On 15-16 July 2021, Tashkent hosted the international conference, "Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities."
The conference was attended by President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan, foreign ministers and high representatives of Central and South Asian countries, other foreign states, heads of authoritative international and regional organisations, global financial institutions and companies, and leading research and analytical centres.
The main goal of the forum was to strengthen historically close and friendly ties, trust and neighbourliness between the states of Central and South Asia in the interests of the peoples and countries in both regions.
On the sidelines of the conference, participants exchanged views on promoting cooperation in trade, investment, transport, energy, innovation, green technology, tourism, education, healthcare, science and culture. They also discussed ways of ensuring stability and security in these regions.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov thanked the leaders and the Government of Uzbekistan for inviting him to take part in the international forum, which was designed to create firm practical foundations for closer multilateral cooperation between Central and South Asia, the prosperity of which has relied on close relations and reciprocal influence for millennia.
Mr Norov noted that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is observing its 20th anniversary this year. It considers Central and South Asia to be a zone of responsibility. The SCO makes an important contribution to ensuring security, sustainable economic development and the deepening of dialogue between societies in both regions.
"The SCO is a reliable and efficient platform for implementing such trans-regional initiatives as Belt and Road, North-South, the Greater Eurasian Partnership, and the SCO Green Belt that embraces both Central and South Asia," Mr Norov added.
He emphasised that to build optimal transport routes, facilitate sustainable economic growth and create manufacturing and distribution chains in the SCO space and Eurasia, it is of primary importance to build the following railway lines as soon as possible: Mazar-i-Sharif — Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif — Peshawar and Uzbekistan — Kyrgyzstan — China. These railways will become a major link in the East-West and North-South routes, and provide seaport access for the landlocked Central Asian states and Afghanistan.
In his opinion, the prosperity of this vast space depends on reaching peace and stability in Afghanistan as soon as possible. That country, an observer state at the SCO, is an inalenable part of Central and South Asia, and a bridge between them.
The SCO Secretary-General recalled that at the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting in Dushanbe on 14 July, the SCO foreign ministers reaffirmed their willingness to offer all-round aid to Afghanistan in creating a country free of terrorism, wars and drugs.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in the past five years Afghanistan accounted for about 84 percent of the world's opium production. Proceeds from sales are mostly used for funding terrorist groups and various gangs both inside the country and beyond. For decades, this has negatively affected the efforts to ensure peace in Afghanistan and regional security.
Mr Norov said bans and police measures alone will not stop the illegal production of drugs. It is necessary to draft a programme for alternative development in Afghanistan with help from the UN, IMF, World Bank, the SCO, the EU, ASEAN and the Arab League. This programme should focus on helping Afghanistan expand the production and export of high quality agricultural products to nearby markets with high purchasing ability.
"With this goal in mind, it is necessary to create centres of phyto-sanitary control, standardisation, and the production of high-quality packaging. Initially, they could be located in the free trade area created by Uzbekistan in Termez on the border with Afghanistan to promote its small and medium businesses. These products can be delivered unhindered by railway from there to the markets of the advanced Eurasian countries.
"In addition, involving Afghanistan, which has enormous mineral, rare-earth metal and energy resources, in regional cooperation between Central and South Asian countries could become an important factor in stabilising the political situation in that country and facilitating its economic recovery," Mr Norov said.
Having wished productive work to the participants, Mr Norov expressed confidence that the results of the conference would allow them to draft important recommendations on expanding versatile ties and mutually beneficial cooperation between the Central and South Asian countries.
The conference continued with themed sessions during which the participants discussed opportunities for promoting initiatives aimed at developing trade, economic, transport, communication, cultural and humanitarian cooperation in the context of further deepening regional connectivity.