In Chabahar Port, India Sees Gateway To Connect Better With Central Asian Republics

Nitin A. Gokhale New Delhi 23 January 2019

India’s outreach to the Central Asian Republics is witnessing a fresh impetus nearly four years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi revived the ties by touring all the five countries in the region.

Earlier this month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj co-hosted with her Uzbekistan counterpart Abdulaziz Khafizovich Kamilov the first India-Central Asian dialogue at Samarkand to begin a new initiative called India-Central Asia Development Group. Significantly, Afghanistan was a special invitee at the meeting aimed at substantially enhancing economic engagement and development partnership between India and Central Asia.

The idea behind inviting Afghanistan was to extend the India-Iran-Afghanistan trade partnership to the Central Asian Republics by using the facilities that are being built at the Chabahar port in Iran. The land-locked countries of Central Asia, hampered by geography, are seeking new ways to break out of their isolation by joining new infrastructure initiatives including the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

By supporting Afghanistan’s participation in the Samarkand meeting, India is providing an alternative to these countries and reviving their age-old civilizational and trade ties with India. The joint statement of all the foreign ministers in fact noted: “The Ministers welcomed the participation of Afghanistan in the first meeting of the “India-Central Asia” Dialogue as an important land link in the regional cooperation, transit of goods and energy and expressed support and commitment of Central Asian countries and India to peace, security and stability of Afghanistan; to promote inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan owned peace process and reconciliation; and to assist in economic reconstruction of Afghanistan through the implementation of joint infrastructure, transit and transport, energy projects including regional cooperation and investment projects.”

New Delhi’s outreach is based on the belief that traditional ties with Central Asia over centuries gives India unmatched goodwill among these countries. But as a collective of modern nation states, the CARs have not had the same level of involvement or engagement with India because of changed borders and geopolitics. New Delhi believes that the conference attended by foreign ministers of India, Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is the beginning of a new phase in this region.

Central to the idea, Central Asian watchers say, is to utilise the Chabahar port that India and Iran are building together as a starting point of an alternate route into Afghanistan and beyond. The Shahid Beheshti port at Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan Province on the shore of Gulf of Oman got off the ground in December 2018 with the launch of formal operations by the India Ports Global Ltd, marking the beginning of the first phase of the India-Iran joint project. India has committed over US $2 billion for constructing the 500 km Chabahar-Zahedan (Afghanistan) rail link. Operationalising this rail link should allow an increase in the India-Afghanistan trade volume. However, Indian authorities feel that the port will not be sustainable in the long run unless the Central Asian republics also use the facilities for a two-way trade with India. The Indian foreign minister also underlined the importance of Chabahar in her concluding address. “As you are aware, the joint efforts of India, Iran and Afghanistan have led to the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran as a viable route to connect to Afghanistan and potentially to Central Asia. In this context, we will be happy to see participation from Central Asian countries at the forthcoming Chabahar Day International Conference in Chabahar on 26 February 2019. India has also put forward several proposals towards enhancing our cultural cooperation and training programmes for capacity building for candidates from Central Asia.”

The joint statement at the end of the meeting noted that the foreign ministers also “showed interest in further deepening cooperation in development of transit and transport-communication potential of the countries of Central Asia, improving the transport and logistics system of the region, promoting joint initiatives to create regional and international transport corridors. In particular, the participants welcomed the accession of India into the Ashgabat agreement on creating an international transport and transit corridor.”

India, having taken the initiative, is likely to extend a similar partnership model it follows in Africa to CARs too. As Sushma Swaraj announced: “Development partnership has emerged as an important component of India’s engagement with other countries. Today, I offered to extend this partnership to Central Asia as well, where we can bring our countries closer by taking up concrete projects, inter alia, under our Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing our expertise. In this connection, India proposes the setting up of the “India-Central Asia Development Group” to take forward this development partnership between India and Central Asian countries. All our countries will be represented in this G2G group. This Group will be requested to come up with concrete proposals.”

It has taken more than three years for India to follow up on the breakthrough visit by Prime Minister Modi to all the CARs at one go in 2015 and start a collective development initiative. From here on, a definite roadmap with clearly laid out milestones, will be needed to translate the potential into outcomes.

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