How India can overcome the Chinese challenge in strategically important Central Asian region

New Delhi | Published: January 21, 2019 6:15:50 PM

The significance of Central Asia lies in its geostrategic location and vast hydrocarbon and other resources.

Central Asia, india, SCO, India-Central Asia dialogue, Russia, Japan, china,Uzbekistan, SamarkandAs China and India are emerging as manufacturing hubs and Europe and Africa as key destinations, the importance of Central Asia as a land transit route cannot be exaggerated.

By Rajan Kumar

Central Asian elites consider China and India to be the two crucial future players in the region. But they lament the fact that India is lagging far behind China in terms of investment, trade and diplomacy, says Dr Rajan Kumar

India and Central Asia are moving gradually towards the institutionalisation of their relationships in order to achieve their developmental and security objectives. India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2015, and has now set up a mechanism for regular India-Central Asia dialogue. The first meeting was hosted by Uzbekistan at Samarkand, and India will organise the next meeting in 2020. Regular meetings, both informal and formal, within an institutional framework, are crucial for achieving the objectives set out by the two partners. India has developed successful institutional mechanisms for engagements with Russia, Japan and China, and a similar process can be replicated for Central Asia.

One witnesses a sincere effort on India’s part to intensify its engagements in the region. This is enabled further by the fact that Central Asia foresees India as a natural partner and an emerging global actor with the potential to influence the economy and security in the region. Central Asian elites consider China and India to be the two crucial future players in the region. But they lament the fact that India is lagging far behind China in terms of investment, trade and diplomacy. China has invested heavily, and its bilateral trade with five states reached $30 billion, compared to $18 billion with Russia in 2016. India’s trade is less than $2 billion.

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The significance of Central Asia lies in its geostrategic location and vast hydrocarbon and other resources. As China and India are emerging as manufacturing hubs and Europe and Africa as key destinations, the importance of Central Asia as a land transit route cannot be exaggerated.

India is working on its own model of Connect Central Asia policy given its inability to join the BRI, or to find a way through Pakistan. It has developed Chabahar port as a transit hub, rivalling China’s Gwadar port in Pakistan. This will connect India to Afghanistan through Iran. India has urged Central Asian states to join this project. But given the impending US’ sanctions on Iran, the Central Asian states will weigh carefully before making any such commitment.

India is extremely careful not to antagonise the interests of Russia in the region. It believes that given the historical, economic and cultural ties, it is not prudent to infringe upon the existing influence of Russia. It would rather remain a subordinate player there focussing primarily on the developmental and common security concerns. There is not much that it can do about the growing Chinese clout, except refusing to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The political elites in Central Asia are awestruck by the grand designs of the BRI which has the potential to change the economic and political dynamics in the region. This, however, is resented by Russia which would like Central Asia to remain within the ambit of the Eurasian Union.

India cannot compete either with China or Russia in Central Asia at the moment, but it can play an important role in facilitating the development process there. This was aptly recognised and stressed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in her statement, “Development partnership has emerged as an important component of India’s engagement with other countries. Today, I offered to extend this partnership to Central Asia as well, where we can bring our countries closer by taking up concrete projects, inter alia, under our Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing our expertise.”

A change of government in Uzbekistan has contributed to new developments in the region. As the most populous and militarily powerful state of Central Asia, this country holds the key to stability in the region. Uzbekistan is believed to have an independent mind which resists attempts of regional integration, except under its leadership. The president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, seems to be steering the country to a new direction by forging partnerships with a number of countries including the US and India. He will be a key guest of Prime Minister Modi in the Vibrant Gujarat investment summit. This would be the second visit of Uzbek president to India in the last four month. This is a clear indication of growing ties between India and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan can help India in protecting its interests in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has initiated dialogues with the Taliban and it is believed to have the tacit support of the United States. Experts in Central Asia and Russia argue that the growing influence of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan and Central Asia cannot be stalled without the support from Taliban. A Taliban delegation, headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of its political office in Doha, visited Tashkent and met with the with Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, and the Special Representative of the President of Uzbekistan for Afghanistan, Ismatulla Irgashev. The growing presence of IS in the Amu Darya region of Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan has raised serious concerns of internal and external security. Uzbekistan, with support from Russia and the United States, is negotiating with the Taliban to check the spread of the IS in the region.

New Delhi needs to monitor this development carefully given its inability and unwillingness to have dialogues with the Taliban. India has massive security and developmental interests in Afghanistan. In the absence of a clear and prioritised strategy towards Taliban and Islamic State, India can turn out to be a loser. If both Russia and the US are willing to have dialogues with the Taliban, India has little room to manoeuvre. The fact that the Taliban is supported by the Pakistani army, India will always be treated with suspicion and hostility.

With the above developments in mind, it is reassuring that India and Central Asia have initiated regular dialogues and are going to set up the India-Central Asia Development Group. An unparalleled amount of goodwill and cultural connections exists between India and Central Asia. They need to transform the mutual goodwill and intentions into binding commitments. An institutionalised dialogue on security and developmental programmes can open up new windows of opportunities.

The writer is Associate Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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