The trilateral cooperation between New Delhi, Teheran, and Tashkent will have a geopolitical ramification on three counts. These are : a) It will facilitate India’s growing connectivity with Central Asian countries which in turn will contribute to the fruition of trade and economic cooperation; b) over a couple of years other Central Asian countries may also join this endeavour. As has been reported, these Central Asian countries are also showing their keenness to become part of this Chabahar multilateral initiative for use of the port; c) studies suggest that Central Asian countries are also interested to reap maximum benefits (both geopolitically and geo-economically) from the emerging Indo-Pacific strategic corridor and are interested to use the Chabahar port as an entrepôt.
Though these are the immediate geopolitical ramifications from both Indian and Central Asian perspectives, what needs to be discussed at length is how far the Chabahar initiative of India will be looked vis-à-vis Russian and Chinese initiative in Central Asia. This is important more so as both Moscow and Beijing are also expanding their sphere of influence in this strategically vital zone of Central Asia. Russia is trying to rope Central Asian countries through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as part of its new endeavour of ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership’. However, it has only attracted two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Though Central Asian countries are keen to forge a partnership with their traditional partner, Russia; however, its economic weaknesses due to fall in oil prices at the international market is forcing them to rethink their economic engagement with Moscow. Along with glut in the international energy market, the sanctions Russia is facing from Western countries is also desisting them to join the Russia led EEU.
Similarly, though China is keen to replace Russia as the dominant player in this region but Central Asian countries are apprehensive of Chinese moves. The growing public unrest in Kyrgyzstan in February 2020 against China is an indicator in this regard. Even Kazakhstan which used to consider itself as a major trade partner of China is also expressing concerns slowly over Chinese actions. It may be recalled here that China unveiled its OBOR project in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan in 2013. In Tajikistan, in the name of protecting the border, Chinese soldiers are reported as manning border posts in the Gorono Badakshan region. The movement of Chinese soldiers in the name of protecting OBOR corridor is also raising lot of concerns in Central Asia as reported repeatedly. Similarly, though the China- Kyrgyzstan- Uzbekistan transportation corridor opened recently, there are apprehensions over Chinese moves in Uzbekistan. One major issue that raises concerns in Central Asia is that whether the OBOR strategy is putting them in a disadvantageous situation? For instance, a term often synonymous with China’s OBOR strategy is ‘debt trap diplomacy’ which is also applicable to Central Asia. In the name of bilateral projects and foreign investments, Chinese banks are taking over the Central Asian economy which will put them in a difficult situation in the longer run. This is happening because China is not interested in any mutual beneficial relations with Central Asia but rather seeks to project its hegemonic clout. Similarly, its engagement with Central Asia through ‘P5 plus China format’ will also backfire in years to come. What one is witnessing is a growing apprehension in Central Asia over Chinese moves not only by policy makers but also by the masses.
The above narrative provide a backdrop to study the pitfalls of existing connectivity mechanisms initiated by both Russia and China towards connecting Central Asia. It is in this context one has to study the initiatives taken by India under the aegis of Chabahar project for boosting connectivity with Central Asian countries .In this regard three major points that need to be underlined here. These are : a) to what extent Chabahar connectivity initiative will give a greater boost to India’s outreach in Central Asia?; b) whether Chabahar connectivity will end the isolation of land-locked Central Asian countries geopolitically ?;c) will Chabahar connectivity enhance a cooperative geopolitical order in Central Asia?
It is in this background one also has to examine the importance of the Chabahar connectivity initiative which to a great extent will facilitate the flow of trade. It may be recalled here that over the years this India’s initiative in Chabahar located in the Gulf of Oman ( which also links the Arabian Sea with the strategically significant Strait of Hormuz) of Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran which borders Afghanistan attracted much attention. Because of its location Afghanistan will emerge as a key launchpad for India’s Central Asian outreach. At the same time, Afghan traders because of their geographical proximity can operate in this port which can facilitate regional trade and commerce. Similarly, India can also connect easily to the energy rich Central Asian country of Turkmenistan though this port. It may be recalled here that in May 2016, India, Afghanistan, and Iran signed an agreement to boost connectivity through this port. Along with this both India and Iran have also signed agreements to develop industrial activities in and around the Chabahar port which includes the construction of an aluminium plant as well. India’s IRCON is also the key consultant for the Chabahar-Zahedan -Zaranj (Afghanistan) rail line project. It may be recalled here that despite the US sanctions on Iran, it exempted Chabahar port from the ‘Iran freedom and counter-proliferation act of 2012’.
The decision of Uzbekistan to join the Chabahar project came during the virtual meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on December 11, 2020. During the virtual summit, the Uzbek side expressed its keenness to participate in the Chabahar port. India on the other hand “welcomed” the decision of Uzbekistan to join the project. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address also emphasised on the “development partnership with Uzbekistan”.
