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Attracted by a rising India, Central Asia is rediscovering the Iranian port of Chabahar

By on September 11, 2022 0

Earlier this year, when India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Tashkent for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) State Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, he pleaded for the participation of Uzbekistan in the port of Chabahar. His Pakistani counterpart, meanwhile, pleaded for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

For the landlocked countries of Central Asia, connectivity is the highest priority, both economically and strategically. For countries with double landlocks like Uzbekistan, this takes on even more importance. And the shortest route to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and to South Asia and beyond is through Af-Pak. This is why Central Asian countries have made special efforts to integrate Afghanistan into their regional connectivity plans and, by extension, into their foreign policy. This policy has been followed regardless of the government in power in this war-torn country. In 2021, Uzbekistan hosted a major connectivity conference in which President Ashraf Ghani was one of the attendees, along with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was also battling for countries in Asia central. And again this year he organized an international conference on Afghanistan, where the Taliban were the representatives, signaling Tashkent’s willingness to do business with whoever was in power.

The geography of Afghanistan was the main reason for the decision of Central Asian countries to host the Taliban in Kabul a year ago, with the exception of Tajikistan. Afghanistan’s geostrategic location as a traffic circle linking South and Central Asia makes its territory a coveted transit route for landlocked Central Asian states to access markets and services. resources from South Asia and perhaps even further afield. The transit passage through Afghanistan offers the shortest route. To this end, a number of regional mega-projects like CASA 1000 – Central Asia to South Asia Electricity Project, and TAPI – Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India Gas Pipeline have been designed with the active support and the encouragement of great powers like the United States.

To this end, Uzbekistan built the Termez – Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar railway and also partnered with Iran to use the port of Chabahar. At last year’s Connectivity Conference, Uzbekistan also became a member of the South Asia-Central Asia QUAD alongside the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan for “regional support to the process of peace in Afghanistan and post-settlement”, “in principle to establish a new quadrilateral”. diplomatic platform focused on improving regional connectivity”. Also to this end, Turkmenistan has pursued the TAPI pipeline that would deliver Turkmen gas to energy-starved Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, while diversifying Turkmenistan’s export market, which currently depends almost entirely from China.

It is precisely for this reason that in 2016 Turkmenistan opened a rail link with Afghanistan. On the Turkmen side, the link ended at the Ymamnazar customs checkpoint where Turkmenistan has built a terminal for petroleum products with an annual capacity of 540,000 tons, and on the Afghan side, the link went up to the dry port of Aqina in the province of Faryab. In January 2021, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan inaugurated three major energy projects aimed at strengthening bilateral and regional ties. One was a 153 km long power transmission line which was part of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) road project for the export and import of electricity between the three countries. The second was a fiber optic project to provide internet to users in Herat in Afghanistan and surrounding provinces and the third was a rail link between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

In a similar vein, in March this year, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev paid a state visit to Pakistan – his first-ever visit to the country after taking office in Tashkent in 2016. The two countries have agreed to develop and expand their strategic collaboration across sectors and to sign a strategic partnership treaty, but at the heart of the meeting was trade and investment, and therefore connectivity. For Uzbekistan’s vast resources and the search for markets from its landlocked geography, Pakistan offers the shortest route to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and markets in Asia and Africa.

Nevertheless, the ongoing unrest in the region has put a damper on the plans of the landlocked Central Asian states. In Afghanistan, unrest continues even after the Taliban seizes power, as evidenced by the wave of violence fomented both by the Taliban against its civilian population, as well as in attacks by ISIS-KP; and in Pakistan, particularly in its province of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and Balochistan through which all trade routes from Uzbekistan via Afghanistan must pass and where the port of Gwadar is located. Recently, in August, Reuters reported that the Western-backed $1.2 billion CASA 1000 project to connect Central Asia to South Asia via a power line had been suspended in Afghanistan due to ongoing unrest.

Although Af-Pak provides the shortest routes, geopolitical realities have forced these states to look elsewhere. And the most obvious transit points are through Iranian ports – particularly the port of Chabahar which India is developing; and the International North-South Multimodal Transport Corridor (INSTC) which connects Russia via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to India. On July 7, 2022, the Russian company RZD Logistics successfully carried out its first shipment of goods to India via INSTC. It has further given a boost to the landlocked states of Central Asia that of the two routes, one via Afghanistan and the other via Iran, the latter is currently more feasible and sustainable given the stability relative to the latter. The significance of Chabahar, where India is developing the Shahi Beheshti Crossing, can be gauged by the fact that it was exempted from the series of sanctions the Donald Trump administration had imposed on Iran. Initially important for India’s connectivity with Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan, it has become an important gateway for India to access Central Asian markets and resources without passing through Pakistani territory. , given Pakistan’s stubborn refusal to grant India transit rights through its territory.

In 2021, the Minister of External Affairs proposed to connect the INSTC to the port of Chabahar for obvious logistical solidity. He also proposed to include Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the INSTC to form its “eastern corridor”.

In 2020, Uzbekistan participated in the first trilateral working group with India and Iran to discuss the joint use of Chabahar Port. While he simultaneously backed routes through Pakistan, his more recent discussions with Indian NSA MP Vikram Misri in Tashkent hinged on the sober realization that trade through the port of Chabahar was more realistic for the time being. In July, India and Uzbekistan agreed to conduct a pilot container shipment from Tashkent to India, using the multimodal route via Iran’s Chabahar port. This was agreed during a meeting between Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Investment and Foreign Trade Jamshid Khodjaev. “India and Uzbekistan have agreed that this new prospect could open up the future possibilities of a Trans-Caspian Multimodal Transit Corridor between the Central Asian and South Asian regions,” said a port ministry document. , navigation and waterways.

Likewise, Afghanistan’s other Central Asian neighbor, Turkmenistan, which has gone to great lengths to cultivate relations with Afghanistan, now understands that joining INSTC will serve it better. Also bordering Iran, Turkmenistan had not been part of the INSTC. During his visit to Ashkhabad in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the gas-rich but cash-strapped country to join the INSTC. Last August, following an international conference on landlocked connectivity in Turkmenistan, the country announced that it would join the INSTC founded by India, Iran and Russia. Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said on August 19: “Today Turkmenistan started the process of joining this agreement during a briefing following the international conference landlocked countries.

The Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries have added grist to the mill. Most Central Asian countries remain dependent on transit routes through the Russian Federation, and the conflict in Ukraine has necessitated the search for alternative routes. For the foreseeable future, the utility of Chabahar and INSTC will triumph over that of the others.

Read also : After the Ukrainian crisis, Central Asia takes its destiny into its own hands

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specializing in Eurasian geopolitics. Opinions expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)