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Uzbek President’s Visit A Boost For India’s Central Asia Outreach

India’s outreach towards Central Asia recently received a boost with the state visit of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The fact that Uzbekistan holds a commanding position in Central Asia and that it is rich in natural resources has made it all the more important to New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a state visit to Uzbekistan in July 2015 and visited Tashkent again in June 2016 to participate in the SCO Summit. And in August this year, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Uzbekistan to underline the importance of the relationship.

The 17 agreements inked by the two sides during the President’s visit is welcome news but India will be well aware that President Mirziyoyev has already visited the U.S., China and Russia. Thus New Delhi knows it cannot take its relationship with Uzbekistan for granted. Nevertheless, talk of improving bilateral trade, improving air connectivity, creating a free trade pharmaceutical zone in the Andijan region of Uzbekistan, among other endeavours, are important areas on which a strong relationship can be formed.

On the defence front, the fact that both sides have also agreed to hold joint military counter-terrorism training exercises is a welcome move. Already both countries are working together in this regard. Apart from the ‘Uzbekistan-India Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism’, both sides are working together on this under the framework of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). Other measures such as increasing cooperation in combating illicit drug trafficking are of mutual benefit to both nations.

On the issue of India seeking permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) New Delhi will be heartened by President Mirziyoyev’s remarks. The Uzbek President’s call for reform in the UN and his support for India’s candidature has earned New Delhi a valuable ally in its bid to win the coveted seat.

India and Uzbekistan also share common concerns on Afghanistan and in resolving the Afghan crisis. However, the two countries share slightly different views on how the dialogue process should proceed. Recently, Uzbekistan hosted a high-level international conference on Afghanistan, which culminated in the adoption of the ‘Tashkent Declaration’ that calls for dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, a position that India does not support. During the Uzbek President’s visit, New Delhi conveyed its concerns on the matter and stated that it does not support dialogue with the Taliban.

Such an issue is likely to be a mild irritant as both sides are interested in the larger goal of peace and stability in Afghanistan where they share common interests. Connectivity, energy, education, skill development, health and food security are some areas where both sides share common ground. Uzbekistan has built a railway line that goes from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and is now planning to extend it all the way up to Herat. India’s efforts in Afghanistan can be seen through the Chabahar Port trilateral agreement and the planned Chabahar-Zahedan railway line. Such efforts can be aligned with that of Uzbekistan to create a relationship that will benefit both countries and provide much needed infrastructure to Afghanistan.

President Mirziyoyev’s recent visit showcased the changing geopolitical scenario in the region and underlined why a strategic partnership with Uzbekistan is so significant for India. The fact that the visit came just after the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to India was a piece of astute diplomacy on New Delhi’s part. The three countries share common concerns on the rise of ISIS in the region, and a common strategy to tackle terrorist groups is the need of the hour for them. Apart from this, India also gained by hosting the Uzbek President’s visit ahead of the much-anticipated summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, so far, has been wary of proposed Indian initiatives in Central Asia, a case in point being India’s desire for a strategic airbase in Tajikistan. A dialogue with the Uzbek President allows Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push for the strategic airbase and other issues of concern in Central Asia before President Putin. The Uzbek President’s visit has provided New Delhi with a window of opportunity which it must seize if it is to secure its interests in Central Asia.

(The writer is an Independent Researcher on the Central Asia Region. Views are personal.)