Delivering On The New Silk Road Initiative Amidst Regional Political Rivalries

By Mansoor Saadat
April 16, 2017

 The end of 2014 brought Afghanistan to a crossroad, as the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan played a significant role in its economy that plummet with the sudden decline of military spending. In 2011, the United States government adopted the New Silk Road initiative which aims at developing Afghanistan’s economy by developing energy, trade and infrastructure projects. It aims to improve regional trade between Central and South Asia – through the Afghanistan land-bridge – and thus allow for greater economic integration, peace and prosperity in the Afghan region.

This initiative is a unique opportunity for promoting regional peace and prosperity through economic cooperation. However, among a diverse set of challenges, unresolved political tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in particular, vis-à-vis India, remains one major obstacle that can delay the realisation of this initiative. Given the urgency for an economic alternative in the face of the withdrawal of foreign troops and reduced international aid for Afghanistan, regional political cooperation is more pressing. Therefore, in order to ensure timely delivery on the New Silk Road initiative in Afghanistan, the U.S. will need to provide greater incentives and confidence building measures for improving the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) relations. Hence, the core question of this research in Washington will be: 

What are achievable policy options that the U.S. government can undertake to improve AfPak relations in a way that serves the timely realization of the New Silk Road initiative? 


1. AfPak relations: Why a significant challenge?  

 Under the New Silk Road initiative, one objective is to overcome Afghanistan’s geographical isolation from its region and the rest of the world. This isolation was and still is the main cause of Afghanistan protracted poverty and underdevelopment. The neighbouring countries of Afghanistan play an important role in overcoming this isolation and in the realization of the New Silk Road initiative. The southeastern neighbour, Pakistan, is of critical significance for: a) it has enormous sway on the Afghan Taliban insurgency; and b) it geographically stands on Afghanistan’s main gateway to South Asia. The two factors are intertwined and further complicated by Pakistan-India dispute over Afghanistan. Therefore, given political tensions in the AfPak relations, Pakistan can use these two factors as leverage over Afghanistan in the realization of its regional plans, particularly the New Silk Road initiative. 

a. Pakistan: Sway on Taliban 

 Pakistan’s complex relationship with the Afghan Taliban has puzzled and challenged the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan ever since the aftermath of 9/11. The Taliban insurgency has been and still is having sanctuary in Pakistan and is growing in size, tactics and political clout, posing serious security and political challenges to the economic transition in Afghanistan. Taliban’s current political 

clout and sophisticated insurgency operations – despite a 12-year-long war against the group – is a strong indication of the level of external influence and support to Taliban insurgency. The Afghan government and the international community have continuously requested Pakistan’s support for the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban insurgency and its security implication on regional economic cooperation can stall economic cooperation over Afghanistan. 

b. Pakistan: Gateway to South Asia 

 In addition to Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan for an end to its Taliban insurgency and insecurity, it also geographically depends on Pakistan for access to South Asia. A major corridor under the New Silk Road initiative is: the Central Asia to South Asia routes that pass through Afghanistan into Pakistan leading to India and the wider South Asia region. This corridor connects South Asia’s vast energy market to the energy riches of Central Asia, and opens the markets of Central Asia and South Asia for greater flow of goods and products in an increased trade volume. On the longer term, it allows South Asian products to reach beyond Central Asia, to the Middle East and Europe and vice versa. India has estimated that if the Afghan routes open and only 20% of western trade is sent by roads, about $100 billion worth of goods will pass through Afghanistan by 2016.

 Therefore, standing on such an important and critical route of the New Silk Road initiative, Pakistan can impede regional economic cooperation by closing or complicating its border crossing points with Afghanistan. Trade and transit has always been a political instrument for Pakistan to insert pressure on Afghanistan when needed. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) have never been fully implemented. As recent as 22nd of January 2013, the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry announced that it will close all trading ties with Pakistan in protest for the release of more than three thousand containers belonging to Afghan traders, stalled in Karachi Port by Pakistani authorities for months.

c. Why would Pakistan be an obstacle? 

