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Transcript of Special Briefing by Secretary (West) on the First India-Central Asia Summit (January 27, 2022)

January 27, 2022

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Very good evening to all of you. Namaskar. Thank you for joining us on the special media briefing on the occasion of the conclusion of the first India-Central Asia Summit that has been held a little while ago virtually, with Honourable Prime Minister and his central Asian counterparts. To give us a sense of the discussions and the outcomes, we have the privilege of having with us here today Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary West in the Ministry of External Affairs. We are also joined here by Dr. Adarsh Swaika, Joint Secretary looking after Eurasia in the Ministry of External Affairs. Ma'am, I will first hand the floor over to you for your opening remarks and then we have a lot of questions, we'll come to that.

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): Namaskar and good evening. The first India-Central Asia Summit in virtual format with the participation of our Prime Minister and Presidents of the five Central Asian countries has just concluded. It’s the first meeting of its kind at Summit level. The timing of the meeting is of particular significance, as we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations with the five Central Asian countries this year. It may be recalled that after Prime Minister's historic visit to all Central Asian countries in 2015, there has been a strong momentum in our relations with the Central Asian countries both bilaterally and at multilateral level. There have been regular high level exchanges since then, with all the Central Asian countries. The inception of the India-Central Asia dialogue at the Foreign Ministers level in 2019, the third meeting of which was held in New Delhi from 18 to 20 December 2021, underlines the high importance that we attach to strengthening our cooperation with Central Asia - a region that is part of our extended neighbourhood and with which India enjoys deep historical, cultural and civilizational links. The participation of the Secretaries of National Security Council of Central Asian countries in the regional security dialogue on Afghanistan in New Delhi in November last year, underlined our common regional approach on Afghanistan.

The first meeting of the India-Central Asia Summit held today is a culmination of our sustained diplomatic engagement with the Central Asian countries in recent years. The program of today's summit included, opening remarks by all the leaders, followed by their statements on the main theme of the summit, which was taking India-Central Asia relations to new heights. Prime Minister gave the closing remarks. Altogether the virtual summit lasted for around one and half hours. In the traditional spirit of friendship and mutual understanding, Prime Minister and the leaders of Central Asian countries reviewed the progress made in India-Central Asia relations during the past three decades since the establishment of diplomatic ties and discussed (inaudible) partnership to great heights in the coming years by enhancing cooperation across several areas. The leaders also had a candid exchange of views on regional international issues of interest, especially the current regional security situation. Honourable Prime Minister underlined the importance of setting an ambitious agenda for our partnership, taking into account the changing global realities and aspirations of our youth. In this context, he suggested preparing a roadmap for the next 30 years, focusing on connectivity and cooperation in an integrated manner. An important outcome of the meeting today was the agreement among the leaders of India and Central Asian countries to hold summit level meetings every two years. The next summit would accordingly be held in 2024.

One of the key proposals made by the honourable Prime Minister was to institutionalize the framework for India-Central Asia cooperation at a regional level, and to include annual ministerial meetings of the foreign ministers, trade ministers, cultural ministers, and secretaries of security to strengthen cooperation in the areas of political and development, partnership, trade and connectivity, culture & tourism and security. He also proposed the setting up of an India-Central Asia Center in New Delhi to serve as a secretariat for supporting this framework of cooperation. In the area of trade and economic cooperation, honourable Prime Minister proposed organizing a round table on connectivity and energy cooperation- two very important aspects of our economic relations with Central Asia. Other proposals of India included establishment of separate forums for Parliamentary exchanges; interactions between think tanks, chambers of commerce and universities of India and Central Asian countries. All these proposals were welcomed and supported by the leaders of the Central Asian countries. A joint declaration was adopted following the first meeting of the Central Asia Summit. It will soon be uploaded on the MEA website.

I will mention a few highlights of the Joint Declaration here. India welcomed the interest of Central Asian countries to utilize the services of Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar port in Iran and proposed the establishment of a joint working group on Chabahar port, which was welcomed by the Central Asian countries. It was also agreed to set up an IT enabled services taskforce to take forward cooperation in the area of e- governance, digitization etc. The leaders agreed to continue close consultations on this (inaudible) and decided to establish a joint working group (inaudible) official level. Joint counterterrorism exercises will be held between India and interested Central Asian countries. India will host a 100 member youth delegation from the Central Asian countries every year to promote greater understanding. India will organize customized professional training programs for Central Asian diplomats, and also provide additional training slots and scholarships in other areas to meet the requirements of Central Asian countries. India and Central Asian countries also agreed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations by organizing various activities including the issuance of joint postal stamps. We also agreed to give greater attention to cultural cooperation by hosting regular film festivals, promoting cooperation between museums, undertaking translation of literary works, digitization of manuscripts, academic research and restoration work related to cultural heritage. To highlight our linguistic and spiritual linkages, we agreed to commission a dictionary of common words used in India and Central Asian countries and showcase a Buddhist exhibition in Central Asian countries.

