakistan, it hopes to further its reach in the region. According to the same analysis by ORF, China plans to use the ‘Corridor’ in Pakistan as an example of what is possible for other countries that welcome China’s investment. The ‘Corridor’ has, however, almost come to a complete halt, casting doubt over whether the proposed infrastructure projects can be completed.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Central Asia includes several Muslim-majority nations, including Pakistan. According to the Joshua Project, only 0.9% of Pakistan’s population is Christian. While persecution is high (Pakistan is ranked number five on the Open Doors World Watch List), the Church can function openly, though with many restrictions. In Pakistan’s neighbouring countries, Afghanistan (number two on the World Watch List) and Uzbekistan (number 21), however, it is much more difficult for Christians to attend church services or practise their faith openly within a safe environment. As a result, many Afghan people have encountered the Gospel in Pakistan since their borders have mostly been open. With the proposed railway project and the easing of visa restrictions for businesspeople and tourists, the Church in Pakistan could have the opportunity to interact and share the gospel with even more travellers, who could then take the gospel back to their home countries.
The global Church can continue to pray for Pakistani believers to take advantage of every opportunity, while also continuing to uplift the nation of Pakistan. Kamran Chaudhry, a Catholic commentator based in Lahore, wrote a piece for the Union of Catholic Asian News, detailing some of the difficulties the Church has faced in Pakistan in recent years. He writes of the deterioration of Christian neighbourhoods, the struggle to avoid the blasphemy laws, and the threat of mob attacks. Christians, as well as other minority groups, also struggle to secure work opportunities to provide for their families. If the proposed infrastructure projects are completed, with the resultant improved economic freedom in Pakistan, new opportunities could open up for local believers, as well as foreign missionaries, increasing the gospel reach in Central Asia.
Please pray with us for the following:
- For continued dialogue and cooperation between Central Asian governments and for the completion of infrastructure projects that could help develop local communities
- For greater opportunities for the Church in Central Asia to spread the gospel throughout the region
- For Pakistani believers to remain faithful and steadfast in their calling, despite the difficulties they continue to face