BEIJING: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal meeting in Wuhan in China in April, one of the issues that two leaders had aimed to cooperate in Afghanistan in terms of the economy.
According to a report in China’s CGTN, the two giant neighbours could engage for collaboration in a rail link extension project connecting Afghanistan with Uzbekistan. It could demonstrate the “China-India Plus” model which Beijing recently proposed to see cooperation with New Delhi in development and connectivity projects in third countries.
Uzbekistan, a landlocked Central Asian Republic, is eyeing access to sea ports in the Persian Gulf through a rail link via Afghanistan, also a landlocked country, and Iran. It is seeking cooperation from both China and India in the connectivity project.
In 2011, Uzbek state railway company Uzbekistan Temir Yollari built a short rail link connecting Hairatan, an Uzbek-Afghan border town, with the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Uzbekistan now plans to extend the line to Herat in northwestern Afghanistan, which is seen as a gateway to Iran. Another link, now under construction, will connect Herat to Iran.
China is already connecting Uzbekistan through a rail route under the Belt and Road Initiative and has also sent cargo trains to Afghanistan’s Hairatan using the network. The railway line from China to Afghanistan that runs via Uzbekistan was inaugurated in September 2016. Two years since then, the presence of India in the scenario makes the geopolitics more interesting.
While reports suggested that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought India to join the railway project during his visit to New Delhi in September, CGTN Digital cited an Afghanistan government official as saying that Kabul welcomes both India and China to take part in the project and that gives them an opportunity to cooperate in Afghanistan, something Modi and Xi spoke about in Wuhan. Given Afghanistan’s complicated geostrategic reality and clash of interests of various parties on its soil, cooperation between India and China is not easily achievable but the transnational link between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan could be a way out for both. “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, was quoted as saying by 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.”