External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Foreign Minister of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan in Dushanbe, last month (Image courtesy: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Armenia)
External Affairs Minister has embarked on what can be called a mission to Eurasia. Over the next four days, Jaishankar would be on a gruelling visit to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia. The core objective of his flying visit to the three countries is to ensure that the turbulence in Afghanistan following the takeover of the Taliban does not dismantle a grand design – of establishing a vast pan-Eurasian transport network, in which India plays a central role.
Of course, in the entire exercise of integrating the Chabahar route with the Russia-backed International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), China is the elephant in the room. The giant corridor that Jaishankar visualises will have a chance to sway Central Asia from the lure of China's new Silk Road, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
All three countries that Jaishankar would be visiting are members of the 7200 km NSTC – a multi-mode transport network, which is a joint initiative launched by India, Iran, and Russia and goes back more than two decades.
Amplifying that India's focus in the last few years has been to rebuild links that were diminished by the colonial period, New Delhi has invested heavily in Iran's Chabahar port for "unhindered access" to the Central Asian countries and is batting hard for including it in the framework of the INSTC.
The multimodal ship, rail and road-based transport network will be linking the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea via Iran, and onward to northern Europe via Saint Petersburg in Russia.
Earlier this year, when a large cargo ship had blocked the Suez Canal, Iran's Ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali had taken to Twitter, saying that efforts to complete INSTC, which would cut the transport time by 20 days and reduce costs by 30 percent compared to traditional route currently being used, needs to be intensified.
While highlighting that Chabahar's efficacy as commercial transit hub for the region has clearly been proven during the Covid-19 pandemic, the External Affairs Minister had a few months ago, in a veiled reference to Pakistan and China, pointed to geopolitical impediments that obstruct connectivity projects. He had emphasised that connectivity efforts must be based on economic viability and financial responsibility, promoting economic activity and not creating debt burdens.
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"The challenge we face is that politics, vested interests and instability can be formidable impediments to its realization. There are lessons too from our experiences that need to be understood. The real issues are of mindsets, not of disputes. Blocking connectivity in practice while professing support in principle benefits no one," Jaishankar said at a regional connectivity conference in Uzbekistan in July.
Time to hit the accelerator
Jaishankar's visit to the region comes at a crucial time when tension is mounting between Iran and Azerbaijan while China, Turkey and Pakistan continue to make desperate efforts to increase their presence in Central Asia and also the Caucasus.
India had last year said that it is concerned over the resumption of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
"The visit will provide an opportunity for reviewing the progress in our bilateral ties with the three countries as well as share views on developments in the region. It will be a continuation of our increased engagement with countries in our extended neighbourhood," said the External Affairs ministry on Saturday.
While he will be travelling to the Kyrgyz Republic for the first time as a minister, this will be the first-ever visit of an External Affairs Minister of India to independent Armenia.
In Kazakhstan, Jaishankar will also be attending the 6th Ministerial meeting of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Nur-Sultan.
Analysts believe that Jaishankar's trip to Yerevan will not only help New Delhi to push forward its plan to establish the INSTC corridor till Helsinki but also send a signal to Ankara about India's presence in the region.
During their meeting on September 16 in Dushanbe, both Jaishankar and Foreign Minister of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan had expressed "readiness to promote the cooperation to a qualitatively new level".
Mirzoyan had not only commended India's principled position, as well as its continued support for a peaceful and comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship, but also reiterated Armenia's position on supporting India on the Kashmir issue.
Armenian communities have been residing in India since the 16th century, especially in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Agra, where the first Armenian Church was consecrated in 1562.
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