India – Central Asia: Why is the region important for India?

Apart from the centrality of the Afghanistan issue, the other elephant in the room is China which has come to pose an even greater geo-political threat to India.

Greater engagement is expected to help improve mutual security and regional economic prosperity. (File image: Twitter via IE)

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan

India will hold its first summit dialogue virtually with the Presidents of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – on 27 January 2022. This is a significant outreach to Central Asia by India, with which it shares significant cultural, civilizational and historic linkages. There were initial indications of their possible collective participation as chief guests at the Republic Day parade on 26th January, but obviously the global Covid situation did not render itself conducive to such in person engagement. An India-Central Asia dialogue mechanism exists at the Foreign Ministers level that last met in New Delhi for the Third Dialogue on 18-19th December 2021.

India has enjoyed historical and civilizational linkages with Central Asia through the Silk Route from 3rd century BC to 15th century AD, when the sea route from Europe to India was discovered. The Silk route connected the two regions not only for transportation of goods like silk, textiles, spices etc. but also served as an effective channel for exchange of thoughts, ideas, religion, and philosophy. Buddhism spread through this route from India to Central Asia and from there to West China in the contemporary Xinjiang region. In medieval times, Babar came from Fergana Valley after losing his kingdom to try his fortune in India and laid the foundations of the great Mughal Empire. Post independent India’s linkages with the Soviet period through culture, music, dance, movies and literature sustained close relations with the Soviet Republics.

In the 1990s, when the five central Asian republics gained independence, India faced the twin challenges of adjusting to the emerging post-cold war order and domestic economic reform. In time, India’s foreign policy evolved to include a greater emphasis on engagement with India’s extended neighborhood, which included Central Asia.

As newly independent states these five republics were not very confident of their financial and economic viability. They are all landlocked, but some have translated this faultline into an asset like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have done by constructing a web of roads, railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing from East to West and North to South to connect industrial hubs with consumer markets. Last few years have seen highways and railroads traversing from the East in China through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Europe, Russia, Iran, and the Middle East. Similarly, oil from Caspian Sea offshore facilities in Kazakhstan and gas from Turkmenistan is being shipped by pipelines to the western region of China.

All these states are rich in minerals and well-endowed with hydroelectric resources. Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest reserves of uranium and is the world’s largest producer; Uzbekistan has large reserves of gas, uranium and gold; Turkmenistan has fourth largest reserves of natural gas; Tajikistan has huge hydroelectric potential; Kyrgyzstan is rich in gold and hydroelectric power. Kazakhstan is more progressive than others; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have lagged; Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain closed and controlled societies. Uzbekistan is a potential leader but has difficult relations with neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on water issues, and Kazakhstan, in the race to become a pre-eminent power in the region.

Religious extremism, fundamentalism, drug trafficking pose challenges to these societies and to regional stability. Issues relating to water, security, environment, migration have become acute. The region faces newer threats of narco-terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. The region is said to be an ‘arena of great game’ being played out between Russia, China, US, Turkey, Iran, Europe, EU, Japan, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, all of whom have substantial security and economic stakes in the region.

That India does not share a common land border with any of these states has been a major bottleneck in promoting and expanding ties. Pakistan does not allow direct routes to either Afghanistan or to Central Asia. China is, therefore, the transit land route for trade which is time consuming and costly. To improve connectivity, India has registered considerable progress in concluding a trilateral agreement for renovation of Chabahar port, development of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and becoming a member of the Ashgabat Agreement. India’s membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as also the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) promises to bridge this gap.

India’s Connect Central Asia (CAA) policy of 2012 is a broad-based framework involving political, economic, security and cultural connections. Following the announcement of the Connect Asia policy in 2012, the Indian PM visited all the five countries. India uses its considerable soft power through dance, music, Bollywood films, yoga, literature etc. India’s international Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme attracts young professionals for capacity building. There is considerable scope of participation in trade fairs, and in building infrastructure projects, as in rail, road, highways, power transmission lines, nuclear power, etc. In addition to oil and gas, IT, pharma and textiles, higher education, space, SME, power generation, food processing and agriculture present rich potential for deeper engagement. SCO may serve as a guarantor for the projects. At the Third Dialogue India urged focus on 4Cs: Commerce, Capacity Development, Connectivity and Contacts.

Greater engagement is expected to help improve mutual security and regional economic prosperity. Economically, Central Asia provides a ‘near abroad’ market for India’s industry, overland routes to rich resources of Russia and Middle East, and significant energy supplies at relatively short distances. The INSTC corridor route is shorter than Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. As competition for resources with China intensifies, this region is likely to assume greater significance. The Third Dialogue emphasized the accountability and transparency of projects in a veiled reference to the debt trap that China’s BRI is. The $1b Line of Credit already announced by India is aimed at High Impact Development Projects (HICDPS) for socio-economic development of the region. The Third Dialogue brought in the additional element of connectivity between Indian states and Central Asia. The India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) established in 2020 was urged to encourage these activities.

From the security perspective, this region potentially acts as a buffer to contain the fallout of fundamentalism, to forestall encirclement by any regional or outside power, and finally, to insulate India from narco-terrorism. India’s presence may well serve to neutralise the region’s anti-West bias and reassure US and EU. India may yet have to balance geopolitical ambitions of China and Russia to evolve a mutually beneficial framework. Though active partners in the BRI, the disenchantment of the Central Asian countries has increased not only with the growing Chinese footprint in their economic and political systems but also because of repression of several Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims along with Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, resulting in many anti-Chinese protests.

The region’s importance has been accentuated with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and the threats of narco-terrorism spilling over to Central Asia and on to Russia and China. India and Central Asian Republics have deep rooted ties with Afghanistan – three of these countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan-share borders with Afghanistan – all agreed on the need for an inclusive government, unhindered humanitarian aid and preservation of rights of women, children and minorities in Afghanistan. In a veiled reference to Pakistan, the Third Dialogue emphasized non-interference in internal affairs of Afghanistan and respect for its territorial integrity and sovereignty as brought out in UNSC Resolution of 2593 (2021), as also the importance of counter terrorism, and early adoption of the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). Significantly, the foreign ministers of the five republics skipped the OIC meeting in Islamabad to attend the Dialogue in New Delhi. Cognizant of the rapidly changing scenario, the National Security Advisors of all these five countries attended the regional meeting on the situation in Afghanistan that India hosted in November 2021.

Apart from the centrality of the Afghanistan issue, the other elephant in the room is China which has come to pose an even greater geo-political threat to India. This apart, compared to $100b trade turnover with China, the region’s trade with India is only $2b. Though India is part of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, progress is slow. Uzbekistan has also pushed ahead for a joint plan with India and Iran to enhance connectivity through the Chabahar Port, but it is expected to take time.

In sum, Central Asia’s location, its geographical proximity to India, ancient linkages render the region highly relevant to India’s strategic interests. India has a huge goodwill in Central Asia. The forthcoming first Summit dialogue is overdue.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador. She tweets:@nchauhanifs Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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