India’s Chabahar project found a convert to its cause of connectivity: Uzbekistan. On Monday, India, Iran and Uzbekistan will hold their first trilateral meeting to boost connectivity to the port.
“India welcomes the interest of Uzbekistan to use the Chabahar Port as a transit port,’’ said a press release issued by the ministry of external affairs (MEA). The meeting will be jointly chaired at the deputy minister level in Uzbekistan and Iran and at the secretary level in India.
The trilateral was a key takeaway of the first Uzbek-India virtual summit held on Friday.
The meeting opens up the possibility of Chabahar becoming linked to the economies of neighbouring countries, which has the potential to be a game-changer. Not only for India, but also for the region.
Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country—and Chabahar offers a whole new avenue. “This would open up economic opportunities for the traders and business community of the region. Besides Uzbekistan, other Central Asian countries have also shown interest in using the port. India seeks to cooperate closely with regional countries on this issue,’’ the statement said. President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev has also agreed in-principal to being part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
Going beyond economics, the cooperation between the three countries has other strategic advantages. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan and it offers better connectivity to the country. “We as a principle would welcome any initiative that increases connectivity between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan or with other Central Asian countries,” said Adarsh Swaika, joint secretary (Eurasia) at a virtual press meet on Friday.
The better utilisation of Chabahar Port is essential for India. To demonstrate seriousness, India had allocated Rs 100 crore for the project, double of what it had committed last year. The amount was to signal India's seriousness and intent, especially as it had not been able to spend Rs 45 crore allotted in the previous year.
It has not been a smooth sailing for the project this year. There had been simmering tensions between India and Iran courtesy India toeing the American line of zero oil imports. These tensions had spilled on to the Chabahar and there had been reports that Iran had dropped India from the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project because of “funding delays’’. South Block swung into action and made an effort to douse the fire. And in November, the project was inaugurated by Iranian Transport and Urban Development Minister Mohammad Eslami.
The railway line from Chabahar Port to Zahedan, along the border with Afghanistan, will be an added advantage to the India-Iran-Uzbekistan connection. It offers Afghanistan, another landlocked country, access to the sea. The project is expected to be completed by March 2020.
The meeting also comes at a time when the new administration in the US is taking over. President-elect Joe Biden is likely to use the diplomatic option with Iran unlike President Trump.