New Delhi: India on Sunday proposed a dialogue on air corridors with the countries of landlocked Central Asia in an attempt to boost trade languishing below $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 stabilize war-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 alternative 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 organize 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 has 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."