Uzbekistan’s pivot toward South Asia is deepening as Tashkent is working to diversify its options for accessing the sea beyond the Iranian ports to which it is now limited. Only a month after Tashkent signed the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar Road Map in February with Pakistan and Afghanistan to build a railroad to connect to Pakistan’s seaports, Uzbek officials are actively working with Central Asian and South Asian neighbors to organize a high-level conference centered on transportation infrastructure between the regions.
So important is the conference for Uzbekistan that in the span of two days, on February 16-18, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov traveled to four Central Asian countries to personally deliver invitations to the conference on regional connectivity now scheduled for July 15-16 in Tashkent.
After completing his tour of the Central Asian states, Kamilov focused on South Asia with a visit to Afghanistan on February 23. Kamilov next traveled to India, which was not a party to the February negotiations but is a logical extension of the Trans-Afghan route. It is unclear whether the specifics of the Trans-Afghan route were discussed. The official statement says that the sides focused on the peace process in Afghanistan, which is of mutual interest.
Expanding links between Indian and Central Asian markets is a decades-old conversation. But Uzbekistan’s current plan of adding access to Pakistani ports is arguably a step in the opposite direction from where India would want Central Asian countries to head. India has been investing in Iran’s Chabahar port, 110 miles from Gwadar port in Pakistan. It is unclear the extent to which New Delhi is willing to be a part of the current negotiations.
Kamilov then visited Pakistan to extend the conference invitation. The parties discussed the Trans-Afghan route, the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar Road Map, and the Uzbek side received further assurance of access to ports in Karachi and Gwadar. The Trans-Afghan route is not the only option Pakistan is able to offer Central Asian states. The opportunity to access the same Pakistani ports via China, bypassing Afghanistan, is also on the table. That route would go via the Karakoram Highway, which connects Gilgit-Baltistan to China’s Xinjiang region.
Tashkent wants to use the conference as a launchpad for Central Asia’s entrance into South Asia. The project also underscores Tashkent’s aims to be a regional player, rather than simply seeking cooperation that only benefits Uzbekistan. What Tashkent is doing is important for Tajikistan as well, which damaged its relations with Turkmenistan when it suspended the construction of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan railroad in 2018 as Uzbekistan had stopped blocking Tajikistan’s railroad traffic by then.
Although the Trans-Afghan road map was signed by Tashkent alone and the upcoming conference is organized by Uzbekistan, Tashkent’s gesture indicate that the project will be beneficial to the whole region. While the railroad certainly will benefit Uzbekistan first and foremost, Tashkent’s interest in getting the buy-in of the other Central Asian states, bringing them on board, highlights the wider regional benefits.