India proposes air corridors with Central Asian countries to boost trade

Sushma Swaraj also called on the Central Asia Republics to participate in the Chabahar port project jointly undertaken by India and Iran to move Indian goods to landlocked Afghanistan

New Delhi: India on Sunday proposed a dialogue on air corridors with the countries of landlocked Central Asia to boost trade languishing at less than $ 2 billion for years as foreign minister Sushma Swaraj stressed on the need for connectivity initiatives to follow the principles of financial responsibility.

In a speech at the first India-Central Asia Dialogue in Uzbekistan, Swaraj also called on the Central Asia Republics to participate in the Chabahar port project jointly undertaken by India and Iran to move Indian goods to landlocked Afghanistan.

Swaraj arrived in the Uzbek city of Samarkand on Saturday on a two-day visit to chair the dialogue that focussed on a number of issues including ways to improve connectivity and stabilise wa-ravaged Afghanistan.

In her speech, Swaraj noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited all five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – in 2015.

“We now want to build a modern and comprehensive partnership on these strong foundations,” Swaraj said.

“Development partnership has emerged as an important component of India’s engagement with other countries. Today, I offered to extend this partnership to Central Asia as well, where we can bring our countries closer by taking up concrete projects ...under our Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing our expertise,” she said.

India has been trying to forge closer links with the Central Asian Republics since their emergence as independent countries in the 1990s but the efforts have not yielded results. Bilateral trade with all the five countries is less than $ 2 billion with New Delhi blaming the lack of overland access to landlocked Central Asia for this and trying to find alternate routes like through the Chabahar port to improve commerce.

“ While geographically Afghanistan and Central Asia are landlocked, there are several ways in which India, Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries can join hands to work on promoting connectivity in the region so that trade and commerce may flow between us and our people to people exchanges may prosper,’ Swaraj said on Sunday.

“In this context, I would like to mention that the joint efforts of India, Iran and Afghanistan have led to the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran as a viable and operational trade route to connect to Afghanistan and potentially to Central Asia. Chabahar provides a shining example of what strong partnership can achieve to overcome any obstacles,” she said inviting the Central Asian countries to participate in conference on Chabahar to be held next month in Iran.

To forge closer trade links with Central Asia, Swaraj said India would like “to organise a ‘Dialogue on Air Corridors’ with the participation of civil aviation authorities, air freight and aviation companies of India and Central Asia so that goods, including perishable items, can be transported efficiently and swiftly.”India already has opened air corridors for the transport of goods and perishables between India and several Afghan cities mainly to circumvent Pakistan’s veto over India-Afghanistan trade passing overland through its territory.

While making it clear that India was supported “multiple options of connectivity in the region” – by joining the ‘Ashgabat Agreement’ last year which aims at establishment of an International Transport and Transit Corridor between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and welcoming Kazakhstan’s development of the dry port of Khorgos and linking it with the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas by rail – Swaraj however underlined the need for connectivity initiatives to be “based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.”

“They must follow principles of financial responsibility and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she said – in an oblique reference to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that a number of Central Asian Republics have signed up for.

On India’s role in Afghanistan – that she said forms a “bridge” between India and Central Asia – Swaraj noted that New Delhi India has extended $ 3 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan “focused on reconstruction, infrastructure development, capacity building, human resources development and connectivity.” India had also launched the “New Development Partnership” in September 2017, that included construction of the Shahtoot Dam to provide for drinking water for Kabul, low-cost housing in Nangarhar province and 116 other high impact community development projects.

India was for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan which “are inclusive and Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled,” Swaraj said adding “These efforts should preserve the gains of the last 18 years” – an oblique reference to the strides made in various areas including women’s education and empowerment, something the hardline Taliban rebels were opposed to when ruling in Kabul between 1996-2001.

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