Event Devoted to the Tashkent High-Level Connectivity Forum Held in Brussels

On occasion of the international connectivity summit "Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities" which will take place in Tashkent from July 15-16, Euractiv with the support of the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Brussels organised an online event, which counted with the high-level participation of EU officials and international experts.

The upcoming summit will see a gathering of leaders from South and Central Asia and aims to increase connectivity between the two regions. The summit aims to refresh historical ties between Central and South Asia. Tashkent wants to use the conference as a launchpad for Central Asia’s deeper engagement with South Asia. A major objective of the summit is the development of solid foundations for closer interaction between Central and South Asian regions, identifying specific projects of a strategic nature.

The European Union, for its part, has welcome the holding of the summit, which will provide space for reiterating international support to initiatives aimed at linking up Central Asian states, Afghanistan and their neighbours more closely as a key factor for peace, resilience and prosperity. 

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Romana Vlahutin, Ambassador at Large for Connectivity at the European External Action Service (EEAS) said the EU is a product of connectivity and is now taking the concept to the next level, having plenty of experience to share with other regions under the principle of sustainability (social, environmental and fiscal). Mme Vlahutin highlighted that in its connectivity partnerships with India and Japan, Central Asia already plays an important role.

As for the importance of the summit, she highlighted its great ambition and a regional approach essential to harmonise common rules and norms, so that partners are predictable to each other and to external investors.

Philippe van Amersfoort, Deputy Head of Central Asia Division at EEAS, stressed that the conversation on connectivity is important to take forward regional cooperation; and an excellent and timely opportunity to reaffirm support for the peace process in Afghanistan. In general, linking Central Asia more closely with Afghanistan is of key importance for the future stabilization and prosperity of the region.

This new momentum in regional cooperation is partly thanks to Uzbekistan’s ongoing reform process, which has facilitated cooperation in critical issues such as customs and trade facilitation (exemplified in the booming levels of bilateral trade between Uzbekistan and its neighbours).

However, Mr van Amersfoort stressed that connectivity remains a challenge due to the fragmented nature of the region, without a common vision or approach as of yet – unlike other regions such as ASEAN which have a common connectivity roadmap in place.

For the EU, better connectivity in the region will mean reduced transit times. In addition, for EU businesses it is positive to see an integrated regional market and a level-playing field (which is far more interesting than segmented/fragmented national markets).

The EU is a credible alternative when diversifying connectivity routes.  The EBRD and EIB have been supporting projects in connectivity – hard and soft – for a very long time, well before the existence of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Mr van Amersfoort finished his intervention by welcoming the proposal to organise a EU-Central Asia high level conference on connectivity in 2022.

MEP Ryszard Czarnecki discussed the growing security challenges linked to instability in war-torn Afghanistan. It is therefore welcome that the EU has decided to upgrade its engagement in the region – not just with a new EU Strategy for Central Asia but also including Afghanistan in its high-level political and security dialogue with the CA countries.

Echoing previous speakers, Mr Czarnecki defined the region as a “transport and transit hub at the heart of the Silk Road”. Uzbekistan, he argued, offers a platform for connecting Eurasia to the rest of the world. Rail links between CA and South Asia have already attracted many financial institutions such as World Bank, EIB, the AIIB and the EBRD.

New transport corridor will furthermore improve connectivity between Central and South Asia and importantly reduce the costs of transporting goods between South Asia and Europe through Central Asia.  The new Trans-Afghan railway will provide access to three Pakistani seaports and dramatically increase the transit potential and cargo flow to Central Asia.

Mr Czarnecki concluded by highlighting that the summit will revive the region’s historical role as a connecting link between Europe and Asia through the shortest land route.

Mr Štefan Füle, former European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood, Consultant of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, highlighted a few reasons why the summit matters:

  • To show progress of Uzbekistan under the reform and modernisation programme of President Mirziyoyev after decades of self-isolation and the the growing positive role of the country in the region.

  • It matters for the concept of connectivity – broadly characterised as sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based, bringing prosperity, resilience and diversification to all the participating countries.

  • The summit is focussed on Afghanistan Focused on Afghanistan at a critical time: the West is leaving Afghanistan militarily – the summit will reassure Afghanistan and countries around they will not be alone in tackling the challenges that are about to come.

  • The summit may help induce a conversation on the regulatory harmonization between the various integration projects across the Eurasian space (SCO, EAEU, EU…)        

 

Mr Obid Khakimov, Deputy Adviser of the President of Uzbekistan, Director of the Center for Economic Research and Reforms under the Administration of the President of the Republic, highlighted with specific statistics the rationale for bringing the two regions closer together. Both have shown impressive growth rates and South Asia in particular, with a population of 1.9 billion, is a very promising market and economic partner for CA countries. But at the moment, South Asia accounts for only 3.2 percent of total CA trade, so there is plenty of potential for the expansion of economic ties.

Furthermore, there is a high degree of compatibility between the structure of exports of the Central Asian countries and the structure of imports of countries in South Asia.

Pointing to a specific example, the connectivity project Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul - Peshawar railway line will lead to reduced export prices (from USD 3,000 per container to USD 1,400 per contained on average). In parallel, Uzbekistan plans to bring bilateral trade with Afghanistan to USD 2 billion by 2023, which will be facilitated by a preferential trade agreement.

 

A few additional points were raised during the discussion section. It was highlighted by the speakers that the Central Asian region is not hostage of geopolitical games by any big country in the region. The region has its own ambition and interests.

The summit provides an opportunity for the EU to present its concept of connectivity to the region, which attaches equal importance to both hardware and software aspects. It is important to note that this is an offer, not an imposition, in line with the EU focus on non-exclusive partnerships.

Some roadblocks to connectivity will persist, such as inter-operability between the various corridors, but the Tashkent Connectivity Summit and similar high-level events in the future provide an opportunity to overcome these.

Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager, Diplomatic World Institute