Promoting Trade Expansion with Central Asia
Both the opening of a new bridge across the Pyanj River, which connects to highway networks in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and a conference on transportation infrastructure in the region highlight the importance of trade links in Central Asia.
by Ellen House
Until recently, the main way for cargo to cross the Pyanj River from Nizhny Pyanj, Tajikistan, to Sher Khan Bander, Afghanistan, was by a small ferry that ran only part of the year, and the ferry was limited to carrying about 50 trucks per day. This situation should change dramatically with the completion of a new, two-lane road bridge that is capable of carrying 1,000 vehicles per day, as well as with the opening of major customs posts in both countries.
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|Left to right: Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan; Emomali Rahmon, president of Tajikistan; and Carlos M. Gutierrez, secretary of commerce, walk across the Pyanj bridge as part of a dedication ceremony on August 26, 2007. The bridge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is expected to expand trade links in the Central Asian region. (U.S. Department of Commerce photo)
“As much as the Silk Road was integral to great civilizations in the past, the byways of this region are again proving to be a crossroads for commerce, peace, and stability,” remarked Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez at a dedication ceremony for the new bridge on August 26, 2007. “This bridge is an important part of our broader commitment to develop the physical, legal, and economic infrastructure needed to support regional trade and economic activity.”
Participating in the dedication ceremony with Gutierrez, who was representing President George W. Bush, were Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, and Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan.
The bridge was built largely with U.S. funds, but it also had financial and technical support from the European Union, Japan, and Norway. It symbolically and physically links Central Asia and South Asia, and it will be an important tool for the future economic development of the entire region.
“As much as the Silk Road was integral to great civilizations in the past, the byways of this region are again proving to be a crossroads for commerce, peace, and stability.”
— Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez
Wider Transportation Challenges
In Central Asia, inadequate transportation infrastructure and administrative barriers, such as difficult visa and customs regimes, have long hindered the growth of trade and foreign investment. The bridge is but one part of ongoing U.S. work with countries in the region to address some of those issues.
Another important event took place on May 7, 2007, when the Department of Commerce sponsored the Central Asia Transportation Infrastructure Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The conference included participants from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and the United States.
Paul Dyck, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for Europe, opened the conference by explaining the U.S. government’s desire to expand U.S. trade links with Central Asia while reducing trade and investment barriers. “The number of potential beneficiaries from improved transport links is vast as these links are critical to economic development and integration into the world economy,” said Dyck.
The conference brought together a diverse group of more than 80 people representing governments, multilateral organizations, and private-sector firms involved in the road and aviation sectors. Among the latter were two U.S. firms, Caterpillar and Hoffman International, which made presentations on their equipment and services. Other presenters outlined ongoing and proposed transportation projects, shared experiences on best practices, contributed knowledge about local and regional obstacles to implementation, and discussed steps to increase trade and cooperation.
Concrete Ideas and Opportunities
The May conference also sought to identify and expand opportunities for U.S. firms to participate in projects, to build new trade links, and to develop cooperative ventures with local trade officials.
Attendees capitalized immediately on the new contacts that were made. For example, the director of the Kabul Airport and the representative of the Federal Aviation Administration in Kabul identified several operational principles that could be implemented in Kabul after they toured the Dushanbe airport. Kazakh and Kyrgyz aviation officials agreed to consult on possibilities for increasing flight frequencies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Also, a U.S. investor who is considering an intermodal project in Tajikistan made some key contacts and talked to a potential joint venture partner.
Part of Wider Effort
The Commerce Department’s May conference was the first major U.S. government event to address deficiencies in Central Asia’s transportation network. It contributed to the South and Central Asian regional economic integration initiative that was first announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in October 2005. The initiative seeks to foster economic development by creating new trade, transportation, communication, and energy links. Building internal and external transportation links is critical for sustaining economic growth, expanding trade, and reducing poverty. They are key elements of the U.S. strategy for strengthening South and Central Asian countries.
Other regional development efforts include the Central Asian trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA), which held talks in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2007. A follow-up event was held on July 18. The Commerce Department and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce organized the event, which brought together Central Asian trade ministers with U.S. companies interested in the region. The event specifically highlighted business opportunities for U.S. firms in the transportation and energy sectors. The Commerce Department has tentative plans for another private-sector event to coincide with the next round of the TIFA talks, which are scheduled to take place in Central Asia in June 2008.
Ellen House is the Central Asia desk officer in the International Trade Administration’s Market Access and Compliance unit.
|Map of Central Asia showing Tajikistan-Afghanistan border region