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Editor in Chief Mohamed Wadie

CENTRAL AND SOUTH ASIA: REVIVAL OF THE HISTORICAL MISSION OF UZBEKISTAN?


Fri 15 Sep 2023 | 01:45 PM
Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan
Islomkhon Gafarov, Senior Research Fellow Centre for Afghanistan and South Asian Studies, Institute for Advanced International Studies

Regionalism is an important trend in the system of international relations. Integration processes within the region, as well as interregional economic cooperation and the creation of new logistics structures are observed at the global level. The Central Asia region at the present stage is beginning to have great importance in the strategy of the leading countries of the world, since it is a kind of “bridge” between East and West, as well as North and South. The countries of the region, due to their geographical isolation, are also looking for reliable partners to access sea routes. The Central – South Asia format is the most likely solution on this issue. However, the factor of Afghanistan and the promotion of different formats of economic paths by the leading powers of South Asia slightly complicate the plans of the Central Asian countries.

New foreign policy of New Uzbekistan

Political changes in Uzbekistan since 2016 have shifted both the domestic and foreign political image of the country. In 2017, Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy was adopted, which provided for fundamental reforms in the field of public administration, in the judicial and legal system, in the liberalization of the economy, in the social sphere, as well as in the field of security and foreign policy. These reforms gave a positive response in all areas, which led to the adoption of the new strategy “Uzbekistan–2030”, which accelerates the process of further reforms. 

Foreign policy is an important part of the policy of New Uzbekistan. Today, the five countries of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have closer friendly relations than ever before. For the first time, Consultative Meetings were organized by countries without the participation of external parties. This has strengthened credibility within the region, as well as renewed trust between countries. Positive impulses within the region have also created favourable conditions for the renewed interest of the foreign governments and companies to the region. As a result, the flow of foreign investment has increased and the number of joint infrastructure with foreign countries is growing every day.

Despite good relations with the leading countries of the world, Central Asia has significant problem in the development and participation in global projects. That barrier is geography. Due to the fact that the region does not have direct access to the oceans, countries have to go through the territories of neighboring states. Uzbekistan, which is considered a double land lock, needs to pass through two countries. Therefore, today the Central Asian countries are developing all kinds of transport projects to access the sea routes. The Central-South Asia format, which is deeply historical in nature, is the most obvious choice. 

Uzbekistan is interested in the construction of the Termez-Mazari-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway, which will connect the regions of Central and South Asia, since this route is the shortest for the regional countries to the seaport facilities. However, the countries of Central and South Asia are also participating in the development of the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor) and Chabahar project. If the role of Pakistan increases in the Trans-Afghan corridor, then in the format for the joint use of the port of Chabahar, the role of Iran will grow in the connectivity of Central and South Asia. Such development will intensify the geopolitical dilemma in the Central Asian space in the way how to be connected with South Asia.

Afghan factor.

The enhanced connectivity between the regions of Central and South Asia is an important stage for further economic integration of these parts of the world. It is known that these two regions had a historical and cultural commonality. As those regions were at the crossroads of the Great Silk Road, they contributed to the development of dialogue between peoples. However, by the 19th century, due to the colonial policy of the British and Russian Empires, the dialogue between the regions ceased. Afghanistan, which connects them geographically, has become an isolating geographic space. At a certain time, it played the role of a buffer zone, and then became a place of instability. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan did not restore the historical connectivity between the regions. The countries of Central Asia began to look at Afghanistan with apprehension, but they clearly understood that it was necessary to end the instability in this country.

The withdrawal of American troops and the return of the Taliban to power in 2021 left Afghanistan in the hands of the Afghans themselves. However, this does not mean that the world community should be silent and observe the situation without any action. First of all, the neighboring countries, as well as the countries of the regions of Central and South Asia, should provide the necessary assistance for the development of the economy of Afghanistan. 

Indeed, in implementing the Central-South Asia format, Afghanistan plays a fundamental role. Therefore, peace and stability in this country is mutually beneficial to all parties. After serving as a buffer zone and a pivotal point in global power struggles for many years, Afghanistan is now assuming a fresh role focused on fostering cooperation among various stakeholders. This new mission aims to unite different players through shared interests in trade, economy, transportation, and communication. 

Without Afghanistan, this relationship is difficult or almost impossible. Involving Afghanistan as a “bridge” between the regions will improve the economic and socio-political condition of the country. Foreign investment, infrastructure and logistics facilities will improve economic stability, which in turn will affect the country's social and political processes. An economically strong and politically stable Afghanistan is the guarantor of the development of integration processes between Central and South Asia.

Central and South Asia Format

Today, there are many efforts to revive this connectivity. Central and South Asia – the regions in which more than two billion people live – is transforming into the most diverse space where global economic changes are taking place. In other words, the Central-South Asia format will change the economic face of the world. Along this path, the countries of the regions are currently implementing gigantic projects, holding international practical conferences and ongoing negotiations. Tashkent conference “Central and South Asia: Regional connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities”, held on July 15-16, 2021, is one of the brightest examples in this area. This conference accelerated the efforts of the parties to renew ties between Central and South Asia.

If the countries of Central Asia are striving for the world's oceans, the South Asian countries are striving to expand its economic market. The region of Central Asia, with a population of more than seventy-five million people, can become a reliable market for them. The Trans-Afghan railway Termez - Mazar-i-Sharif - Kabul - Peshawar with further access to Indian Ocean ports is the core of the Central-South Asia format. Indeed, the implementation of a large-scale project will restore the lost connection between the regions. The Great Silk Road will be revived and the space will return its historical role, i.e. will again play a connecting role between East and West, North and South. Construction works on this route have been going on since 2010. The first line of the Hairaton - Mazar-i-Sharif project was built in 2011 with a distance of 75 kilometers. The distance between Termez (Uzbekistan) and Karachi (Pakistan) is about 2500 kilometers, and the route Termez-Gwadar is about 2000 km. The implementation of the project will help transport goods from Pakistan to Uzbekistan from thirty-five days to 3-5 days, which is a great logistical success. In addition, the line of the CASA-1000 project will also pass along the same path, which will bring the countries of Central Asia to the energy markets of India and Pakistan. 

If the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan and Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railways are connected, then from the received road in the form of an arc, the Central Asian countries will turn into a new economic hub of the whole world. The flow of investments, new infrastructure and modern technologies will change the region and revive the former Great Silk Road.

Indeed, the geographical location of Central Asia and Uzbekistan is not a problem, but an advantage. Connecting its extended neighbourhoods with each other has been the region's historic mission. Therefore, the states of the Sogdians, the Kushan kingdom, the Turkic Khaganate, the state of the Khorezmshahs, the empire of the Timurids and Baburids flourished. The region has its own historical geographical mission, and along this path, for today, it is gradually regaining the historical role.

Conclusion.

The reforms that have taken place over the past seven years in Uzbekistan have changed the political face of the country. Uzbekistan in a short time was able to build constructive relations with all the countries of Central Asia. One of the most important tasks in foreign policy today is to accelerate the process of entering into closer ties with world markets. The implementation of the Central and South Asia format will contribute to the above-mentioned foreign policy interests of the country. Restoring the historical connection between Central and South Asia, building the Termez-Mazari-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway, ensuring the stability of Afghanistan and access to the shores of the Indian Ocean – these are the tasks set in the country's foreign policy. In this regard, Uzbekistan always keeps the issue of improving the situation in Afghanistan on the agenda of the world community, which plays a key role in connecting the regions of Central and South Asia.