India, Iran, and Uzbekistan have held their first trilateral meeting for possible joint use of Chabahar port. The 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 at the meeting. India’s keenness to explore this option comes from its desire to extend connectivity into Eurasia. Double 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. That Uzbekistan has already developed rail connectivity into Afghanistan as a means to link with Iranian railway lines reflects Tashkent’s seriousness. Other Central Asian states like Kazakhstan have also been interested in exploring such options.
Given the geostrategic location of Central Asia, the region 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, avoid Pakistan. A year ago, the Trump administration exempted India from sanctions for the development of the port because of the benefits it potentially had for both India and Afghanistan. A Trump administration 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.”
This week’s trilateral meeting is reported to be an outcome of last week’s India-Uzbekistan bilateral 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 and Road Initiative (BRI). India has long historic 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 re-establish linkages with the region, calling Central Asia a part of the country’s extended neighborhood.
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 – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – in 2015. In addition to energy security cooperation, India and Central Asia have both shunned Islamic terrorism and extremist ideology. Fighting cross-border terrorism has become an important common issue shaping their agenda. India has also been stepping up defense cooperation with the region, with a defense attaché posted in each of the Indian missions in Central Asia. Among the Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has emerged as one of the more proactive players in its engagement with India. The two countries signed a civil nuclear agreement in January 2019, under which Uzbekistan agreed to supply India with uranium.
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 fact, in June 2018, following an earlier meeting between Modi and Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) 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 last week’s 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). INSTC is a multi-modal infrastructure initiative spanning around 7,200 km. It encompasses a network of ship, rail and road routes for transporting freight between 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 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, as well as 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 the Central Asian republics have an alternative to China’s BRI.