By: Dr. ATHAR ZAFAR, Analyst on CIS Countries
Uzbekistan hosted a high-level International Conference titled “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities” at Tashkent, recently. The conference was an initiative of the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. It was attended by President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Ministers from Central Asian, West Asian and South Asian countries, including Minister of External Affairs of India Dr. S. Jaishankar. Delegates from over 40 countries and about 30 international organizations, and heads of think tanks participated in the conference.
Inaugurating the Conference, the President of Uzbekistan spoke about close historical connections between Central Asia and South Asia, including India. Mr. Mirziyoyev referred to famous connectivity lines like the Silk Route and Uttarpath. He mentioned great Indian personalities like Sushruta, Charaka, Brahmagupta of the past, and Mirza Ghalib and Rabindranath Tagore from recent times.
He underlined the historical proximity of two regions and the importance of strengthening it on the basis of mutual trust and interests. President Mirziyoyev said the world has entered an era of global geopolitical transformations and that the ‘revival of mutual ties between Central and South Asia, where about two billion people live today, is becoming an even more demanding and objective process’.
President Mirziyoyev also made certain proposals, including holding an annual inter-regional forum to discuss how to enhance the economic agenda of cooperation and increase investments among the countries of the two regions.
The international conference was also addressed online by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He said connectivity is central to economic growth and sustainable development, leading to regional cooperation and friendly relations among near and far neighbours. He urged active and collective engagement in support of Afghanistan’s peace and security.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan in his remarks criticized Pakistan for its policy towards Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan has failed to prevent the cross-border movement of jihadi fighters, and as per reports, about 10,000 fighters had crossed into Afghanistan only last month.
He slammed Islamabad for failing to meet its commitments to influence the Taliban to participate in serious talks on Afghanistan. President Ghani reiterated that “We are prepared to face the Taliban and their supporters for as long as it takes until they realise that a political solution is the only way forward.”
India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was the first to address the plenary session of the conference. He also jointly moderated it. In his address, he talked about robust connectivity within and between Central and South Asia in the past and said that India’s focus has been to rebuild the links.
He termed connectivity an economic multiplier and that it acquires a particular salience in the context of post-Covid economic recovery. He underlined that connectivity efforts must be based on economic viability and financial responsibility. They should promote economic activity and not create debt burdens.
Dr. Jaishankar said that for Central Asian countries, Chabahar port in Iran provides a ‘secure, viable and unhindered access to the sea. The port has been proposed to be included in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). It may be added that an India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan Quadrilateral Working Group has been formed on the joint use of Chabahar port.
The External Affairs Minister said that economic growth is driven by connectivity, commerce and contacts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has on many occasions emphasized on 3Cs (Commerce, Connectivity and Culture) for bringing nations together. He added that no serious connectivity can ever be a one-way street and mentioned that
“blocking connectivity in practice while professing support in principle” benefits none.
The Tashkent conference succeeded in generating further interest in reconnecting the two regions of Central Asia and South Asia. Central Asia is a landlocked region and Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country. Smooth surface connectivity becomes vital for the economies of the region. The initiative taken by Uzbekistan has wider support of regional countries and the international community, including India. However, the security situation in Afghanistan remains a concern in connecting the two regions.