Last week, the United States announced the formation of a new “Quad”, which includes Afghanistan, the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and the US, for “Regional Support for Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement”.
A statement issued by the US State Department said that the four countries had agreed “in principle to establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity”.
It said, “The parties consider long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan critical to regional connectivity and agree that peace and regional connectivity are mutually reinforcing. Recognising the historic opportunity to open flourishing interregional trade routes, the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties.”
Afghanistan’s vantage geographical location as the “roundabout” connecting Central and South Asia has long been acknowledged. In order to strengthen her economy, the US, taking advantage of this factor, has pushed similar initiatives earlier as well. For instance, the administration of Barack Obama had created in 2015 the C5+1 — the five Central Asian republics (CARS) and the US.
CARS is a direct stakeholder in Afghan peace
Afghanistan shares its longest border of 2,800 km with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This proximity, along with historical and cultural linkages, makes CARS a direct stakeholder in Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Given Afghanistan’s potential as a lucrative transit country to the markets of South and Southeast Asia, a number of initiatives such as the CASA 1000, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Route, among others, have been floated.
At least 50% of Afghanistan’s trade in 2019 was with its CARS neighbours. Developing the Afghan economy and integrating it into the regional economy would go a long way in stabilising the country. At the same time, the CARS are all landlocked countries with enormous reserves of natural resources. Connectivity through Afghanistan and Pakistan is a particularly attractive choice for them.
In fact, the “Quad” was floated on the sidelines of a high-level conference on the connectivity between Central and South Asia that the double landlocked country of Uzbekistan hosted in its capital Tashkent. A key component of the conference was Afghanistan, with President Ashraf Ghani attending the conference.
In its search for connectivity, Uzbekistan is seeking to deepen cooperation with Pakistan. The latter, too, is interested in finding markets in Central Asia, and through Central Asia, further into the Russian Federation and Europe.
Uzbekistan is Implementing a Slew of Projects
Uzbekistan is one of Central Asia’s most powerful and most populous states. Connectivity, therefore, acquires an even greater salience for it. An exit to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean gains priority as it would cut time and cost, and make it logistically more beneficial to transport goods to South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East. That explains why Uzbekistan is expending considerable effort in forging connectivity partnerships along different routes, especially to South Asia.
Uzbekistan is implementing projects like the Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif Railway Project, and the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri electric power transmission line. Talks are now on for extending the railway line from Mazar-e-Sharif through Kabul in Afghanistan to Peshawar.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan participated in the Tashkent conference — he was only one of the two heads of government along with Ghani to attend the conference. In its search for connectivity, Uzbekistan is seeking to deepen cooperation with Pakistan. The latter, too, is interested in finding markets in Central Asia, and through Central Asia, further into the Russian Federation and Europe. The Central Asian region offers an estimated $90 billion market.
The Pakistani economy is struggling, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further dented it. The much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which promised big gains, has run into trouble with major differences appearing between Islamabad and its all-weather friend China. In Tashkent, Khan said, “Pakistan has immense potential to connect Central Asia with the rest of the world and become a hub of trade.”
As of 2020, India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at USD 2,709 billion was around ten times higher than that of Pakistan (USD 263 billion). India is the fifth-largest economy in the world today
India's Key Role in the Region
But think South Asia and the largest market is India, which also offers the shortest routes to the markets of Southeast Asia.
As of 2020, India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at $2,709 billion was around ten times higher than that of Pakistan ($263 billion). India is the fifth-largest economy in the world today. Pakistan would earn billions of dollars in allowing transit trade to and from India to Central Asia.
At the Tashkent conference, Imran Khan did make a reference to this but conditioned it on the settlement of the Kashmir issue. Earlier this year, too, Khan had made a reference to the possibility of allowing India trade access to Central Asia through Pakistan, soon after both India and Pakistan announced the resumption of the ceasefire on the Line of Control. But linking transit rights to the resolution of the Kashmir issue flies in the face of Khan’s own policy of moving on from “geopolitics” to “geoeconomics”.
Not Inviting India to the New Quad is a Mistake
India has not been invited to join the new Quad group. The ability and importance of India’s trade with Afghanistan can be gauged from the fact that the Chabahar port project in Iran was exempted from U.S. sanctions. India and Afghanistan have been making use of the Chabahar port and have also opened up an air freight corridor.
Even Uzbekistan has joined the Chabahar port project; the first Trilateral Working Group Meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of the port was held virtually on December 14 last year.
India also has started making use of the Russia-initiated North-South Transport Corridor. Missing out from it is Pakistan, with its obdurate refusal to allow India transit rights through its territory.
New 'Quad' An Incomplete Process?
Of course, the situation in Afghanistan will have to be stabilised before all these grand plans can be realised. But that is also one of the objectives of all these initiatives. Money flowing in as transit fees will be an immense incentive for whoever controls the territory to ensure the safety and security of the trade routes.
The Central Asian countries know that the shortest route to the markets of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan) is through the Gwadar and Karachi ports. And the most coveted market in the region is that of India, which would also offer the shortest connectivity to the markets of Southeast Asia. Without India’s participation, therefore, connectivity and trade would remain limited to Central Asia and Pakistan — it certainly wouldn’t shore up a Central Asia-South Asia trade.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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