On 15-16 July 2021, Tashkent hosted a high-level International Conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities”. The forum, initiated by Uzbekistan, brought together high-ranking officials from 40 countries, as well as delegations of major partner international organizations and financial institutions.
The key speakers of the opening and the plenary sessions of the Conference were President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, foreign ministers of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, and others.
The forum provided a convenient venue to discuss a burning issue for both regions – Afghanistan. Moreover, the main message was the urgency of peaceful resolving of Inter-Afghan conflict and the need to involve Afghanistan in the economic and integration processes
The conference has generated a lot of positive ideas, which, if implemented in real life, would turn the regions of Central and South Asia into a prosperous Eurasian space.
The participants have adopted a Joint Statement.
Uzbekistan: a constructive dialogue is needed between Central and South Asia
Welcoming the participants of the conference, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev expressed confidence that an active and constructive dialogue between the countries of Central and South Asia will open up new opportunities for the fuller realization of their trade, economic, cultural and civilizational potential.
This requires the development and implementation of effective measures for the free movement of investments, goods and services, the formation of a developed system of transport communications and energy infrastructure, the introduction of digital systems. Appropriate measures could be fixed in a multilateral agreement on economic cooperation between the countries of two regions, he told.
The Termez – Mazar-I-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar railway is intended to become a key element of the entire architecture of connectivity of our regions, Mirziyoyev said, speaking about the transport and communication dimension.
The project of construction of the Trans-Afghan railway corridor in the future will able to connect the countries of Central Asia with China and other major economies of the Asia-Pacific region.
The common search for ways to ensure food security can be another area of cooperation. Uzbekistan proposed to hold a meeting of agriculture ministers under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to develop a Program to overcome these challenges. This document should provide for joint research, the introduction of advanced technologies, the implementation of industrial cooperation projects.
The countering terrorism, extremism, transnational crime, including in cyberspace is among the priority areas of cooperation, the Uzbek leader said. As a first step, he proposed to elaborate a Joint Anti-Drug Action Plan with the participation of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Uzbekistan expressed its readiness to organize a special expert meeting on these issues on the sidelines of the upcoming international conference in Tashkent in November this year dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Joint Action Plan for the Implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia.
In his remarks, the President of Uzbekistan listed a number of opportunities for Central and South Asia in the humanitarian sector: ecology and promotion of green development; development of a program within the World Tourism Organization that will be aimed at popularizing the historical and cultural heritage of the two regions; a proposal to hold an international forum “Historical Heritage of Central and South Asia” under the auspices of UNESCO; creation of a Youth Council of Central and South Asian countries; creation of an online platform for cooperation between universities and research centers; creation of a permanent expert pool to promote regional cooperation.
Pakistan offers its infrastructure for better connectivity of Central and South Asia
Prime Minister Imran Khan noted in his speech that Pakistan’s unique geographical location provides the shortest and most economical sea route for cost-effective transit trade through the ports of Karachi and Gwadar.
Pakistan also welcomes cooperation between Gwadar and other ports in the regions.
Another project – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is also able to lay the foundation for much larger connectivity networks in the future.
However, as Imran Khan stressed, stability is of paramount importance for optimal results. And in this regard, he mentioned two serious challenges. One of them is the situation in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan will continue to support all initiatives for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” he added.
Another challenge is the unresolved Pakistani-Indian dispute over Kashmir issue, which hinders the full realization of the economic potential of cooperation between the largest markets of China, India, and Central Asia.
Afghanistan – Asian Roundabout
President Ashraf Ghani told about his country’s plans to turn Bagram Airport and other military airports into hubs of trade and connectivity.
“As a state, we are dedicated to a clear vision of peace, stability and prosperity through internal reforms and regional cooperation”, President Ghani assured, adding that the pursuit of a political settlement to the conflict with the Taliban is a national priority.
He called on the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government to end the war, and also called on Pakistan to use its influence and leverage for peace and cessation of hostilities.
