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Exploring India – Kazakhstan Transport Linkages

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  • December 11, 2008
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    A Roundtable was held on December 11, 2008 against the backdrop of increasing demand for transport connectivity between India and Central Asia. Among the many points discussed the following stand out as important.

    • Economic growth in the Asian region and emerging opportunities for interregional trade are creating a demand for viable transport connectivity, land-linking arrangements, and important transit services.
    • Due to geographical and geopolitical attributes, India and Central Asia are confronted with a range of constraints that have hitherto inhabited a full realization of two-way trade and commerce. The problems of distance were substantially compounded by the instability factor in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation was unlikely to change in the near and medium term.
    • The discussion focused on the importance of restoring the ancient Silk Route that traditionally linked Central Asia and India through China’s Xinjiang province, while it also emphasized on the need for developing the North-South Corridor or road connectivity through Iran and Afghanistan.
    • It was realized that any viable future long-distance transport grids, including energy pipelines from resource rich Siberia and Central Asia to India were not possible without them transiting through Western China. Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) becomes the hub for any mode of transportation to be developed in the future.
    • Participants underscored the point that China and Central Asian countries have facilitated various transit transport systems to overcome their interregional trade problems. A web of transport connectivity has been developed by XUAR, which has 16 Class A ports and 11 Class B ports connecting with eight countries.
    • According to experts, different variants of transport connectivity are realistically attainable while adopting a schematic approach. Among the several inchoate thoughts, the route that directly followed an alignment in a north-south direction along the existing railway lines and roads in Kazakhstan, Western China and India included: Almaty, Korgas, Yinning, Kuqa, Aksu, Kashgar, Yarkand, Yecheng (along the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway No. 219) Mazar, Shahidulla, Sumxi, Derub, Resum, Shiquanhe, Gar, Kailash, Burang, Lepu-lekh. The total distance would be less than 3,000 kilometres. Importantly, the route under consideration already existed and it is only a matter of cross-border connectivity.
    • A linkage through Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir is arguably the shortest, but China’s sensitivity to any engagement in Jammu & Kashmir may rule out the option.
      From India’s perspective while considering the topographical factor, Lipu-Lekh Pass in Uttarakhand (opened for border trade with China since 1992) is considered a feasible entry point. Refurbishing of the road connecting to Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh and Lipu-Lekh in Uttarakhand are already in progress under the Special Accelerated Road Development Project (SARDP).

    On the positive side, the experts cited, inter alia, the following points:

    • The proposed route involved only one country (China) as a land-link between India and Central Asia, as compared to the longer western routes traversing through Iran and Afghanistan.
    • The proposed route was seasonal, but its reactivation had a symbolic significance, essentially for reviving the traditional Silk Route that was vibrant until 1947.
      Importantly, the route passed through relatively stable Xinjiang as compared to the turbulent areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and South Central Asia. Additionally, India is not viewed as a factor of instability and therefore posed no threat to Xinjiang in terms of religion or ideology.
    • Significant trade volumes existed for markets in India, China, and Central Asia. India-Kazakhstan trade value has increased to US $370 million this year. Kazakhstan’s annual trade with Western China was over $10 billion.
    • If implemented, the route will cut down transportation costs of food/fuel supplied to India’s forward areas. Similarly, it would reduce the delivered costs of imports in Western China. Besides, China could earn considerable revenue from transit fees. Conceivably, arrangements for swap deals with China could also be worked out.
    • The above route was viewed as an important counterpoise for Pakistan’s plan for an 800 kilometre long railway from Gawadar to Kashgar.
    • Additionally, India was to gain an alternative access to the transcontinental transport corridors Western Europe - Western China being developed by Eurasian countries under various facilitation agreements.
    • Any resulting gains and prosperity could only trigger major development actions in the pockets of discontentment i.e. Tibet, Xinjiang, Kashmir.

    On the negative side, participants expressed the following apprehensions:

    • The feasibility of the above route in terms of geopolitics, especially China’s willingness to co-operate, was viewed as a major factor. The issue of territorial disputes between India and China as a factor was also discussed at length
    • .

    • Notably, the Kazakh Ambassador welcomed the proposed route and had agreed to take up the matter with the Chinese authorities on a priority basis. The Ambassador also indicated Kazakhstan’s willingness to exercise its leverages vis-à-vis China should it become necessary.

    Recommendation and Action Plan

    • The proposed route could possibly be the shortest as economically feasible and steps should be taken to materialize it.
    • A regional rather than a country-specific linkage approach should be adopted to enhance the viability. Russia and other Central Asian states must be involved in the co-operation efforts.
    • Participants also embellished the idea of widening its scope to include strategic commodities such as oil, gas, uranium, and minerals to enhance the volume movements. But, to start with, the route should only be opened for transit trade.
    • Lipu-Lekh and Shipkila border trade should be upgraded to transit trade, apart from improving the infrastructure.
    • Kazakhstan should consider taking up the matter with the Chinese government.
    • Kazakhstan, China, and India should consider using existing facilitation agreements for transit transport at the multilateral, bilateral, trilateral, and sub-regional levels.
    • The proposal could be perused within the Shanghai Organization Cooperation (SCO) framework, as well as under the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) mechanism. Several inter-governmental agreements on the Asian Highway Network already exist under the UN-ESCAP programme.
    • India, China and Central Asian republics should develop a sub-regional framework agreement designed to facilitate cross-border transit trade along the measures adopted by ASEAN, Greater Mekong Sub-region, TRACECA, ECO, BIMSTEC, and others.
    • The existing Kazakhstan-India Joint Working Group on Transport should be activated to include the above proposal so that exploration process and implementation could be initiated early.
    • The participants strongly recommended that a trilateral (India, Kazakhstan, China) joint study group be set up urgently for undertaking a feasibility study.

    Prepared by Professor P. Stobdan, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.