 Skeptics will argue that why would Pakistan delay regional economic cooperation over Afghanistan, given that it too will benefit from the cooperation? It is true that Pakistan will benefit; but regional cooperation over Afghanistan will give a greater role to other neighbours, in particular India, who is in dire need of access to central Asia. Pakistan is strategically concerned with increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan; and the development of regional trade routes with an increased Indian activity in the region can present a strategic threat to Pakistan. This is one reason, many believe, why Pakistan has been reluctant to cooperate in the fight against the Taliban. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) oil and gas pipeline has been pending – with some progress in recent years – for more than a decade for political reasons, despite its enormous economic incentive for the countries involved. 


Why is this research necessary in the U.S. and particularly in Washington D.C.? 

 The New Silk Road initiative is at the heart of the post-withdrawal-policy of the U.S. towards not only Afghanistan but the region. This initiative is important not only for the region’s economic prosperity but also for the continuity of U.S. presence in the region. Given the intensity of regional political rivalry and economic disparity, – the region is home to both world’s booming and poorest economies – the success of the New Silk Road initiative highly depends on continued U.S. presence in the region and on its role in addressing the political challenges to it. The unresolved AfPak tensions and its complicated Indian 

 Dimension remains a major obstacle. Therefore, as this research aims to study the post 2014 U.S. role in the region, it is necessary for this research to be conducted in the United States, particularly in Washington D.C., among leading U.S. policy makers and analysts. The Rumsfeld Fellowship program presents an opportunity for this research to provide concrete results and have valued impact. It will provide interaction with relevant leading U.S. think tanks, regional experts and leading academics, and most importantly U.S. officials. In addition, conducting this research in Washington D.C. will give more credibility and accuracy to its findings and therefore increase its chances of having an impact.

 Finish the Job: Jump-Start Afghanistan’s Economy, Frederick Starr & Adib Farhadi, 2012, p.13. 

2 We Will End Trade Relations With Pakistan: ACCI, ToloNews, 2013:


The Comfort Women Agreement and The Fate of Japan- Korea Relations

By Zohra Abdullah

The comfort women issue has been the defining point of Japan-ROK relations since the 1990s. Cooperation on many issues, including regional security, tackling the threat from North Korea trade ties and improving people to people relations between the two countries, has been hindered due to the persistence of the issue. This, along with domestic political pressures from within both the countries has encouraged South Korean President Park Gyun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to come up with a final and irreversible agreement, which was signed on December 28, 2015.

During World War II, several women and girls in Japanese occupied territory were allegedly forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. They were called “comfort women” and were abducted or lured with false job prospects, often at a very young age. In 1965, Japan and South Korea normalized relations through a Treaty of Basic Relations. This treaty relieves Japan of all legal responsibility but does not address the comfort women issue.

In 1993, it was a Japanese scholar who uncovered official documents indicating the military’s role in setting up comfort stations and forcibly recruiting women. On the other hand, the Japanese people still perceive themselves as victims of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and seek an apology from the US which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Civil society groups in South Korea have been hosting weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since 1992. A bronze statue dedicated to the former comfort women was placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in 2011. This statue has symbolic significance for all victims of WWII. According to the December 28, 2015 agreement signed by the two countries, the Korean government has agreed to negotiate with the civil groups who have set up the statue, but the Japanese government has since eased their stance, perhaps not wanting to potentially disrupt the smooth implementation of the agreement.

The comfort women issue has been underplayed in Japanese textbooks while it invokes strong nationalist sentiments in South Korea, leading to a perception gap in public understanding. Due to this, Koreans do not understand why Japanese people don’t feel greater remorse and Japanese people do not understand why Koreans are not willing to put the issue to rest.

Responses to the agreement


Korean opposition to the agreement has focused on Japan’s refusal to accept legal responsibility. For the Japanese government, all WWII related claims were settled in 1965 when Japan and South Korea normalized relations. Japanese leaders have previously apologized on several occasions, none of which were considered adequate by South Korea. This has led to “apology fatigue” even among those with a more liberal understanding of the issue.

