Uzbekistan’s goal of securing new trade routes to the Indian Ocean — the focus of a conference this week featuring many of the region’s top diplomats — has been complicated by rising uncertainty about the future of a major country along the way: Afghanistan.
The goal of enhancing regional connectivity between Central and South Asia is a long-standing one; landlocked Central Asia would gain access to markets and trade routes to the south while South Asia would acquire access to resources and opportunities to the north.
Until now, however, such schemes have mostly proven to be pipe dreams. And Uzbekistan bears part of the blame.
For decades, Tashkent’s late leader, Islam Karimov, resisted many connectivity ideas, getting into spats with neighboring countries and battling over how to share water and electricity. But his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has improved relations with those neighbors, dropped resistance to some of these connectivity schemes, and positioned Uzbekistan as a potential leader.
The July 15-16 gathering will cement this shift through an Uzbek-hosted interregional dialogue to foster commerce, transportation and communications links.
But Tashkent’s plans relied heavily on a more peaceful Afghanistan, which straddles the most practical route into South Asia with the only alternative running through Iran. Now, with the Taliban rapidly seizing more and more Afghan territory, it has to hope the extremist group will cooperate.
Attendees at this week’s conference will undoubtedly urge peace talks and negotiations among the warring Afghan parties. But the Taliban may not attend and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who will, has an increasingly precarious hold on power.
The delegations will be led by prominent figures including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, White House Homeland Security Advisor Elisabeth Sherwood-Randall and Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.
The Chinese, Indian, Saudi, Turkish, and Bangladeshi foreign ministers as well as the top diplomats from the Central Asian states are also expected in the Uzbek capital.
According to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, at least 160 guests, including experts, diplomats, policy makers, investors, and entrepreneurs, have confirmed plans to attend the conference, which will feature discussion sessions on economic cooperation, cultural ties and security relationships.
Tashkent aims at concrete proposals to unlock the potential of both regions. “South Asia has historically been tightly connected to Central Asia economically, socially, culturally,” states the ministry in the conference agenda.
Farkhad Tolipov, director of Knowledge Caravan center in Tashkent, says “the Uzbek government is determined to demonstrate that it has an active regional policy. If connectivity becomes real, Uzbekistan will have shorter transportation corridors to the sea.”
Tolipov expects no agreements, only joint statements. “Let’s wait and see but I doubt that there will be any practical results,” he says.
Washington has long promoted regional connectivity and economic integration and even reorganized the State Department in 2005 to promote it, creating a new Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. But its initiatives and rhetoric have not been matched by money. And so they have met skepticism at a time when China is pouring billions into the region via its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Tolipov notes that U.S.-promoted energy projects such as a pipeline to deliver Turkmen gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a scheme to supply Central Asian electricity to South Asia, “have mostly just been aspirations.”
Still, Jennifer Murtazashvili, director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, sees the Tashkent conference as an opportunity to generate enthusiasm and ultimately investment for double-landlocked Uzbekistan, which is dependent on trade routes through Kazakhstan and either Russia or China to reach seaports.
“Given the difficult relations between the U.S. and Iran, it would be difficult to secure funding for that southward route, so it is more politically feasible to connect Uzbekistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan than to go through Iran right now.”
Murtazashvili says fragmented markets separating Central and South Asia are costly to entrepreneurs, governments, and citizens. “Improved connectivity from agreements at this conference can facilitate economic prosperity in the region.”
U.S. partners in the region want technical assistance from America’s government and ramped up investment from its private sector. But Murtazashvili thinks that uncertainties in Afghanistan and conflict fatigue will make Americans unlikely to invest in ambitious projects.
“The U.S. has talked quite a lot about this but has not offered a concrete alternative.”
The Bush administration promoted economic connectivity and the Obama administration’s Northern Distribution Network carried non-military goods in and out of Afghanistan. But, says Murtazashvili, there was never much serious commercial investment or project finance from the U.S.
“The economic orientation of the Mirziyoyev government relies on international trade and investment for survival, where Karimov’s was inward-looking, autarkic, and eschewed trade.”
Uzbekistan seems to be hoping that these projects can move forward regardless of who is in power in Kabul, adds Murtazashvili. “Tashkent has maintained close relations with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan’s ‘Heart of Asia’ [policy] aims to benefit from trade and connectivity.”
But, as experts point out, the real story of the conference is not Afghanistan but Uzbekistan. By stepping up on both Afghan peace and regional connectivity, Tashkent has made these the twin pillars of an activist foreign policy, giving Mirziyoyev’s government enhanced stature and newfound influence.