Potential of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) explored in connecting South Asia and ending their differences
· South Asia is least integrated and one of the poorest regions
· Countries have signed for regional economic projects, which call for connectivity too
· Progress on connectivity impeded by old mistrusts, but differences can be overcome by connectivity projects
27 June 2018
While South Asia is one of the least integrated regions, countries in this part of the world have signed up for at least one regional connectivity initiatives, especially the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attaining connectivity in the region beset with old rivalries and instability is, therefore, a puzzle worth exploring. There are signs that such goals can be attained.
These thoughts came in the first day of the regional conference on “Connectivity and Geo-Economics in South Asia,” organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think-tank. Participants had come from China, India, and Nepal besides academics and scholars from Pakistan. China’s acting ambassador to Pakistan Lijian Zhao delivered the keynote speech.
Taking part in the discussion, Indian intellectual Sudheendhra Kulkarni said that South Asia is the “most populous, least integrated and one of the poorest regions of the world.” Trade among South Asian countries often circumvents each other, passing through third countries.
Clearly, old rivalries still hinder progress on any pursuit of connectivity, the conference noted. Add to these are stereotypical perceptions about each other. These, the conference participants argued, have to change, should the region wants to gain maximum from economic initiatives like Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to which countries like Pakistan have already signed.
Speakers discussed the policy implications of such projects, such as more cultural contacts and cross-border economy. Former senator Afrasiab Khattak questioned the actions of closing border with Afghanistan, saying excessive money has been spent on it. He wondered if this policy even resonates with connectivity goal.
The conference also hinted it was partly to attain similar goal that Pakistan and Afghanistan established a bilateral crisis management mechanism. PIPS’s director Muhammad Amir Rana credited Chinese diplomatic effort for helping normalize those relations, underway since 2016, but went on to ask if China can facilitate a similar channel with India.
Some hinted that Iran’s Chabahar port is meant to outdo Pakistan’s Gwadar port. On this, Afrasiab Khattak said we need to overcome zero-sum game, and move towards a win-win order. Wang Xu, a scholar from China, argued that there seems to be conceptual differences about the purpose of this project. Khattak said, “We need to move from geo-politics to geo-economics”, he noted.
Scholar Fazl ur Rehman, however, hinted if that can be achieved easily, as the BRI itself is being perceived as something sort of attempt to gain political advantage, especially in the west.
Some participants called for reviving the region’s oldest connectivity platform, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Nepal’s Sangroula even wondered if without SAARC, the dividends of China’s Belt and Road Initiative will really pay off.
The conference also touched on the domestic interface of regional connectivity projects. In the context of CPEC, a domestic goal has been to uplift the people economically. That explained intense debates over which province in Pakistan will benefit from CPEC. Former senator, Taj Haider, who also headed the special committee on CPEC, said that when it came to choosing sites of CPEC projects, the question was: “shall we connect the areas that are already connected? Or shall we connect those that are undeveloped areas?”
Other speakers included former foreign secretary, Inam ul Haq; former ambassador Aziz Ahmed Khan; academics Dr. Jaffar Ahmed and Dr. Khalida Ghaus; scholar Hamayoun Khan; chambers president Zubair Motiwal, and lawyer Shahzad Akbar.