Abe and the post-war generation sentiment

With an aim to free future generations from the burden of having to continue to apologize, Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII on August 15, 2015 was carefully worded to express remorse and regret but for his critics, fell short of an apology. He represents a popular sentiment among post war generations in Japan who acknowledge that they must learn from the lessons of past history but do not feel that they have to assume permanent responsibility for the actions of the Japanese military before they were even born. Abe’s objective has been to relieve Japan of an obligation to repeatedly apologize for its past, but his rhetoric has failed to convince critics of his sincerity when it comes to apologising for Japan’s war crimes. Despite Abe’s attempts to settle the issue, Japan remains under public pressure in Korea and China to not only acknowledge past misdeeds of Imperial Japan but to also accept legal responsibility for it. The latter outcome is unlike to materialise, so the issue will continue to stay alive.


Meanwhile in South Korea, the rise of a feminist movement has brought this issue into focus. Several of the former “comfort women” have come forward to share their accounts. Most of these women are in their late 80s, which means time is another factor in the resolution of the issue. However, most of these women have rejected the agreement, claiming it does not provide adequate justice. They had previously rejected the aid provided to them by the Asian Women’s Fund, criticizing the Japanese government for not providing the money directly and instead funding the organization through private donations. They have criticized the December 28, 2015 agreement for failing to provide monetary compensation as well as an unequivocal apology.

International Response

Internationally, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is from South Korea, has praised the agreement. The United States has also appreciated the agreement. However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Hussein, has echoed the thoughts of many, criticising the agreement for not including the Comfort Women in the negotiation process.

Motivations behind the agreement

Gender and National Identities

Comfort women hailed from many countries, not just from Korea. If this was truly about justice for comfort women, the agreement would transcend nationalities. It is without doubt a politically motivated agreement aiming to settle the comfort woman issue between Korea and Japan so that cooperation on other issues is not disrupted. Even the opposition to the agreement is from within the narrow interests of only the Korean comfort women.

For South Korea, the comfort women issue is a matter of national pride. Historically, women and children are the most vulnerable in any armed conflict. The issue here is greater than the experience of South Korean comfort women under Japanese military rule. It cannot be expected to be resolved through a bilateral agreement between the two countries alone. South Korea also does not have any legal claims over Japan on this issue. Given Japan’s reluctance in revisiting the past, this agreement is the farthest Japan will go to appease the Korean public.

Geopolitical Situation in East Asia: Why Japan and Korea need to cooperate

As long as Japan-South Korea relations remain strained, China’s growing assertion in the East Asia region remains unchallenged. The growing military strength behind these adversarial countries makes it a volatile situation. Strained relations between the two leading democracies of East Asia would have consequences for the Unites States as well. As the United States’ leading allies in the the region, South Korea and Japan’s cooperation in the region is imperative for the US to protect its security interests. North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons poses another threat that needs trilateral cooperation.

Reversing the irreversible

The December 28, 2015 agreement was declared “final and irreversible”. However, that does not guarantee that the agreement will be permanent. The actual implementation of the agreement is set to take place in July 2016 and is at the risk of falling apart due to public pressure. If the agreement fails to be implemented, it is unlikely that Japan will offer yet another apology.

It is, therefore, imperative for all parties that this agreement goes through. The leaderships of the two countries are optimistic and are proceeding with formalities despite these pressures. It is unlikely that the issue will cease in public debate but it is also unlikely that the leadership will allow this pressure to impede the agreement either.

What the agreement has tried to achieve is improving diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. While both leaders have domestic political motivations other than justice for the comfort women, it is important to not let this take away from the effectiveness of the agreement in delivering justice as well. The former comfort women are approaching their final years, and must be allowed adequate recognition of their suffering. Abe’s apology is being criticized for not accepting legal responsibility. Japan, however, is free from legal responsibility, having settled all war related disputes in 1965. Extending the criticism further would not only hinder diplomatic relations but also take away the last hope for any redressal for the comfort women as well.

For Japan, the comfort women are victims of history and Imperial Japan, not of modern day pacifist Japan. Japan itself has renounced war in its constitution and has been looking to play a more important role in contributing to promoting peace internationally, such as by contributing to UN peacekeeping forces. This vision of Japan contrasts with its past as an aggressive expansionist imperial power. For Japan to successfully balance the responsibility of its past with its vision of the future, it must continue to engage other countries which still hold it accountable through gestures of reconciliation, such as the December 28, 2015 agreement.