The evolving situation in Afghanistan and its impact on the security and stability of the region was discussed in detail. The leaders reiterated their strong support for peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan. They also discussed current humanitarian situation and decided to continue to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. Let me conclude by saying that the first India-Central Asia Summit was symbolic of the importance the leaders attached to a comprehensive and enduring partnership between India and the Central Asian countries. It was also a reflection of the growing engagement between India and Central Asia, which are very much part of our extended neighbourhood. We now look forward to implementing the understandings reached among the leaders today to further expand and strengthen India-Central Asia relations. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, ma'am. Thank you for the very comprehensive overview of discussions today, the way forward. Expectedly there are a large number of questions, most of which actually are related to connectivity and how we can enhance our linkages with this important region. So let me take up some of these questions on connectivity. We have Parul Chandra, asking whether the turmoil in Afghanistan has further hampered India’s efforts to access the land-locked Central Asian nations via Chabahar specifically and what have been the discussions so far between Indian and the five Central Asian nations on enhancing connectivity. We have Sidhant from WION asking whether on Chabahar, any joint plan for the Central Asian countries to use the port? We have Manisha Jha from Business World asking whether the ongoing connectivity projects with Central Asia, is there anything beyond Chabahar? And it is linked with Afghanistan of course and it is understood that such crucial projects like INSTC are on hold because of the de facto recognition issue of Taliban government. Huma specifically asked about, what is the status of INSTC. We have similar questions from Niloba Rai Chaudhary, as well as Sridhar from Asian Age asking in fact a slight variation saying, does India see China as the primary competitor on connectivity initiatives with Central Asia? He mentioned that two nations Russia and Iran, that are key to New Delhi's initiatives on Central Asia, are also close partners of Beijing. Similar question on that from Seema Guha from Outlook. And also Akhilesh Suman has asked, as far as economic cooperation between India and Central Asia is concerned, this is he claims, is badly affected due to land route not being provided by Pakistan. Will these countries, that is Central Asian countries, impress upon Imran Khan to change his position on giving land route to India and Central Asia through his territory? Seema Guha was actually having similar question on this. So I think as you can see ma’am, a lot of interest on connectivity, INSTC, Chabahar, so if I could hand over to you.

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West):
Thank you. Well, connectivity was one of the main issues of discussion with the Central Asian leaders today. The importance of Chabahar port was equally emphasized by all. As you know Chabahar port has provided much needed sea access to the landlocked countries including Afghanistan and Central Asia. Recently, it facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance, especially during COVID 19 pandemic. The leaders agreed to work together to use Chabahar port for connecting Central Asia with India and further South Asia, including setting up a working group on Chabahar. They have supported our proposal to include Chabahar within the INSTC framework. We already have a trilateral mechanism of India, Iran, Uzbekistan, on the Chabahar port. Other Central Asian countries have also expressed interest in joining this initiative. The INSTC is a functional route through the Bandar Abbas port of Iran that further passes through Azerbaijan or alternatively through Caspian Sea to Russia. Usage of this route can reduce the time taken from 40 to 45 days to 20 to 25 days between India and Russia as well as reduced cost by 30% to 40%. Given the landlocked nature of Central Asian countries, and the lack of overland connectivity with India, there has been understandably a considerable emphasis on the need for promoting mutual connectivity to enhance trade and commerce between India and the Central Asian countries. Both Russia and Iran are key stakeholders and participants of the INSTC. It is in the interest of all member countries of the INSTC that there is greater utilization of this route. In addition, India is also a member of the Ashgabat agreement that we joined in 2018 and which enables connectivity between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. This also synchronizes with other transport corridors in the region, including the INSTC. India stands ready to plan, build, invest, and participate in connectivity projects based on the priorities of transparency, broad participation, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. As regards the query on Pakistan, this is better addressed to the Central Asian countries.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, ma’am. As clearly, as you mentioned, Afghanistan is an important part of this. So actually, we have some questions on Afghanistan itself, and I will read them out. We have Nayanima from the Print asking, was giving recognition to Taliban discussed at the Summit, since some Central Asian countries are planning to do it soon as per her. Sidhant from WION asked, on Afghanistan, what was the general consensus In terms of inclusive government and recognizing the Taliban regime? And Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV would like to know, given the situation in Afghanistan after the takeover by Taliban, how India and Central Asian countries are going to collaborate on security matters?