Regarding his expectations from the countries of the region, Ashraf Ghani said: “Please approach Afghanistan from the perspective of our potential as an Asian Roundabout, where for millennia we have functioned as a hub for flows of civilizations, cultures, goods, ideas and people.”
According to Ghani, Afghanistan is not asking for sympathy, but “but for clear definition of your interests in enduring the stability and prosperity of your own countries and people and finding mechanisms for convergence with our interests”.
China stands ready to forge connectivity between Central and South Asia
Member of the State Council, foreign minister of China Wang Yi expressed his country’s readiness to collaborate with the countries of Central and South Asia to enhance regional connectivity partnership.
To this end, Wang Yi put forward a four-point proposal:
First, countries in the region should stick to openness and inclusiveness and uphold the spirit of partnership. China opposes playing geopolitical games in the name of connectivity and is willing to follow the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits, to create a bright future of integrated development with all parties.
Second, China backs the building of a corridor connecting Central and South Asia, helping countries in the region transform from “land-locked” to “land-connected” nations, and jointly building a major international transport route connecting Europe with Asia and linking the north with the south.
Third, countries in the region should adhere to the principle of mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, and increase financing services. China calls on the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Silk Road Fund to invest in connectivity projects.
Fourth, countries in the region should stick to the principle of common security and overcome obstacles in the cooperation. We urge relevant countries to honor their commitments, fulfill their obligations, and strive to prevent the deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan.
“China will continue to work with the international community, especially Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, to facilitate peace talks and give full play to the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other mechanisms”, Wang Yi stressed.
In addition, the Minister expressed the readiness of China to deepen cooperation with all parties in the fight against the “three forces” – terrorism, separatism and extremism, drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.
India promotes the idea of using the Iranian port of Chabahar
In his speech, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar supported the idea of wider involvement of the Iranian port of Chabahar in regional connectivity.
“We have proposed to include the Chabahar port in the framework of INSTC. The formation of India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan Quadrilateral Working Group on the joint use of Chabahar port is a welcome development”, he noted.
According to the Indian foreign minister, connectivity acquires a particular salience in the context of post-Covid economic recovery. It is itself an economic multiplier. But there is a widespread realization of the need now for more resilient and reliable supply chains.
“This is not just a matter of production; it is equally a challenge of efficient logistics. All of us need more and multiple options. And this applies to the domain of connectivity most of all”, he stressed.
Turkmenistan proposed to create Central Asia – South Asia Business Council
Speaking at the plenary session, foreign minister Rashid Meredov paid special attention to the development of trade, economic and investment partnership between the regions and outlined the position of Turkmenistan in the process of creating effective transport and energy linkages. He proposed to use the potential of regional organizations in this regard and stressed the importance of Afghanistan’s engagement in these projects.
It was noted that Turkmenistan has been focused on activation of transport and transit communication along the East-West and South-North routes, with access to the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and Europe using the potential of the Caspian Sea.
In this context, the Turkmen side offered to consider the possibility of creating a Central Asia-South Asia Business Council in the interests of developing and expanding trade and economic ties between the countries within the framework of interregional cooperation.
The Turkmen side also called on the countries of the regions to establish close international cooperation in the field of scientific and medical diplomacy.
Russia supports the idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about the Russian initiative to form the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which is supposed to create an integration space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, as free as possible for the movement of goods, capital, labor and services, open to all Eurasian countries without exception and regional associations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“Higher connectivity between Central and South Asia is opening new vistas for the development of trade, economic and investment processes on the Eurasian continent”, Lavrov stressed.
This implies an expansion of transport routes, particularly railways, between the two regions. This would become an important element in creating a seamless, united logistical space that would link the southern ports in Iran and India with northern cities in Russia and EU countries
The Russian foreign minister also highlighted the prospects of energy projects. As an example, he cited the nuclear power plant project being implemented in Uzbekistan and expressed interest in participating in the new gas transportation routes, including the TAPI gas pipeline project.
In his remarks, Lavrov spoke on the Afghan issue, since “the plans for promoting transport, logistics and energy projects, which are connecting Central and South Asia, must fully take into account the security situation on the ground.”
