New Delhi: At their first joint working group meeting on the Chabahar port, India and the central Asian nations reaffirmed that connectivity initiatives should comply with global norms, transparency, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.
The comments, mentioned in a joint statement released on Friday following the meeting hosted by India in Mumbai on April 12 and 13, came amid growing global criticism of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The statement said the participants at the meeting noted that further development of regional connectivity is essential for enhancing trade and commerce between India and the central Asian countries in the context of their land-locked nature and lack of overland connectivity with India.
The mention of “lack of overland connectivity with India” is being seen as an indirect reference to Pakistan’s reluctance to grant New Delhi transit access to Afghanistan and beyond.
India has been pushing for the Chabahar port project to boost regional trade, especially for its connectivity to Afghanistan.
At the meeting, the country representative for the UN World Food Programme (UNWFP) made a presentation on the ongoing cooperation between India and the UNWFP in Afghanistan for the delivery of wheat assistance.
The statement said the consul general of Afghanistan emphasised the significance of the Chabahar port for the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people and providing economic opportunities for Afghan businessmen and traders.
Located in the Sistan-Balochistan province on the energy-rich Iran’s southern coast, the Chabahar port is being developed by India and Iran to boost connectivity and trade ties.
The first meeting of the India-Central Asia Joint Working Group (JWG) on the Chabahar port was chaired by Dammu Ravi, the Secretary (Economic Relations) in the Ministry of External Affairs, and attended by deputy ministers and senior officials from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The special invitees to the event were the country representative of the UNWFP, the deputy foreign minister of Iran and the consul general of Afghanistan, according to the statement.
It said the participants “reaffirmed that the connectivity initiatives should conform with international norms, the rule of law, respect for international commitments, and are based on mutually-agreed principles of sustainable connectivity, transparency, broad participation, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries”.
China has been facing criticism of creating debt traps for a number of countries while pushing projects under the BRI. Several African countries are finding it difficult to repay the loans provided by China for BRI projects.
The statement said the participants at the joint working group meeting also emphasised that connectivity projects deserve priority attention and could be a force multiplier for trade and economic cooperation and contacts between countries and people.
The statement said the participants agreed that connectivity requires the private sector’s active participation.
“In order to facilitate large-scale private investments in sustainable connectivity, the sides expressed their commitment to implement relevant international standards, to ensure a level-playing field for companies and to ensure reciprocal access to markets,” it said.
During the meeting, the managing director of India Ports Global Limited (IPGL) gave a comprehensive presentation on the facilities and current operations at the Shahid Behesti terminal at the Chabahar port. IPGL is currently operating the terminal.
“The Country Representative for UNWFP made a presentation on the ongoing cooperation between India and UNWFP in Afghanistan for the delivery of wheat assistance. The Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan emphasised the significance of Chabahar Port for the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people and providing economic opportunities for the Afghan businessmen and traders,” the joint statement said.
At the meeting, the deputy foreign minister of Iran proposed to hold the next round of the India-Central Asia Joint Working Group (JWG) deliberations in his country, along with the participation of the private sector. The participants welcomed the proposal.