It may also be recalled here that the “Joint Statement of the 2nd meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue” which took place through a virtual mode on October 28 has also discussed at length the issue of connectivity. At the said meeting, the Joint Statement “appreciated India’s efforts to modernise the infrastructure of the Chabahar port in Iran, which could become an important link in trade and transport communications between the markets of Central and South Asia.” In the same meeting, India also offered “one billion dollars” in assistance to Central Asian countries.
One may underline here that the first step in this direction of trilateral cooperation was made when officials of India, Iran and Uzbekistan discussed the modalities of collaboration at Chabahar. The recent opening of Iran-Afghanistan rail line connectivity (Khaf- Herat rail line, which will be subsequently linked to Chahbahar as mooted) and the same, if it can be connected with the proposed Uzbekistan-Iran rail linkages will further boost connectivity with Central Asia. In fact, way back in 2019, Uzbekistan also expressed India’s participation in proposed Afghanistan- Uzbekistan rail link project.
The recent trilateral Chabahar initiative will augur well for the economic development of India-Iran -Uzbekistan along with Afghanistan. This initiative will make Afghanistan a hub of connectivity projects which can bring an enormous amount of economic development to this trouble torn country. Similarly, it will help Uzbekistan to boost its energy exports, particularly gas to through the Chabahar port to India. This can also give a big boost to Uzbek economy which is suffering largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It needs to be mentioned here that Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia in terms of population and it occupies a vital position in the geopolitical map. At the same time, a growing market along with connectivity with other Central Asian countries will an upper hand to Uzbekistan in the Central Asian economy. Over the last couple of years, Uzbekistan is showing keenness to forge a greater economic partnership with India in different sectors like pharmaceuticals, health, information technology, etc. In the Joint Declaration of the Virtual Summit which took place on December 11, 2020, both India-Uzbekistan also agreed to: “work towards an early conclusion of Bilateral Investment Treaty which shall facilitate investment promotion and protection for further improvement of trade and economic cooperation.” By joining the Chabahar initiative, the trade relations between both the countries can also reach a new milestone.
One major advantage for Central Asian countries if they join the Chabahar connectivity project is that it will end their isolation in terms of access to sea and through Chabahar they can also join the emerging Indo-Pacific market. It has also been argued that if these Central Asian countries diversify their trade relations with Indo-Pacific countries, then it will help them to have greater bargaining capability with both Russia and China. They do not have to rely on either Beijing or Moscow for strategising their external relations. However, to ensure this, Central Asian countries need better connectivity through Afghanistan and Iran.
Another major geopolitical implication of the Chabahar connectivity is that it will help in contributing a new “cooperative geopolitical order” in Central Asia. As discussed above, the Central Asian countries highly appreciate India’s role in Central Asia. With growing Indian engagement through Chabahar, these five countries can foresee that the geopolitics of this region will move away from a zero-sum game pattern to a new sustainable and cooperative geopolitical order. It may be recalled here that though both Russia and China are allies in Central Asia, however, in recent years both were considered as strategic competitors. In fact, the ‘Great Game 3.0’ is going to take place between China and Russia in Central Asia. The recent Kyrgyz event where regime change took place in October 2020 in a similar manner as the 2005 Colour Revolution indicates a pro- active role of China. This is also putting both Beijing and Moscow on a competing framework in Central Asia. As Russia does not want any active role of China which will threaten its own sphere of influence, this phenomenon has to a great extent soured relations between these two countries in recent years.
It is in this context one can envisages the role of India in Central Asia. Since India believes in constructive engagement with Central Asian countries based on equity and cooperative development, it will contribute to the emergence of a new kind of cooperative geopolitical order in Central Asia. By joining the Chabahar port to ensure further connectivity, it can also provide a platform to other Central Asian countries to boost their existing partnership with India.
Since Chabahar has been exempted from sanctions by the US administration, the new Biden administration may also continue the Trump administration’s policy. In a strategic context by getting an upper hand in the Chabahar port, India can also checkmate aggressive Chinese moves. As has been observed by converting Gwadar port into a naval base from a trading one to expand its OBOR strategy, China is posing a strong challenge to peace and security of both South and Central Asia. Even Iran has been hostile to China’s expansionist tendencies historically.
The trilateral initiative of India, Iran and Uzbekistan over the Chabahar port is a move in the right direction and this may have an immense geopolitical as well as a geo-economic implication for peace and security of Central Asia. By joining Chabahar initiative, Uzbekistan demonstrated that it will pursue an independent foreign policy free from Chinese and Russian interference. Hopefully, other Central Asian countries will follow Uzbekistan’s move and may join the Chabahar project as well.
The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org