“Only a comprehensive settlement of the internal Afghan conflict will create the conditions necessary for the successful implementation of economic projects and initiatives involving Kabul. Therefore, we think that the establishment of a strong peace in Afghanistan must remain a collective priority both in the region and on the international stage”, he stressed, confirming Russia’s interest in facilitating the dialogue of the contending Afghan parties with the aim of ending the long-term war and developing Afghanistan as a peaceful, independent and neutral state.
Joint statement by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Central and South Asian States on the Development of Regional Connectivity
Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Central and South Asian countries – participants of the International Conference «Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities», held in Tashkent on July 15-16, 2021,
reaffirming their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the international law,
guided by the principles of openness, transparency, equality, mutual trust and respect in the international relations,
noting the need for transit and trade among the countries of Central and South Asia in accordance with international norms and regulations, and taking into account various international and regional initiatives to develop regional connectivity, to increase the efficiency of trade and economic relations among the states of the two regions to realize their unique transport, transit and investment capabilities,
emphasizing the importance of the Vienna Programme of Action for the Landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) for 2014-2024;
considering that the revival of the ancient, historical and cultural linkages among the countries of Central and South Asia will promote cooperation in the field of the formation of effective transport and communication network and trade and economic ties throughout the continent,
aiming at further strengthening the historically close and friendly ties between the peoples of Central and South Asia in order to improve the living standards and welfare of the population of the two regions,
reaffirming their commitment to accelerate collective transformative economic, social and environmental solutions to recover better from the COVID-19 and to achieve the Goals of Agenda 2030 in a Decade of Action;
recognized the importance of the comprehensive and progressive development of ties in areas of mutual interest between and among the states of Central and South Asia on the principles of equality, mutual assistance, and respect for each other’s interests in the spirit of traditional friendship between the peoples of the two regions;
confirmed the need to increase cooperation in the fields of economy, investments, energy and technological innovation, primarily in the sphere of «green» technologies, and recognized the progress that has been made in the implementation of projects and initiatives in these areas;
encourage for cooperation in the development and use of the transit and logistics potential of Central and South Asia through expansion of the transport and communication infrastructure under international agreements and conventions like TIR, and the formation of new international transport corridors that open convenient commercially feasible and secure routes to seaports;
emphasized the importance of Afghanistan’s role as the “regional bridge” for connectivity between Central and South Asia and called for economic development of Afghanistan through implementation of joint regional projects in the global economic relations;
advocated coordination of the efforts of the countries in the two regions on the widespread introduction of promising digital platforms through information technologies in the field of international trade, customs regulation and transport, banking and financial activities, as well as healthcare, education, science and culture, while endeavoring to ensure cyber security for all;
noted the need for mutual exchange of experience of Central and South Asian countries in the study, preservation and strengthening of the historical, cultural, spiritual and national values;
highlighted the importance of establishing tourist routes, covering the ancient, historical and cultural sites of Central and South Asian countries;
expressed their readiness to further contribute to strengthening of the good-neighborly and friendly relations and mutual understanding among peoples, deepening ties in the field of education, science and technology, innovation, tourism, culture, art and sports;
emphasized the importance of sharing experiences and joint development responses to the environmental and natural calamities management issues, while also exploring cooperative initiatives that contribute to the protection of the environment and the ecosystems;
welcomed the development and signing of bilateral and multilateral documents that contain mutual interest and create conditions for strengthening relations between and among the countries of Central and South Asia;
agreed to consider the possibility of jointly drafting a special UN General Assembly resolution on strengthening the Central-South Asia connectivity in accordance with respective national legislations and regulations.
The Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Central and South Asian States noted, that the High-Level International Conference held in Tashkent provided a unique opportunity for an open discussion of the whole range of topical issues related to the development and strengthening of regional connectivity in Central and South Asia.
In conclusion, the participants expressed their gratitude to the Government and the people of Uzbekistan for their warm hospitality and hosting the Conference.
Tashkent, July 16, 2021 /// nCa, 19 July 2021