By Rajan Kumar
India will host the first India-Central Asia summit in a virtual format on January 27. From New Delhi’s perspective, a summit level meeting would offer an opportunity to upscale its ties and reinforce trust at the highest level. India’s aim is to become a leading player in the Central Eurasian landmass. The two sides lament the slow progress in transforming the convergence of interests into tangible deliverables.
New Delhi’s call to foster strategic ties resonates favourably in Central Asia. In fact, no other geopolitical region in the world finds India as appealing as the Central Asian states do. Their leaders and experts often underline historical and cultural ties dating back to antiquity— disrupted only by modern states and empires. Their familiarity with Indian religion, architecture, medicine, food and even Bollywood furnishes a default soft power dimension. They view India as a non-threatening partner, a geopolitical balancer, an emerging economic powerhouse, a cultural continuum, and a messy but enduring democracy. New Delhi, on the other side, positions itself as a non-interventionist country, a potential investor and a back-end guarantor of regional balance and security.
At present, India remains a peripheral actor in the affairs of Central Asia.India’s desire to play a bigger role in Central Asia encounters several constraints: the geopolitical barrier posed by Pakistan, competition from the hydra-headed commercial BRI networks of China, and security threats from radical forces in the region and in Afghanistan.
India does not have direct land-route access to Central Asia As the territory of Pakistan separates the two regions. Islamabad is unlikely to allowIndia to transit goods through its territory. New Delhiwill have to depend upon the successful completion of the multi-modal International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to enhance connectivity with Eurasia. In a recent development, INSTC members agreed to include Chabahar Port within its framework. India, Iran and Uzbekistan are discussing ways to trade through the Chabahar port. This issue was discussed at the Uzbek conference on ‘Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities’ in Tashkent in July 2021attended byExternal Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar.For improved connectivity, India also joined the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018. This multimodal transport corridor agreement, initiated in 2011, aims at connecting Central Asia with the Persian Gulf. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman, Kazakhstan and Pakistan are other members.The successful completion and integration of these transport networks should contribute to an increased trade with Central Asia which stood at a mere $1.5bn in 2017 (IMF Trade Statistics).
India’s Trade with Central Asia (in USD millions)
|Central Asian States||2020-21|
Source: Economic Diplomacy Division of MEA, India.
A comparison with China provides a perspective to India’s presence in the region. At the moment, India does not seem to be competing directly against China in Central Asia. But as its engagements grow in the region, competition is inevitable. New Delhi must develop a collaborative as well as competitive strategy with and against Beijing.
China is the biggest investor in the region. According to China Investment Global Tracker, its cumulative investments in Central Asia amounted to roughly $55 billion between 2005- 2020: $35.58 billion in Kazakhstan, $6.8 billion in Turkmenistan, $5.79 billion in Uzbekistan, $4.73 billion in Kyrgyzstan and $ 2.15 billion in Tajikistan. Its trade with Central Asian states was estimated to be $41.7 billion.The dependence of these states on China can be gauged from the fact that a total of 22 per cent of all exports and 37 per cent of their imports were to and from China.
China’s BRI has contributed to the development of infrastructure in the region. But it has come under serious scrutiny due to social and environmental concerns and the rising debts of governments. China’s share in total external debt amounted to 45 percent in Kyrgyzstan and 52 percent in Tajikistan making them vulnerable to over-dependence on Beijing (Eurasian Research Institute, 2021). Chinais believed to have changed its BRI strategy in the region from focusing on transport and electricity projects to industrial projects hiring local workers.
Moscow will remain the key security provider in the region in the near future. The recent turmoil and violent protests in Kazakhstan demonstrated the fragility of politics in the region. A quick response from the Collective Security Treaty Organization stabilised the situation, but such tensions can easily flare up in other regions. There are several zones prone to ethnic and inter-state conflicts.Radical forces such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda are active in various parts of the region. Recent events in Afghanistan have emboldened these forces. New Delhi must act in close collaboration with Central Asian states to curb the influence of radical forces in the region. This will also have a moderating impact on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
New Delhi supported the forces of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban earlier. It worked closely with the US in Afghanistan. It was placed comfortably so long as a tacit understanding betweenWashington andMoscowexisted against theAl-Qaeda and the Taliban. But the collapse of the US-backed regime in Kabul has shattered the illusory edifice. New Delhi is wary of the long-term destabilising influence of Pakistan in the region.
