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Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity Conference - Exploring the challenges and opportunities




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On Friday 16th July, Tashkent, Uzbekistan hosted their first major international initiative in the history of the region – the Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity conference. Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev called on this initiative to foster a collaborative mission and direction towards a more prosperous future between these two areas which together total a population of almost 2 billion. Calculations show there is an untapped potential of $1.6 billion in trade between Central and South Asia, writes Tori Macdonald.

Mirziyoyev continued by emphasising that dialogue has already begun to foster peace and civilisation, but now the other major focus should be to improve this sense of interconnection through the creation and development of more reliable transport routes to accelerate trade and therefore potential for economic cooperation.

As mentioned, this conference was the first of its kind to be held in Uzbekistan’s capital and it brought together several heads of state including the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Kahn as well as further top-level government and foreign affairs members of Central and South Asian countries and further international state representatives, such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China. Furthermore, members of international organisations such as the United Nations.

The conference lasted 9 hours and consisted of 3 breakout panel sessions as well as 1:1 official delegation meetings and general press conferences for the attending media representatives. During this time, specific proposals were presented and evaluated regarding how to proceed in mutual cooperation in main sectors such as transport and logistics, energy, trade and investment, cultural and humanitarian issues.

Uzbekistan has already made a head start by demonstrating expansion in trade and investment growth along with increased joint ventures for the production of home appliances, automobiles and textiles. Following Uzbekistan’s accession to beneficiary status in the EU’s GSP+ initiative, this conference also welcomed the attendance of several high level European Union commissioners to comment on the prospects and potential of Central and South Asia’s cooperation.

Another significant focus point of this event was the role of Afghanistan, as their demographic position opens new promising markets and transport routes, particularly for Uzbekistan as they tackle the challenge of being a landlocked state. Afghanistan creates a bridge between the two regions which is why the construction project for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway is underway to allow Uzbekistan and other countries to significantly reduce transport costs for the delivery of goods to foreign markets.

The topical issue of peace in Afghanistan was a touchy but essential reference point for furthering cooperation prospects, with representatives of the Taliban movement also invited participate in the event.

Comments from heads of state

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev gave a very warm, almost poetic opening speech into the event, reflecting on the rich historic and cultural past which once linked these regions through the Silk Road. He emphasized the shared mutual ideals around knowledge, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, geography, architecture, religious and spiritual values, the latter contributing to having created such diverse ethnic communities across the continent. Mirziyoyev noted that reconnecting is crucial for establishing peace as well as improving humane aspects such as living standards and general civilian wellbeing.

There was great anticipation over the comments made by Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opening with an emphasis on the use of technology, stating “connectivity is necessary to grow in the next few years otherwise the gap between our regions will enlarge.” Ghani went on to note that they are converting military airports in Afghanistan into hubs of trade and connectivity in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Furthermore, putting resources towards creating better livelihoods, such as through education on poverty. On the subject of the increasing conflict with the Taliban, Ghani said his government are in the pursuit of political settlement, offering a roadmap of forming and sustaining peace in the government for the will of all people. He also called for collective action and global support through emphasising the importance of a sovereign, united and democratic state.

The Pakistani President, Imran Khan added during his statement that, “the prosperity of regions depends on how we cooperate with distant, advanced countries.” Furthermore, accentuating the importance of mutual understanding, frequent dialogue, and intercultural harmony. In the modern world, cultural and technological development should move in tandem and enhanced connectivity will undoubtedly stimulate economic growth as a result. Khan ended his speech by making an appreciative gesture towards President Mirziyoyev, congratulating the Uzbek leader for pushing this initiative and thanking him for his high level of hospitality for the conference participants in Tashkent.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, also featured at the conference, remarking that the EU wish to promote cooperation complementary efforts through roads linking Central and South Asia. He reflected on how the formation of the European Union has cultivated the longest period of peace in European history, and now with the giant global obstacle that is the COVID-19 pandemic, Borrell stated, “it has given further impetus to reinforce connectivity and networks. We cannot face global challenges in isolation. We must work together to become more resilient and face the challenges of tomorrow.”

It should be noted that despite the many benefits of increased connectivity, most leaders also commented on the potential risks that equally arise, particularly in the form of security: the destruction of public assets, drug trafficking, terrorism, and systemic looting to name a few.

Breakout sessions

During the afternoon’s breakout sessions, the first focussed on Trade and Transport Connectivity for Sustainable Growth. A topic discussed was what countries in the region can do to remove soft barriers, including the border crossings and trade facilitation to carry out the full potential of transport initiatives. The consensus included, liberalising trade policies further on a non-discriminative basis, improving trade agreements through the digitisation of borders and custom points, adopting risk management systems and improving the standards of goods through vehicle and sanitary measures.

Overall, the common theme for trade growth was through electronic and innovative powers. This was particularly evident on the subject of infrastructure investment, where the panel members (consisting of MD level individuals of major international trade organisations) agreed that successful business projects would be dependent on sound preparation, which is where technology can play a role in determining cost effectiveness, comparative advantage, and calculating necessary measures for resilience in the face of climate change.

Then there was a session on the revival of cultural ties to strengthen friendship & mutual trust. It was concluded that peace can be achieved through five main objectives, this included, the joining cultural and human initiatives to strengthen cooperation between the two regions, particularly through tourism and preserving cultural heritage. Furthermore, the organisation of practical measures for the continued development of science, and improved youth policy necessary to encourage enthusiasm and active improvement of young people through the invocation of programs and initiatives. It was highlighted that there has been strong engagement from the Uzbek government since Mirziyoyev’s election in 2016 regarding youth development which is inspiring.


The overriding conclusion as a next step following this conference was the importance of collaboration to overcome threats. Notably, to consider the common interests and objectives of all participants to cooperate effectively in a beneficial manner. The most sustainable method of doing so being to keep dialogue frequent between nations. By working together consistently, the opportunity to improve and enhance economic and social growth can be achieved. Unified tariffs and the creation of transport corridors were the principal proposed tangible measures for achieving this objective.

How the rest of the world can contribute to the collective effort is through private foreign investment. This is where technology can play a major role in creating ease and efficiency in cooperating with distant countries.

All in all, what matters most is to simply keep moving forward, if not, the development gap between Central, South Asia and the rest of the world will only widen and it’s the future generations who will bear the brunt as a result.

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