Muhammad Asif Noor
As a key regional leader, Uzbekistan initiated and hosted one of the first and unique international conferences on Regional Connectivity of Central Asia and South Asia held from 15-16 July in Tashkent. As a visionary foreign and regional policy by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Conference was a giant leap forward and is meant to bring together regional efforts in developing lasting cooperation options to bring peace and development in the region. The conference was one of the largest gatherings so far from both regions and global participation to promote economic integration. Home to nearly one billion people in Central Asia and South Asia facing diverse levels of challenges including increasing poverty and health crisis, the conference aimed at finding solutions to the challenge of building lasting CA and SA connectivity. The agenda of the International conference included but was not limited to exchange views and make proposals to increase cooperation in trade, innovation, investment, energy, education, climate, transportation, tourism, culture, peace, and stability in the region. With energetic and active foreign outreach by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, this was Uzbekistan’s giant leap forward to build a regional cooperation environment to create opportunities for development and peace.
The conference was overshadowed by the Afghanistan situation especially the recent upsurge in the violence in the country after the withdrawal. The Conference had high-level regional participation from leaders including the President of Uzbekistan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, President of Afghanistan, Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres, Foreign Ministers India, China, Russia, Central Asian Republics, High Dignitaries from the US, EU, other business leaders, and entrepreneurs. There were nearly 250 participants from over 40 countries and INGOs. The conference was divided into plenary and three breakout sessions including regional connectivity, trade, and transport, prospects for modernization, transportation, and finally regional security was the focus of the sessions. The conference brought forward the much-required confidence and mutual understanding in resolving all the challenges that are creating hindrances for bringing the two regions closer together. There was a long desire from South Asian countries to reach out to Central Asia, while Central Asian states have aspired to build their connectivity through Pakistan’s Gwadar port onwards to global markets. This was an opportune time for hosting these important conversations amongst stakeholders to remove bottlenecks. This was long overdue.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Uzbekistan for the Conference accompanied by ministers and other high dignitaries. During his presence in Tashkent, Imran Khan met the President of Uzbekistan, had delegation-level talks with Uzbek partners, addressed Uzbekistan-Pakistan Business Forum, and while addressing the international conference on regional connectivity appreciated the efforts by the President of Uzbekistan. A Joint Declaration on the Establishment of Strategic Partnership between Uzbekistan and Pakistan was signed in areas of trade and economy. Both countries signed deals worth $500 million covering cultural cooperation, security, visas, and transit. Both Pakistan and Uzbekistan have earlier agreed to join together with Afghanistan to have a 573 Kilometer railway project to connect Uzbekistan with Pakistan from Mazar-e-Sharif to Peshawar via Kabul. This will open the door for Uzbekistan to connect through CPEC onwards to Gwadar and beyond. Uzbekistan is also seeking Pakistan’s help in connecting with the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA). QTTA is a transit trade deal with Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. During the conference US, Pakistan, Afghanistan formed a new diplomatic platform to support peace and stability in Afghanistan to foster regional trade and business ties.
The deliberations on regional connectivity put forward a range of practical ideas and initiatives able to provide impetus to mutual development. The participants affirmed their goals to boost cooperation through existing regional platforms while seeking new avenues of connectivity. The intended goals of C5+ 1 include but are not limited to modernize transit corridors, develop new trade routes. Increase business to business and people to people contacts. The cooperation on energy has been central to important debates coupled with climate change and environment preservation especially water reserves. In efforts to increase the efficiency of governments to work on mega projects, it is proposed to consolidate rule of law, provision of justice and basic freedoms, and protection of human rights across the region expecting the peace and stability conducive for development. The core goal of this conference was to address trade barriers and evolve a comprehensive regional trade regime to facilitate transportation, communication, and trade.
The debacle of Afghanistan has been critical to every debate where all states expressed their intentions to achieve peace in Afghanistan because it is a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia. Only a stable Afghanistan can materialize the Central Asian dream of connectivity with South Asia. The participants of the conference stressed the inclusive political settlement of the Afghan conflict devoid of violence which would ensure fundamental liberties and stability across the country. To achieve this goal, states offered their support to cooperate with Afghanistan on matters pertaining to security, energy, economy, trade, and other areas in the interests of Afghanistan. The joint dream of both regions can only come true when joint sincere efforts are made to achieve a win-win for all where Afghanistan and regional challenges are addressed.
The writer is Director Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies