● INDIA-UZBEKISTAN PARTNERSHIP: TOWARDS NEW HEIGHTS
PM Modi held a virtual Summit with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan on 11th December, 2020. This is the first Summit in virtual format that PM Modi has conducted with any leader of Central Asia. PM Modi was earlier scheduled to travel to Uzbekistan in July, 2020 but because of the coronavirus pandemic, this visit could not be undertaken. Rather than wait indefinitely for the global health situation to normalize, it was considered appropriate to hold the Summit through video-conferencing. This was the seventh meeting between the two leaders over a span of last five years. Both leaders share a strong rapport and good chemistry with each other. During the video interaction, President Mirziyoyev reiterated his invitation to PM Modi to visit Uzbekistan at a convenient time. The invitation was accepted with pleasure.
Uzbekistan is a part of India’s extended neighborhood. India and Uzbekistan have enjoyed millennia of close cultural, civilizational and historical ties. Uzbekistan has been at the confluence of different civilizations over its history including the Indus Valley civilization, Chinese civilization, Iranian and Greek civilizations. India’s connect with the region has existed from 3rd century BCE when caravans on the Silk Road traversed this region carrying their wares from India and China to West Asia and Europe. In addition to precious goods like silks, spices, textiles, silver and gold, ideas, thoughts, philosophies and religion were also transported in the two directions. Buddhism found its way from India to the current day Central Asia two millennia ago and from there to Xinjiang which today comprises the western flank of China.
The Mughal dynasty was established by Babur who fled, after he failed to defend his throne in Ferghana in the North-East of Uzbekistan, to try his luck in India. He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at the First battle of Panipat in 1526, and the rest is history. This Timurid nobleman and his descendants, the Mughal emperors, built a long-lasting empire that covered much of the subcontinent until 1868 which continues to shape the culture of India to this day.
In more recent times, during the Soviet era, the current day Uzbekistan, like other countries of Central Asia, and other constituents of the former Soviet Union, had strong and vibrant relations with different States of India. Because of the close cultural linkages, Uzbek Socialist Federal Soviet Republic had particularly vigorous and dynamic ties in dance, music, films, literature etc with India.
Attempts were made to take this partnership forward on the disintegration of the Soviet Union and declaration of independence by Uzbekistan in 1991. Recognizing the strategic and economic significance of Uzbekistan and the region, the-then Prime Minster PV Narasimha Rao visited Tashkent in 1993. For a variety of reasons, bilateral ties failed to take off and although efforts were undertaken in subsequent years in fits and starts, the relationship could not realize its full potential. For the next more than twenty years after Narasimha Rao’s tour in 1993, only one visit by the Indian Prime minster, Dr Manmohan Singh took place to the country in 2006. Uzbek President Islam Karimov paid State visits to India in 1991, 1994, 2000, 2005 and 2011.
Relations witnessed a sea change with the assumption of office by Prime Minister Modi in May, 2014. Within a little more than a year of coming to power, he visited all the five Republics of Central Asia in July, 2015, becoming the only Indian PM to visit all the Central Asian nations. After 2015, PM Modi went again to Tashkent in 2016 to participate in the Summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). PM Modi met the current Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (SM), who had taken over as head of state of Uzbekistan on the demise of his predecessor Islam Karimov in December 2016, at the SCO Summit in Astana (currently Nur-Sultan) in 2017. Although Mirziyoyev had been the Prime Minister of the country under Karimov from 2003 to 2016, he brought in a complete metamorphosis in political and economic policies and governance after becoming the president.
It became obvious from the beginning that Mirziyoyev was keen to expand and broaden his options by reaching out to significant powers and players outside the Central Asia region and its neighbourhood. In addition to Russia and China which are the pre-eminent players in Central Asia, SM wished to further enhance his alternatives and play a prominent role in the affairs of Central Asia and its proximate states commensurate with its territorial and population size.
The possibilities of Uzbekistan are restricted by the fact that it is a doubly land locked country, in fact it is one of the only two countries in the world that are doubly landlocked. In pursuance of his intent to strengthen relations with India, SM paid a State visit to India in September/October, 2018. He again came to India to participate as Guest of Honour in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January, 2019. PM Modi and SM also met on the sidelines of the SCO Summits in Qingdao, China in 2018 and in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2019. In the meantime, several to and fro visits of Ministers and senior officials have been taking place which have provided a strong fillip to bilateral relations.
Several senior Minsters accompanied SM during his visit to India on 30 September-1 October 2018. India announced a line of credit of USD 200 million for construction of affordable housing and other social infrastructure projects. India offered to consider further credit of USD 800 million under Lines of Credit and Buyer’s Credit mechanism of Exim Bank. A total of 17 Agreements/MoUs were signed concerning scientific and technical cooperation, agriculture, tourism, military education, justice, health and medical science, pharmaceuticals, space exploration for peaceful purposes and other areas. Agreements were also signed on establishment of cooperation between Andijan region and state of Gujarat, the cities of Samarkand and Agra, and organization of a free pharmaceutical zone.
During SM’s visit for the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January 2019, an agreement on long-term supply of uranium ore concentrate for India’s energy needs was signed. Deputy Chairman of the State Investment Committee signed the framework agreement with Eximbank worth USD200 million for construction of affordable housing and other social infrastructure projects.
The first “India-Central Asia” Dialogue with participation of Afghanistan took place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in January 2019. Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian states, Afghanistan and India, emphasized the need to take measures for promoting mutual trade, strengthening cooperation in attracting investments, innovations and technology to the economies of the region, developing transit and transport-communication potential of Central Asian countries, increasing tourism, as well as implementing specific joint projects in the spheres of science, medicine, education and sports. In the second ‘’India-Central Asia Dialogue’’ organized in a virtual format in October 2020 on account of the ongoing pandemic, India offered to extend a "USD 1 billion Line of Credit for priority developmental projects in fields such as connectivity, energy, IT, healthcare, education, agriculture etc.’’ All these are niche areas in which India has proven expertise and capabilities. Central Asian countries "welcomed India’s offer to provide grant assistance for implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) for furthering socio-economic development in the countries of the region.’’
In addition to the above high-level interactions, several Ministerial delegations from the two countries visited each other in recent months/years. Some of these include visit by Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar as special envoy of Prime Minister to express condolences at grave of President Islam Karimov in Samarkand; visit by a high level multi-sectoral delegation led by Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan in August, 2017 alongwith Elyor Ganiev, Minister of Foreign Trade and senior officials from several Ministries and State industry associations, during which inter alia 22 contracts, worth more than USD 80 million, and 20 investment agreements, worth over USD 70 million, were signed; visit by a pharmaceutical delegation led by Indian Minister of State for Chemicals & Fertilizers in February 2018 during which a joint statement on cooperation with the Andijan region was issued; visit by Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar to Tashkent to attend the “Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan: Peace Process, Security Cooperation & Regional Connectivity” in March 2018 during which he met the Uzbek Foreign and Defence Ministers.
The then External Affairs Minister of India, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, paid an official visit to Uzbekistan on 4-5 August 2018. She met Uzbek Foreign Minister for wide ranging discussions on bilateral and regional issues and called on President Mirziyoyev, PM Aripov and Speaker of Parliament of Uzbekistan.
In addition to the above, several more significant visits both ways took place in recent years. One of the most significant was the visit by Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh in November 2019 inter alia to participate in the SCO Heads of Government Summit during which he also met his Uzbek counterpart and inaugurated the first military exercise between the two countries. Uzbek Interior minister visited India in November 2019 and met with his Indian counterpart, discussed issues of mutual interest including bilateral counter-terrorism and security cooperation, capacity building and training for Uzbek security personnel in Indian institutions, border guarding and disaster management.
The Virtual Summit – 11th December, 2020
At the virtual Summit between PM Modi and President Mirziyoyev on 11th December, 2020, the two countries signed nine agreements to further broad-base cooperation in an array of areas and agreed to step up efforts for early conclusion of a bilateral investment treaty. This will facilitate investment promotion and protection for further improvement of trade and economic cooperation. The agreements signed are aimed at expanding cooperation in a range of areas including new and renewable energy, digital technologies, cyber security, community development projects, and in sharing of information on movement of goods.
