Source: CGTN Published: 2018-10-10
A key rail link extension project connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan could see collaboration between Beijing and New Delhi in what could be demonstrative of the "China-India Plus" model which was recently proposed by Beijing enabling the two Asian giants to cooperate in development and connectivity projects in other countries.
Landlocked Uzbekistan is looking to access sea ports in the Persian Gulf through a transnational rail link via Afghanistan (another landlocked country) and Iran, and is seeking collaboration from both China and India in the project.
Amid reports that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has invited India to join the railway project on his recent state visit to New Delhi, an Afghan government official told CGTN Digital that Kabul welcomes both China and India for the venture which presents a splendid opportunity for the two countries to cooperate under a multilateral framework in Afghanistan.
"We are very positive and welcome China-India cooperation in Afghanistan, especially in connectivity projects," Amir Ramin, Director General of Regional Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Afghanistan, told CGTN Digital.
"This railway project is not only important for Uzbekistan and Afghanistan but also for both China and India. The rail link will boost trade and transit through an economic corridor that will directly impact the security and prosperity of the region in a very positive manner," Ramin elaborated.
In 2011, Uzbek state railway company, Ozbekiston Temir Yollari, built a short rail link connecting the Uzbek-Afghan border town of Hairatan with the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Tashkent now plans to extend the line to Herat in northwestern Afghanistan, seen as a gateway to Iran. Another link, already under construction, will connect Herat to Iran.
It is important to note that China is already running a rail route into Uzbekistan under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has also sent freight trains to Afghanistan's Hairatan using the network. The railway line from China to Afghanistan, that runs through Uzbekistan, was inaugurated in September 2016.
Uzbekistan, which has so far committed 500 million US dollars for the 650-kilometer Mazar-e-Sharif-Herat railway project, has held talks with China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for possible collaboration in the past few months.
Tashkent is now keen on getting India on board the project. "We support a greater presence of India in Central Asia, and hope for some benefits of that for Afghanistan. I hope that negotiations with [Indian] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi will open a new page in our bilateral relations," Uzbek President's Special Assistant for Foreign Affairs Ilhom Nematov told India's The Hindu newspaper ahead of Mirziyoyev's visit to New Delhi.
The Uzbek-Afghan railway link is of mutual interest for both China and India as it complements their regional connectivity plans in Central Asia.
While it complements China's BRI objectives in the region, the rail link is also seen as another major regional connectivity project for India after it constructed the Zaranj-Delaram Highway in Afghanistan and the Shahid Beheshti port in Chabahar, Iran.
India is also committed to building another rail route, from Chabahar to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border, and President Mirziyoyev is keen to join the transit trade agreement signed by India, Afghanistan and Iran, The Hindu reported.
India cozying up to BRI
The opportunity for China-India cooperation in the Uzbek-Afghan railway comes just weeks after India announced it would provide a corridor to China through its northeastern region to Bangladesh's Chittagong port which would complement the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor, in the clearest sign yet of a strategic shift in New Delhi's position on BRI-related connectivity projects.
India also invited for the first time "limited Chinese investment" in the creation of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional hub.
New Delhi has warmed up to the BRI following the informal Wuhan summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi in April. Immediately after the Wuhan meeting, it was announced that among other things, China and India agreed to undertake joint economic projects in Afghanistan. Other projects on India's radar are the BCIM and a corridor linking China, Nepal and India.
Experts say that the Wuhan summit has led to a consensus between China and India on connectivity projects.
"Both leaders certainly achieved a consensus in Wuhan and we have seen that relations between China and India have been stable this year, even as they carefully manage their differences," Lin Minwang, an international relations professor at Shanghai-based Fudan University, told CGTN Digital.
"On the Belt and Road Initiative, India only objects to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) but has no problem with the rest of the project. As long as both countries follow the consensus, I am optimistic about the bilateral relations between both the countries and also their collaboration at multilateral platforms," he added.
Beijing, meanwhile, proposed the "China-India Plus" framework ahead of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, opening huge potential for cooperation between the two Asian powers in third countries.
"We hope that the two sides will follow through on the consensus between the two leaders to vigorously explore 'China-India Plus one' or 'China-India Plus X' cooperation to achieve mutual benefits and win-win outcomes between China and India and other countries, and jointly make contributions to promoting regional and world peace, stability, development and prosperity," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
As China's grand connectivity project marked five years since its inception in 2013, India appears to be recalibrating its position on the BRI, with analysts saying New Delhi might be open to infrastructure and connectivity projects under multilateral frameworks (including those under the SCO and BRICS) and the China-India Plus model.
The Uzbek-Afghanistan rail link could be among the first such projects paving the way for further cooperation between China and India in other multilateral development projects in third countries in the future.
Lin Minwang is a visiting fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.