Monday, December 31, 2012

Russian nod for India’s bid to link south with central Asia

By Indrani Bagchi, TNN | Dec 30, 2012, 09.44 PM IST

NEW DELHI: India's pet project to link south with central Asia got support from Russian president Vladimir Putin. During their talks in New Delhi last week, Singh and Putin agreed to unfreeze the north-south corridor through Iran within the next year. India has taken the lead role in pushing for the completion of this project. 

Indian officials said they would push for the completion of the corridor and were willing to step in, if Iran found it difficult to accomplish the task. The corridor is, by and large complete, they said, except for a section inside Iran between Qazvin-Rasht-Astara. The corridor is useless unless the Iranian section is completed. Although the agreement was inked by India, Iran, Russia and Oman in 2001, Tehran has dragged its feet on the project. 

Now, the urgency for completion of the project is due to the imminent drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014. New Delhi figures that this project will be a game-changer for its trade and open Indian economy to the rising economies in central Asia, by connecting India with Afghanistan and beyond, bypassing Pakistan. 

India's aims in the region is coalescing with Russia, which is paying greater attention to it's "near abroad". Russia is concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in its southern periphery and one of the ways of countering this is to open these landlocked nations to trade and connectivity with India. 

Another reason for both Russia and India to concentrate on central Asia is the growing influence and presence of China in this region, which has raised concerns in Moscow and New Delhi. China is far ahead of both Russia and India in establishing connectivity with the central Asian countries — China's aims being to stabilize its own western periphery, with the restive province of Xinjiang as the focus. Beijing has already built an intricate set of oil and gas pipelines to Kazakhstan, and a Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline. In 2011, the trade turnover between China and the five central Asian countries reached $16.98 billion. Beijing is currently working on a rail link to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. China's progress, frankly, puts India's sluggish initiatives in the shade. 

India has recently received help from other quarters. Turkey has stepped in, offering itself as a more viable transit route for the corridor, given its already-developed connections with central Asian nations and Russia. On the other hand, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have both asked Indian leaders to consider connecting them to the corridor. 

The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which is being used by the US to transport supplies and weapons to its forces in Afghanistan by steering clear of Pakistan, is on offer for trade and connectivity in the post-2014 environment, said sources. Tajikistan has offered to connect itself to the Zaranj-Delaram road and Afghanistan's garland highway, which will give it access to Iran's Chahbahar port. 

All of this is certain to raise Iran's geo-political profile that India and Russia support. Iran, however, has been tardy in putting its own infrastructure in order. However, Iranian diplomats have recently gone on record to say that they have completed "70% of works on construction of Qazvin-Rasht-Astara railroad within the framework of North-South Transport Corridor project." 

Iran, India and Afghanistan have recently started to coordinate work on theChahbahar port project. Again, here, the delay is on the Iranian side. India has offered to undertake the development of the port in Iran — over $5 billion of India's oil payments to Iran are sitting in Indian banks in Indian currency, and the idea is that this could be used in the port's development. 
The Chahbahar port would be a lifeline for landlocked Afghanistan, by reducing its dependence on Pakistan. It would also act as a bridge to connect central Asia with India. Ultimately, it promises to open up vast markets in Eurasian countries to Indian goods and services, cutting travel and freight time and cost. 

Uzbek and Kazakh leaders have pressed India to complete the project because it would open up the Indian energy market to these countries. Kazakhstan has offered the Satpayev block to India and is slated to become a key uranium supplier to India's civilian nuclear sector. But lack of connectivity is a serious deterrent at present, said officials. In fact, its cheaper to bring goods to India through China from these countries! 
But the focus is to complete the missing section in Iran. Of the 375-km-long Qazvin-Astara-Rasht route, around 300 km is located in Iran. While, 8.5km of railways will be built in Azerbaijan.

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