PM Modi noted the similarity of approaches of the two countries on Afghanistan and emphasized that process for restoration of peace must itself be led, owned and controlled by Afghanistan. It also must preserve the achievements of the past two decades.
The leaders strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and reaffirmed their determination to combat the menace by "destroying" terrorist safe-havens, networks, infrastructure and funding channels. Both the countries underlined the need for every country to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks against other countries. They called for early finalisation of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
Ways to speed up connectivity projects linking central Asia was a major focus of the summit. India welcomed an Uzbek proposal to hold a trilateral dialogue among India, Iran and Uzbekistan to promote connectivity through the Chabahar port. Uzbekistan is particularly disadvantaged in connecting with the outside world to promote its economic and commercial transactions on account of its doubly land-locked status. It is hence extremely keen to create connectivity to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea by establishing linkages through Afghanistan and Iran.
Holding that the current level of bilateral trade does not reflect the true potential, the two leaders also instructed officials concerned to fast-track the conclusion of an ongoing joint feasibility study that will pave the way for commencement of negotiations on a preferential trade agreement.
India approved the Line of Credit of USD 448 million for four developmental projects in Uzbekistan in road construction, sewerage treatment and information technology. India had announced a USD 1-billion line of credit to Uzbekistan in 2018. PM Modi stated that India wants to further intensify its development partnership with Uzbekistan which was reflected in the many projects proposed in that country under the Indian Line of Credit.
PM Modi positively referred to growing cooperation between the two countries in defence, space and atomic energy sectors. He offered to share India’s expertise and experience in areas such as infrastructure, IT, education, health, training and capacity building with Uzbekistan as per the latter’s development priorities. A joint working group on agriculture was established to strengthen ties in this crucial area.
Highlighting the importance of connectivity projects to boost trade, India referred positively to the Chabahar port which could be a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia. India also requested Uzbekistan to consider joining the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which is a 7,200-km-long multi-mode transport project for moving freight among India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe.
Uzbekistan reaffirmed its support to India's candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The two countries expressed their determination to cooperate in addressing threats and challenges to national as well as regional security.
Uzbekistan has emerged as the most significant partner of India in Central Asia. To a very significant extent the credit should be accorded to the pro-active and energetic policies pursued by PM Modi and Uzbek President Mirziyoyev in strengthening bilateral ties.
SM had started opening up economically and politically as soon as he assumed the mantle of presidency of the country in December, 2016. In addition to significantly improving relations with the neighbors particularly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, SM is vigorously reaching out to countries outside the region like USA, Europe, India and Japan to carve out a more broad-based and expansive foreign policy strategy. He has met with positive success.
The other big power of the region Kazakhstan also has significant potential not only because it is the richest and most prosperous country in the region but also because it is amply endowed with energy and mineral resources. India’s political and economic ties with Kazakhstan have also been expanding but not in a comparable manner. Joint push by both the governments could result in a significant jump to the partnership.
Uzbekistan does not wish to become totally dependent on the belt and road project of China. It is hence looking for an exit to the outside world for its trade through Afghanistan. It constructed a 75-km road from Mazaar-e-Sharif in the northern Balkh province of Afghanistan to Hairatan which is located on the bank of Amu darya and border of Uzbekistan. This connectivity has been further promoted by the recent construction of the rail link between the Iranian city of Khaf with the Afghan town of Rozanak about 150 kilometers away. This is scheduled to be expanded to reach Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city.
To realize the full potential of the partnership with Uzbekistan, a Preferential Trading Arrangement and Bilateral Investments Treaty should be concluded soon. Also both the countries should try to collaborate on both renovation and expansion of the Chabahar port as well as the INSTC. With the advent of the Biden administration, some softness by the United States on Iran could become visible. This would be beneficial for India not only in being able to import oil at cheaper rates and more favourable conditions but also in expediting the work at Chabahar as also in constructing the railway line to Zahedan and then onwards to the Iran-Afghan border.
The virtual Summit between PM Modi and President Mirziyoyev provided a significant fillip to bilateral cooperation between the two countries. It is commendable that the two sides did not allow the constraints imposed by the pandemic to cramp their style and have continued to work assiduously to expanding and deepening the bilateral partnership.
(The views expressed are personal)