Monday 20th of May 2024

Heart of Asia Conference: India's Growing Stature in the Regional Development Process
Siddharth Singh
Region : AsiaSouthAsia/Afghanistan,
Issue : Security, Terrorism,
For long India has cited the troubling state of affairs in Afghanistan having a serious potential of destablising effect in the region. India’s commitment to Afghanistan's stability and development is reflective in the developmental work which India is doing in Afghanistan. The Heart of Asia process provides an important platform for India to help its friends Afghanistan to promote political consultations and regional cooperation for a united, democratic, independent, strong and prosperous Afghanistan. India is the lead country for Trade, Commerce and Investment Opportunities, and has hosted six regional technical group meetings on trade, commerce and investment opportunities for Heart of Asia in New Delhi between 2012 and 2015.
The Heart of Asia Conference is part of Heart of Asia- Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure Afghanistan. It was jointly launched by Afghanistan and Turkey in Istanbul in November 2011 to encourage the countries which are in or adjacent to the Heart of Asia to play a positive role in stability as well as prosperity of Afghanistan. It was intended to establish a forum for the regional countries to dialogue, address challenges and endeavor to find solution to regional problems. The heart of Asia Process has 14 participating countries which include Afghanistan, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India. After the commencement in Istanbul in 2011, the rest four conferences have been held in Kabul, Almaty, Beijing, and Islamabad in June 2012, April 2013, October 2014 and December 2015 respectively. The Istanbul Process provides a new agenda for regional cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’ by placing Afghanistan at its center and engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in sincere and result‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as well as a secure and prosperous region as a whole. The rationale behind establishment of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process had three main elements. First, withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and reduced international engagement & aid and thus integrate Afghanistan in the regional economy and improve its relations with neighbors and regional powers. Secondly, this allowed Afghanistan to lead a process in which it had the authority to set its own agenda in regional perspective. Thirdly, the problems Afghanistan is facing are not exclusively a product of its own and they do not only affect it but also other countries in the region.
The Heart of Asia –Istanbul Process has had some achievements since its inception. It has served as the only regional forum lead by Afghanistan to set its own agenda. It has further provided an opportunity to open the gates of interaction for participating countries which found it difficult to do so. The Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) which include disaster management, counter terrorism, counter narcotics, trade commerce and investment, regional infrastructure, and education have been established. These CBM’s have served to build trust and allowed people- to- people exchanges at technical level. The recent Conference in Islamabad was held at a crucial juncture following Afghanistan’s political, security, and economic transition.
One important highlight of the fifth ministerial conference was the participation of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in the event. India's vision of the Heart of Asia Process is one of interlinked trade, transit, energy and communication routes, with Afghanistan as an important hub. Connectivity also lies at the heart of India’s own efforts to develop regional economic cooperation. Sushma Swaraj clearly mentioned in her speech at the conference that “the ‘Heart’ of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged.” Nothing can benefit Afghanistan more immediately than full and direct overland access to India’s markets to enable it to take advantage of the zero duty regime available to its exports to India. On part of Afghanistan, India has always expressed strong commitment to help Afghanistan in fighting terrorism and strengthening the capabilities of Afghan security forces. In her speech, Sushma Swaraj also emphasized that the Government of India was keen in joining the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) so that Indian Markets can have an access to Afghanistan. The bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA), which came into effect in June 2011, allows Afghan trucks to carry Afghan products to the Attari-Wagah border but not the other way around. Afghan exports to India are exempted from all duties. Both Kabul and New Delhi have repeatedly called on Islamabad to allow Indian goods and humanitarian aid to be transported through Pakistan to Afghanistan. India is also working with Afghanistan and Iran to develop trilateral transit. Participation in development of the Chahbahar Port will augment India’s connectivity with Afghanistan and beyond. India’s engagement in the Trade, Commerce and Investment CBM within the Heart of Asia process as the lead country complements India’s bilateral development cooperation with Afghanistan, including in the spheres of infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building.
In a reference to Pakistan-based terrorism roiling Afghanistan, Swaraj said: “It is also the collective duty of all of us to ensure that the forces of terrorism and extremism do not find sanctuaries and safe havens in any name, form or manifestation. We, in Afghanistan’s proximity, have a particular responsibility in this regard.”
Afghanistan’s monumental gains in its polity, economy, and society would have been impossible without the continued support of the international community and particularly the assistance of strategic partners like India. India’s well-targeted aid programs to Afghanistan include infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, small development projects, as well as food security assistance. Since 2001, more than 10,000 Afghan students have studied in India on ICCR scholarships, with some 7,000 returning home armed with an education and technical skills, which they are using to drive Afghanistan’s stabilization and development. Meanwhile, many mid-career officers in the Afghan government have benefited from the technical capacity building programs of ITEC and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, while some 8,000 Afghan students are pursuing self-financed degrees in different fields across India.
India’s main infrastructure projects in Afghanistan like the building of the Afghan parliament in Kabul and the Salma Dam in Herat are nearing completion apart from building many school and hospital even in the remote areas of Afghanistan. The under construction Parliament building will soon give Afghan MPs the secure space they need to further institutionalize democracy in Afghanistan, while the Salma Dam in Herat will generate 42 MW of much-needed power for the electrification of rural and urban Herat, as well as helping irrigate 80,000 hectares of agricultural land. Moreover, air connectivity between the two countries has also grown steadily. There are now four to five flights operating daily between Kabul and Delhi, bringing to India nearly 1,000 Afghans, many of them medical tourists, seeking treatment in Delhi hospitals.
The conference also provided a platform for dialogue between India and Pakistan to deescalate the underlying tension on border. In the bilateral meeting with Nawaz Sharif and his advisor Sartaj Aziz, Sushma Swaraj agreed to resume the composite dialogue process which was stuck from long and she also announced that the Prime Minister of India would visit Pakistan in 2016 to attend the SAARC Summit.
Though there are certain hardships in Heart of Asia Process due to persisting mutual distrust between many of the participating nations but defeating a common enemy of humanity in the form of terrorism is now the primary objective and duty of all countries today. Hence a mutually agreeable solution against terror can be easily worked out by all nations in the interest of global peace and security. In this backdrop, India will host the next 'Heart of Asia' conference in the last quarter of 2016.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FORE INDIA.

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