India and Uzbekistan Look to Deepen Bilateral Ties
Photo Credit: @Indian Diplomacy
By Aditi Bhaduri

India and Uzbekistan Look to Deepen Bilateral Ties

Oct. 23, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrived on September 30, 2018 on his first official visit to India. This visit came soon after the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Uzbekistan, as part of her visit to the Central Asian Region. In Tashkent, the minister met her Uzbek counterpart Abdulaziz Kamilov as well as President Mirziyoyev, and held substantive discussions across all sectors in order to strengthen the bilateral strategic partnership. There was a particular thrust on business and the Indian Minister of Commerce Suresh Prabhu had also paid a visit to the country just before Swaraj.

India and Uzbekistan share ancient civilizational ties. In fact, Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is said to have originated from the Sanskrit Tasher Khand. Many centuries later, the Mughal Empire was established in India by Emperor Babur who was born in the Ferghana valley. Ties between the two sides blossomed as Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union. As India’s ties rose with the erstwhile USSR, so did India’s stature in the minds of people in Soviet Uzbekistan. India and all things Indian occupied a cultural space, thanks in part to their many shared traditions and in part to Bollywood which was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, particularly in its Central Asian Republics. The peace treaty between India and Pakistan after the 1965 war that the two countries fought, for instance, was signed in Tashkent.[1]

This reservoir of goodwill and rapport should have been tapped into when Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign independent country after the dissolution of the USSR. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Neither side paid the attention that their bilateral relations deserved. Even though India was one of the first countries to acknowledge the independence of Uzbekistan, it was beginning to look west to the US while the nascent state of Uzbekistan was more concerned with survival and the post-Soviet turmoil. India for its part ignored for a long time a vital geo-strategic region which it had been organically linked to until the 1947 partition when Pakistan emerged as a barrier.

In 2012, India formulated its Connect Central Asia policy but failed to follow up with substance. The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Central Asian Republics in 2015 resuscitated India’s relations with the region. As Modi noted during that visit to Tashkent, a strong strategic partnership between India and Uzbekistan remains a key pillar of India’s engagement with Central Asia. Mineral rich Uzbekistan, which is also Central Asia’s most populous states and one of the largest in terms of territory, occupies a strategic geo-political space, bordering with all the other Central Asian states as well as with Afghanistan. With huge deposits of uranium, non-ferrous and rare-earth metals, and an ample supply of natural gas, it is the largest producer of electricity in the region. As India seeks to diversify its energy procurement — given the incessant volatility of the Middle East from where India currently sources much of its energy requirements — the energy rich Central Asian Republics assume increasingly greater significance, and connectivity becomes increasingly crucial for the country’s energy security.

The high-profile bilateral visits are meant to right this historical neglect. High on the agenda of the Uzbek presidential visit is the promotion of business ties and the visit is preceded by a large business delegation from the Central Asian country and a business forum organized in the Indian capital. With Uzbekistan opening up its economy and even political orientation after the long years of iron-fisted rule by the late President Islam Karimov, the country presents immense potential for trade and investment. Both countries are working to increase bilateral ties and to conclude a bilateral preferential trade agreement. In Delhi, the two sides signed 17 pacts spanning defence, counterterrorism, agriculture, tourism, culture, science, technology, space, and people-to-people exchanges.

Another pillar of bilateral engagement is regional peace and security. By dint of its geography, Uzbekistan has historically played an important role on the ancient Silk Route. It is now also an important stop on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which it has eagerly joined.  China’s aggressive courting of the Central Asian Republics has partly galvanized India into action in this region. China’s investment in the region amounts to almost USD 30 billion, and it has emerged as Uzbekistan’s second largest trade partner and its biggest investor. In 2015, Modi had proposed that Uzbekistan join the International North South Transport Corridor, a multi-modal trade corridor for transporting freight between Mumbai and St. Petersburg. For its part, Uzbekistan has facilitated India’s entry into the Ashkhabad Agreement. Connectivity, therefore, is an important lynchpin in India’s outreach to the region. Uzbekistan has also evinced interest in joining Chabahar Port, India’s pet international connectivity project, which links India to Afghanistan via Iran, bypassing Pakistan. Chabahar offers the Central Asian Republics one of the shortest routes to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and to the markets of South and West Asia.

Uzbek Ambassador Farhod Arziev told journalists in Delhi that India is one of Uzbekistan's key partners not only in Asia but globally as well.

Furthermore, bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan had also for a while facilitated supply lines for the Americans to Afghanistan, until then President Karimov fell out with the US over accusations of his suppression of human rights. With the Afghan jihad spilling over into Uzbek territory, spawning terror groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and radical groups like Hizb-u-Tahreer, Uzbekistan is invested in both fighting radical Islam and in seeing a stable and prosperous Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors. With its authority in the Islamic world and its ethnic affiliations with a section of the Afghan population, Uzbekistan continues to play a vital role in the search for peace and stability in Afghanistan, as reflected in the international conference on Afghanistan themed “Peace process, cooperation in the field of security and regional cooperation” that it hosted in March, and in which India also participated.

The views of India and Uzbekistan regarding peace and stability in Afghanistan have converged, and both have “reiterated support for efforts of the government and the people for a genuine Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process that would allow for a peaceful, secure, united, inclusive and prosperous nation.” The two countries have further pledged to institute a dialogue on Afghanistan. Both sides could jointly undertake projects with Afghanistan, for example joint training or capacity building projects.

Having long battled Islamism on its territory, Uzbekistan makes for an important partner for sharing intelligence, cooperation in counter-terrorism and in regional peace. It is no wonder then that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, which promotes cooperation between the SCO member states against terrorism, separatism, and extremism, is headquartered in Tashkent. The India-Uzbekistan Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism was set up in 2015 and meets once a year. With India becoming a full-fledged member of the SCO, bilateral ties have received a fillip within the framework of the organization, which provides an important platform for bilateral exchanges at important levels.

Defense and counter-terrorism are therefore major areas where both sides are keen to deepen cooperation. In their joint statement issued in Delhi, “both India and Uzbekistan have agreed to hold joint military training exercise in the area of counter-terrorism, cooperate in the field of military education and military medicine, set up Joint Working Group to set up and support enhanced mutually beneficial defense related activities. They agreed to set up a defense wing at the Uzbekistan embassy in Delhi.” Uzbekistan also supports the quick adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

Both Indian and Uzbek forces, along with those from other members of SCO countries, participated in Peace Mission 2018 exercises which saw more than 3,000 troops taking part in anti-terror drills in Russia in August. The objective was to enhance cooperation between armed forces of the SCO states.

Thus, having already declared its intention of aggressively developing ties with other powers like China, keeping with its avowed intention of following a “multi-vectoral foreign policy,” Uzbekistan is now looking to deepen ties and cooperation with India in as many areas as possible. Uzbek Ambassador Farhod Arziev told journalists in Delhi that India is one of Uzbekistan's key partners not only in Asia but globally as well.

For India too, it makes sense to cultivate and pursue close ties with a region it has for many centuries been organically linked to. And Uzbekistan makes for a powerful ally here.

[1] India’s then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in Tashkent the day after the signing.

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