2nd India-Uzbekistan-Iran trilateral meeting will be hosted by India

Afghanistan has been invited for the Second India-Uzbekistan-Iran trilateral meeting on the use of Chabahar Port. Earlier this month, the first meeting was attended by the Deputy Ministers of the three Countries.

The next meeting will be hosted by India with the dates in the process of finalization, DNA India reported. Spokesman of Indian Ministry of External Affairs Anurag Shrivastava said;

“Afghanistan, as a major stakeholder, will be invited for the meeting”

Chabahar has been a key connectivity project by India toward its west and has been providing connectivity via Iran to Afghanistan and beyond. India built the Shahid Beheshti Port at Chabahar as part of the India-Iran-Afghanistan 2016 agreement.

In December 2018, an Indian company, India Ports Global Limited, took over the port operations and as of August 2020, the port has handled 1.2 million tons of cargo and 82,000 containers.

In fact, India used the port to send 75,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan as part of the humanitarian aid amid the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The proposal for the trilateral meeting was put across by Uzbekistan, which is a landlocked country and keen on several connectivity projects. And it is just not Uzbekistan, but other Central Asian countries have also shown interest in using the port, built with the help of New Delhi.

The development is seen as an important shot in the arm for India’s connectivity plans in its west, where Pakistan has played an obstructionist role. India sees Chabahar Port as a fulcrum of connectivity in the region and even the US exempted the project from Iran sanctions since it not only provided humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan but also economic alternatives.

Central Asian Connectivity

The first meeting was chaired jointly by India’s Secretary of Shipping Sanjeev Ranjan, Uzbekistan’s Deputy Minister of Transport Davron Dehkanov and Iran’s Deputy Transport Minister Shahram Adamnejad.

Using Chabahar Port for trade and transit purposes, as well as strengthened regional connectivity, were the key agenda items of the meeting. India’s keenness to explore this option comes from its desire to extend connectivity into Eurasia.

Landlocked Uzbekistan has also been interested in using the port for transit facilities into the Indian Ocean and as a means to expand its trade and transit options. It has already developed rail connectivity into Afghanistan as a means to link with Iran’s railroads, which indicates Tashkent’s seriousness.

Other Central Asian states like Kazakhstan have also been interested in exploring such options, reads an article published in The Diplomat. Excerpts follow:

Given its geostrategic location, Central Asia is also witnessing a fair share of great power competition. While the region is viewed as Russia’s immediate backyard and Moscow has traditionally maintained a dominant role in relations with Central Asia, China has steadily strengthened its footprint. India has also been pursuing both geopolitical and economic ties with the region.

Chabahar has the potential to shift some of the regional dynamics in India’s favor. First, it could prove to be a gateway to Central Asia and Eurasia, which can, most importantly, help it bypass Pakistan.

A year ago, the US administration exempted India from sanctions for the development of the port because of the benefits it potentially had for both India and Afghanistan.

An American official said, “We have provided a narrow exemption for the development of Chabahar that allows for the construction of the port and rail line that allows for the export of refined oil products to Afghanistan.”

The trilateral meeting is reported to be an outcome of India-Uzbekistan summit between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

This is clearly an effort at exploring an alternate option for Central Asia to China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

India has historical connections to Central Asia, but its relations with the region waned for a number of reasons, most importantly the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, which blocked Indian access to the region.

Since coming to office, Modi has made fresh efforts to reestablish linkages with the region, calling Central Asia a part of the country’s extended neighbourhood.

But lack of physical connectivity has proven to be a major hurdle in building trade and economic ties. Modi became the first Indian leader to travel to all five Central Asian republics, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in 2015.

Regional connectivity and infrastructure projects have also been high on Uzbekistan’s agenda. Seeing Chabahar Port as a connectivity solution for Uzbekistan is not new either.

In June 2018, following an earlier meeting between Modi and Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, then-Indian foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said the two leaders were keen to use Chabahar Port as an additional connectivity route.

Not surprisingly, at the recent bilateral summit meeting between India and Uzbekistan, infrastructure and connectivity projects figured prominently. The two countries signed nine agreements, including on counterterrorism and infrastructure-related issues.

Both Modi and Mirziyoyev agreed to pursue connectivity projects via the International North-South Transport Corridor. INSTC is a multimodal infrastructure initiative spanning around 7,200 km.

It encompasses a network of ship, rail and road routes for transiting freight across India, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Europe, with the goal of creating transport linkages among major cities, including Astrakhan, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Moscow and Mumbai.

Feasibility studies undertaken so far has shown a significant reduction of transportation costs, to the tune of $2,500 per 15 tons of cargo. India is “pitching for” Uzbek participation in the INSTC connectivity project.

India’s push with the trilateral arrangement for Uzbekistan to use Chabahar Port is important in the context of expanding bilateral, trilateral and broader regional cooperation. But more significantly, it is a geopolitical move aimed at countering growing Chinese influence in the region.

India has capacity issues in this regard compared to China, but New Delhi is planning on cashing in on existing projects to expand its reach and linkages so that Central Asian republics have an alternative to China’s BRI.