Overcoming the lack of land connectivity between India and Central Asia’s land–locked countries was one of the “main issues of discussion” during the first India-Central Asia Summit hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, officials said on Thursday.
PM Modi also proposed a number of high-level exchanges between the two sides, including bi-annual summits, and annual meetings of the Foreign, Trade and Cultural Ministers and Secretaries of Security (National Security Advisors) to “strengthen cooperation in the areas of political and development, partnership, trade and connectivity, culture and tourism and security”, the officials said, adding that these proposals were accepted, along with a plan to build a “Central Asia Centre” in New Delhi. They also announced two “Joint Working Groups” (JWGs) on Afghanistan and the Chabahar port project.
“Further development of mutual connectivity is essential for enhanced trade and commerce between India and Central Asian countries in the context of their land-locked nature and lack of overland connectivity with India,” said the “Delhi Declaration” joint statement issued at the end of the 90-minute long summit.
“The Leaders emphasised that connectivity projects deserve priority attention and could be a force-multiplier for trade and economic cooperation and contacts between countries and people,” it added, but did not directly refer to the blocks on transit trade imposed by Pakistan.
The leaders discussed possibilities of increasing Indian trade with the region beyond the currently low levels of about $2 billion, welcoming options over sea provided by Iranian ports including the Chabahar port terminal managed by Indian and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) through Bandar Abbas that is promoted by Russia and Iran, and which is due to include both Chabahar and Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port.
Notably, the joint statement recorded that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov had “stressed on the importance of TAPI gas pipeline project” that runs from Turkmenistan’s Galknyshk oil fields near Mary (Marv) through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, but did not record any support from India on the project.
The TAPI project, which was inaugurated in 2015, has run into issues over India-Pakistan tensions and the situation in Afghanistan, though the Taliban officials announced after talks earlier this month that they hope to restart work on the pipeline in September 2022. Turkmenistan plans to hold an International Ministerial Transport Conference for Landlocked Developing Countries, in April 2022, which may discuss TAPI further.
Asked at a briefing whether the Central Asian leaders, who are engaged in consultations with the Imran Khan government over trade links, would impress the need for allowing trade connectivity on the Pakistani government, MEA Secretary (West) Reenat Sandhu said the “question on Pakistan is best addressed to Central Asian countries”.
The leaders also spoke at length about concerns over Afghanistan, sharing the “same concerns and same objectives” in broader terms and agreed to setting up a JWG of senior officials, said Ms. Sandhu, listing those concerns as the need for immediate humanitarian assistance, ensuring the formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and preserving the rights of women children and minorities.”
Prime Minister Modi tweeted that all countries at the summit were “concerned about the developments in Afghanistan”. “In this context, our mutual cooperation has become even more important for regional security and stability,” he said.
The India-Central Asia summit, that marked 30 years of diplomatic relations, came two days after a similar China-Central Asia Conference was held where Chinese President Xi Jinping offered $500 million in assistance and pledged to ramp up trade to $70 billion from the present levels of about $40 billion a year. To a question about whether China’s deep engagement with the region was discussed, Ms. Sandhu said ties between India and Central Asia “stand on their own merits” and are based on a foundation of “deep historical, cultural and civilisational links.”