In a world of interdependence and increasing geo-economics, infrastructure and political will are the two indispensable things for furthering cooperation. No state can tap its tangibles if it lags behind either in policy-orientation or subdues its geographical potential by opting for protectionism. The classic case is of South Asia and Southwest Asia, wherein member states had preferred to live with a paranoid political prism and undermined the synergies of trade, investment, culture and tourism. The result is vehement discord and degeneration of talent and expertise.
Two regions are worth studying. One is the seven-member SAARC, where there is a complete lack of political will to trade despite viable connectivity and presence of infrastructure. Second, is the troika called RCD, also known as Economic Cooperation Organization, comprising primarily Turkey, Iran and Pakistan where slumber resides. The potential of trade with both the prisms is worth millions of dollars, and Pakistan while sitting at the juncture of crisscross has a lot to benefit. But that is not happening, and it is all owing to conflict of interests.
The good point, however, is that the ECO trade is reviving. With a population of around 500 million, and an area of 8 million square kilometers, the ECO contribution to global trade is around $661 billion in 2020. And it spans up to the United States and all across Europe and Africa. A lot of activity is witnessed and, of late, the successful initiation of Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) goods train journey is a valuable addition. After being dormant for a decade, the once-hampered 6,500 kilometers track is now getting back to life.
The frequenting of freight trains between the three countries, which usually are on a single-stretch run for 15 days, can be a game-changer and usher in renewed cooperation. From Aza Khel Dry Port, around 150 kilometers near Islamabad, up to Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul via Zahedan-Tehran, the great combination of Broad and Standard gauge rail network is worth-emulating on similar destinations in the region.
Pakistan Railways plans to lay the country’s first 635km-long standard gauge rail track from Quetta to Taftan with an estimated cost of $500 million. Iran will humbly connect the same through a 95km-long new track across the international border up to Zahedan. This will make Pakistan’s outbound goods trains compatible with international standards and help in making inroads into Europe and Central Asia.
A gigantic similar project to lay the first-ever railway track through Afghanistan is close to the heart in CPEC’s second phase. It would rewrite history by linking the region up to Serbia in the East and London in the West. This is owing to the push and pull of simmering production and a soaring population. Borders are rapidly turning to be name-sake lines and the mass exodus via Turkey to the shores of Europe during the heydays of civil unrest in Syria and Iraq proved it more conveniently.
Taking a quick turn to South Asia, a report from the Asian Development Bank is eye-opening. It says Pakistan exhibits one of the lowest trade-to-GDP ratios in the world showing at just 30 per cent. This could rise manifold if the present dismal trade statistics with its neighbours improve. It could throw open vistas in specialisation. Access to wider markets, import of technological know-how and end of black-marketing are hallmarks that await regional trade. India is one important trading partner where the potential could have excelled as by land and rail they are symmetrically linked up to Bangladesh and beyond in Far East Asia.
It’s time to focus on regional trade. By 2050, China and India will be 20 and 15 per cent of the global economy, respectively. With a demographic growth at 2.5 per cent, Pakistan will have 380 million people by the middle of the century, needing around 2 million jobs a year. This can only be addressed through rejuvenated collaborations transcending borders. Hope someone is listening!
Note: This article appeared in Tribune, dated 21 February 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.