India has taken a number of initiatives in the last few years, and the upcoming India-Central Asia Summit can be viewed as a culmination of those efforts. New Delhi appears to be active at three levels: first, developing independent ties with each state; second, treating Central Asia as a regional unit of cross-cutting interests; and finally, working with other sitting powersespecially, Russia, Iran and China on issues such as energy, terrorism, radicalism, secessionism in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
India’s pro-active Central Asia policy began with the visit ofPrime Minister P. V Narsimha Raoto Turkmenistan in 1995. His declarations were then depicted as the onset of India’s ‘Look North Policy’. New Delhi focussed on re-establishing historical ties, acquiring hydro-carbon resources, and projecting India as a model of secular and democratic politics to the transitional states of Central Asia. The next important declaration was made in 2012 when New Delhi launched its Connect Central Asia Policy. It was a strategy to consolidate its ties and enhance strategic co-operation through capacity building in the defence, IT, health, education and cultural sectors. This initiative, however, was not backed by the requisite financial and diplomatic resources needed to deliver tangible outcomes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to all the five states of Central Asia in 2015 marked a new beginning.During that visit, India signed scores of agreements on defence, energy, trade and services.
India has developed strong ties with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is the most powerful state in the region and is keen to develop an independent foreign policy.Prime Minister Modi visited Uzbekistan second time to attend the SCO summit in 2016. ShavkatMirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan visited India in September 2018, and later attended the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January 2019. A Virtual Summit between PM Modi and President Mirziyoyevalso took place in December 2020. These visits and summits are testimony to growing proximity between the two states. They have evolved several bilateral mechanisms such as National Coordination Committee, Inter-governmental Commission, and Joint Working Groups on Countering Terrorism. But commercial interactions between the two states remain disappointing. Trade between the two states was merely $442 million in 2020.
India has robust ties with Kazakhstan which is its biggest trading partner in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have abundant mineral resources such as oil and gas, aluminum, uranium, precious metals and coal. India has signed important deals on oil exploration and uranium supply with Kazakhstan. ONGC has invested in the Satpayev oil block.Prime Minister Modi visited Kazakhstan in 2015 and in 2017. The last visit of the President of Kazakhstan to India was in 2009.
Tajikistan is vital for India due to security reasons. Its proximity to Afghanistan and its support to anti-Taliban Tajik forces make it a crucial player in the region. It is also vulnerable to Islamic influence from the region. India’s undeclared airbase at Ayni in Tajikistan earlier became a cornerstone of its security diplomacy in the region. New Delhi is supporting several capacity building projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.India signed a strategic partnership with Kyrgyzstan. With Turkmenistan, India has the signed the famous TAPI agreement for the supply of gas. But it has become the victim of difficult geopolitics in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
New Delhi initiated the India-Central Asia Dialogue (ICAD) in Samarkand in January 2019. Under this format the India—Central Asia Business Council was established in February 2020. The third meeting of the ICAD happened in New Delhi on December 19, 2020 in which foreign ministers of all the countries participated. They signed several agreements for socio-economic development projects in Central Asia. India has earlier offered credit worth $1billion for infrastructure development projects.Indian financial assistance to the region are mainly for capacity building and human resource development.
New Delhi can expand its foothold if it signs the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia wants India to sign the FTA with EAEU. Signing the FTA with EAEU can boost India’s trade with Central Asia. China is believed to have signed the FTA with the EAEU, but it has not yet come into effect.
India’s grand strategy should aim at timely execution of connectivity projects, fast expansion of commercial ties, and rekindling of cultural exchanges among the people of the two regions.The first India-Central Asia summit is an important step in that direction. It must be remembered, however, thatCentral Asia is not a homogenous unit in terms of either politics or culture. Therefore, a uniform strategy has to be followed by a deeper interaction with each unit separately.
(The author teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).