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): Thank you. Afghanistan is an important issue that concerns all of us and was discussed by the leaders today. In broader terms, we share the same concerns and share the same objectives. The outcome document of the Delhi Security Dialogue of November 2021, reflected the regional consensus on major issues of regional stability and security. Our common priorities include, providing immediate humanitarian assistance, ensuring formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities. At the meeting today, the leaders agreed to continue close consultations on Afghanistan on the situation there and decided to establish a joint working group on Afghanistan at the senior officials level. India and Central Asian countries are committed to combating the menace of terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking. Our security cooperation includes discussions and exchanges on all these matters.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, ma’am, moving on some quick queries, a couple of them on China. We have Nayanima from the Print asking, has there been any discussion around increasing Chinese defence supplies to these countries, Central Asian countries and did India raise any such concern? Sidhant from WION wants to know how much was discussion on China, given the country has been involved in huge debt crisis in the region. Was there any mention of debt problem in the region caused by China, especially non transparent infrastructure projects?

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): Well, India's long standing and friendly relations with Central Asian countries are based on a strong foundation of deep historical, cultural and civilizational links. They stand on their own merit. The focus of the summit was purely on further strengthening India-Central Asia partnership.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Ma’am Sidhant from WION wants to know when is the next summit expected to happen. You had mentioned partly in your opening statement. I give the floor to you, ma’am.

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): All countries have agreed to hold the next summit once in two years. So we expect the next summit to take place in 2024, the details of which country will host the summit, these will be agreed subsequently through diplomatic channels.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, ma’am. We have a query on Lines of Credit. Sandeep Dikshit from Tribune wants to know, could you please name and give break up of four projects worth US$ 450 million that have been cleared under US$1 billion LoC. Also, is this credit line only for Uzbekistan or for entire Central Asia? If it is for latter, is there a country level allocation?

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): So there are two separate Lines of Credit. One was announced for Uzbekistan exclusively in 2018, during the visit of President Mirziyoyev to India. Under this, four projects worth US$ 448 million in the sectors of road, sewerage and IT have been approved for implementation. The second line of credit is the US$1 billion LoC announced in October 2020, during the second India-Central Asia dialogue for all the five Central Asian countries.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, ma'am. We have a couple of queries regarding the TAPI project. Sandeep Dikshit wants to know whether we could brief him on progress in TAPI as an example of regional economic cooperation against the backdrop of External Affairs Minister's talks with his Turkmen counterpart mentioned at the third Foreign Minister level India-Central Asia dialogue last December and reported in the discussions between Taliban and Turkmen envoy in Kabul on September 30th. Huma from Financial Express also wants to know whether TAPI was discussed with Turkmenistan and this pipeline has been pushed again by Taliban during talks.

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): The President of Turkmenistan at the meeting today emphasized on the importance of the TAPI project. It is understood that discussions are ongoing at the level of consortium partners with respect to the business principles of this project.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Ma’am moving on to specific cooperation with bilateral countries, there are a couple of questions. Both from Huma which says what about our base in Tajikistan? Are we allowed to operate it? And also did the space cooperation come up and what is the status of the KazSat-2R?

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): As you are aware, we have very good cooperation with most Central Asian countries in the area of security and defence. We have regular bilateral military exercises and capacity building programs. A unique experiment has been in terms of co-deployment of troops in peacekeeping. Space is also a promising area of cooperation given India's rapid strides in this domain. The discussions today were focused on regional cooperation with the Central Asian countries rather than purely on bilateral.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Ma’am, Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV would like to know, as the situation is tense in Ukraine and surrounding areas, what was the discussion between Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and the Central Asian leaders on this issue?

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West):
Discussion on this topic did not come up during today's summit.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: And ma'am finally a query from Munish Gupta from PIO TV who emphasizes the strategic importance of Central Asian region for India and would like to know what concrete agreements and action plans point to India as a vital strategic partner for these countries.

Smt. Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West): Well, as he has rightly pointed out, India Central Asia relations are extremely important as I highlighted during my opening remarks. This year, we are marking the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. A lot has been achieved in the three decades and we look forward to strengthening our partnership in future and today's discussion centred around looking at a very ambitious agenda in this direction. This is why the institutionalization of the summit mechanism, the first of its kind between Central Asia and any country is so important. A number of initiators, plans, agreements in various sectors have been proposed and discussed. Our major focus is on trade and connectivity, development cooperation, including capacity building, security and defence, and most importantly, in culture and people to people contacts. The proposals announced by India shows the focus of our cooperation. Further details are available in the joint statement, which is available online.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much, ma’am. That brings to the end of the questions that we have. We appreciate all of you joining in for this special briefing at the conclusion of the first India-Central Asia Summit that just took place virtually-Prime Minister with his counterparts from Central Asian countries. I'd like to thank you, ma'am, for your presence and for answering these questions at length. I'd also like to thank the presence of Dr. Adarsh Swaika, Joint Secretary Eurasia in the Ministry of External Affairs. The joint declaration that Secretary ma'am alluded to is being put up on our website and give you a lot more information about the discussions and the agreements and the way forward for cooperation between India and Central Asian countries. Thank you once again for joining us. Good evening, Namaskar.



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