Skand Tayal | Central Asian sea access offer could see new Quad ramp up

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The landlocked dual central Asian republic of Uzbekistan hosted a landmark conference on “Regional connectivity in Central and South Asia: challenges and opportunities” in its capital Tashkent in mid-July. Recognizing their geo-economic centrality for connectivity, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev invited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as key guests.

In his inauguration speech, the Uzbek president recalled the links between ancient times and medieval times between Central Asia and South Asia, from the Harappan civilization to the Baburid states. Babur is from the Fergana Valley, present-day Uzbekistan. He noted the current harsh reality that “there are no efficient cross-border routes and trade and economic ties are poorly developed”.

President Mirziyoyev proposed the development of modern, efficient and safe transport and logistics infrastructure in Central and South Asia. According to him, “a key element” of this connectivity architecture would be the Termez-Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway. He noted that this project “has already obtained wide support, including from the main international financial institutions”. Praising the virtues of this rail corridor, the Uzbek president said that it would “fully realize the transit potential of the two regions, form the shortest route and significantly relocate the time and cost of transporting goods between South Asia and Europe through Central Asia. ”He further noted that this trans-Afghan rail corridor would be linked to China and that it fully corresponds to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke at length, proposing Karachi and Gwadar as convenient ports for the Central Asian republics. He called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) “the BRI’s flagship project” and invited them to Central Asian countries to join the CPEC, stressing that it was “not exclusive”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed Beijing’s willingness to “join with Central and South Asian countries to forge a closer regional connectivity partnership through high-quality cooperation under the BIS ”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a four-point proposal on promoting connectivity in Central and South Asia, who stressed that “the region should stick to openness and inclusiveness.” He said China was opposed to “playing geopolitical games in the name of connectivity” and was “willing to follow the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.” He also called on the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the AfDB to invest in these connectivity projects.

For the record, Yi added that China will deepen law enforcement and security cooperation with all parts of the region and jointly fight the “three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism. “. This claim runs counter to the continued Chinese protection afforded Pakistan as a safe haven for UN-proclaimed international terrorists like Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim as well as terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e. -Mohammad.

For Uzbekistan, the BRI project could help open the transport corridor to the Persian Gulf, allowing the expansion of the country’s trade and trade routes. Uzbekistan has already expressed its wish to participate in BRI projects through bilateral and regional platforms. China is also vigorously promoting the “Economic Belt of the Silk Road” and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was a guest of honor at the first Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in 2017. At the time, from this forum, the two countries signed 115 agreements worth more than 25 billion dollars. which covered electric power, oil production, chemicals, textiles, transport, infrastructure, etc. and by road and rail to the Caspian Sea.

Uzbekistan has also joined the India-sponsored “North-South International Transport Corridor,” or INSTC, a multi-model route that will connect the port of Mumbai to Chabahar in Iran and further out to the Caspian Sea. Uzbekistan will benefit from an INSTC branch, the Trans-Caspian Railway, connecting eastern Iran to Turkmenistan, which connects to the Uzbek rail network via Urgench in Uzbekistan.

In Tashkent, there was some excitement about the “Trans-Afghan Railway” project connecting Uzbekistan via Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan to Peshawar in Pakistan. This $ 5 billion project is linked to the “Quadrilateral Agreement on Transit Traffic” between China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which is also linked to the CPEC. Uzbekistan expressed its desire to join this pact last year.
Eyebrows were raised when at the Tashkent conference the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan announced the creation of a new “quadrilateral diplomatic platform” focused on improving the regional connectivity. The US media note said that “the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, establish transit links and strengthen business-to-business ties.”
However, with the shrinking US footprint in the region and the relentless advance of the Taliban, the real connectivity quad looming on the horizon is between a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, an expansionist China, a hostile Pakistan; and Uzbekistan – the only country friendly to India in this group.

China has already indicated its readiness to work with both sides in Afghanistan. On July 28, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Tianjin with a delegation of Taliban headed by the head of the Afghan Taliban political commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Pakistan will continue to block India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and that country’s only option may be to focus on the development of Chabahar Port and INSTC. The United States must be persuaded to grant a waiver to Indian companies and other multinationals operating in the port of Chabahar.
Afghanistan is on the edge of the knife and the region would experience new geostrategic equations. India must play its cards skillfully to remain relevant and effective.


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