The changing scenarios in the world order and dwindling Indian stake in shaping and supporting the growth prospects forced India to shed its long-term hesitancy and replan its approach and acquire a pro-active role in building its relations with CARs
By Surya Pratap Singh
The Post WWII scenarios marked the beginning of a scenario where both the Capitalist and Communist blocs fought tooth and nail to garner greater legitimacy in the amorphous and disputed world order. Ultimately the disintegration of Soviet bloc freed five Central Asian countries and it brought along a serious question of democratisation, stabilising economy, dilapidated infrastructure, religious fundamentalism and untapped natural resources.
Here, we need to touch upon the similarities of innumerable problems which India witnessed during the onset of its Independence and the unconditional support delivered by the erstwhile Soviet Union. But what brought lull in India’s outlook towards Central Asia? Was it the attempt to be in the good books of the U.S. or the unstructured diplomacy and inadequate vision?
There are reasons to be examined here, however, the following three are of prime importance. First being the historical and artificial enmity with Pakistan and its annexation of part of Jammu and Kashmir territory-POK which connects India to Afghanistan and thereon to Central Asia and also the landlocked nature with no ocean connectivity, has blocked India’s presence in the Central Asian region. Second is the reign of Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 and conspiracy of Pakistan to oust India from being an active and reliable partner across the region. And third being the instability and religious fundamentalism in the region which has forestalled India’s efforts to engage with Central Asia on a wider perspective.
Post-Soviet collapse, there emerged a competition to develop a profitable relation with five Central Asian nations, having a more colloquial name ‘the Stans’ – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan. While China and the United States were already on the path for developing relations with Central Asia, the then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao took flight to four of the five Central Asian countries. This visit emphasised the shared secular values and drew attention to common perils such as religious fundamentalism, ethnic chauvinism, narcotics-funded violence and crime. With recent 1991 economic reforms and growing appetite for fuels and minerals to embark on the path of socio-economic development this came as a positive and crucial step. This was a regeneration of India’s Look North Policy alongside adherence to its non-interference policy in internal matters.
History notes India’s relations to Central Asian countries via ancient Silk Road with exchange in trade, culture, literatures and wider inter and intra mobility of people. Since the 1990s, India’s efforts were limited and discouraging with few successes on part of its support to Northern Alliance against anti-Taliban forces with Tajikistan, military training and military base in Tajikistan. Though India’s military exercise with other Central Asian nations has been limited, it conducted its first ever joint military exercise with Kyrgyzstan, Khanjar, in 2011.
India’s efforts were limited and discouraging with few successes on part of its support to Northern Alliance against anti-Taliban forces with Tajikistan, military training and military base in Tajikistan. Though India’s military exercise with other Central Asian nations has been limited, it conducted its first ever joint military exercise with Kyrgyzstan, Khanjar, in 2011
In the energy sector, the outcome is optimistic. Since 2008, India has been in agreement with Kazakhstan for Uranium supply which is being renewed and extended on a periodic basis. Currently Kazakhstan is planning to increase its supply up to 75,000-100,000 tonnes. In 2019, India also inked an agreement with Uzbekistan for Uranium imports.
The changing scenarios in the world order and dwindling Indian stake in shaping and supporting the growth prospects forced India to shed its long-term hesitancy and replan its approach and acquire a pro-active role.
In an unprecedented event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the President of all five countries in person in 2015 and signed various Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) to strengthen its strategic ties. This move came from the possible anxiety of Beijing’s launch of BRI initiative in Kazakhstan to increase its linkages to Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2015, many such multilateral and bilateral engagements have taken place to maintain the pace, underscore the agreements and explore new avenues of cooperation.
The 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue
In December last year, India concluded its third ministerial level meeting with the Central Asian nations with agendas on the table ranging from reviving sluggish trade prospectus, strengthening investment in education and innovation with adequate importance to science and technology, strengthening people to people ties along with wider commitment to sustainable economic development in the region.
Both the sides adhered to Delhi Regional Security Dialogue to install a representative and inclusive government in Afghanistan, neutralise terrorism and drug trafficking, protect the interests and rights of women, children and unleash an urgent humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in wider view of peace and prosperity in the region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the President of all five countries in person in 2015 and signed various Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) to strengthen its strategic ties. This move came from the possible anxiety of Beijing’s launch of BRI initiative in Kazakhstan to increase its linkages to Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2015, many such multilateral and bilateral engagements have taken place to maintain the pace, underscore the agreements and explore new avenues of cooperation.
This third high level grouping, inked various MoUs on high impact community development projects for socio-economic development in the region. The meeting aimed to clear the ambiguities in various sectors of co-operation and garner support on transnational issues such as climate change, terrorism, human rights issues etc.
Both sides exchanged optimism on the progress of implementing the agreements of the first India – Central Asia Dialogue held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in January 2019 while the second concluded in virtual format in 2020.
Reiterating India’s commitment for a stable, secure and strong Central Asia, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar propounded 4 Cs: Commerce, Capacity Enhancement, Connectivity and Contacts. This decodes its grand narrative amid the unprecedented challenges from both State and Non-state actors. It is important to note here that this effort has come at the time when Beijing has already implanted its foot through BRI to maintain a magnetic pull towards its side.
The China challenge to India’s ambition
Realism states that country’s neighbourhood is one’s lethal enemy and there lies no interest above its national interest, hence China leaves no chance to remind India of this axiom.
Given the hostile and tense environment between the countries, China has altered the dictionary to replace the word “challenge“. Now when in trouble India assumes there is no challenge but China.
Since the breakage of the Soviet Union, China has desperately engaged with Central Asian countries given their abundance of natural resources, strategic locations, and a market to its exports. Prior to Xi-Jinping rise to power, China focused on building roads, power plants and electrical grid in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Investment in oil and gas asset in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and import of unprocessed metals from Kazakhstan and cotton from Uzbekistan whereas there seems shift in its approach with rising investment of Chinese firms building factories, installing raw material processing units and modernising local agricultural facilities.
China seems more interested in building industrial capacity thereby stabilising the growing unrest among the local workforce and of the Central Republics. China is well versed with its growing energy demands which is important for its economic growth and the lucrative oil, gas and mineral reserves offers a huge advantage to shift its dependency from the West. This brings India and China at the fore of conflicts over gaining greater legitimacy in Central Asia and register a noble picture of its ambitions.
While Beijing follows a hegemonic approach to advance its ambitions, India adheres to a constructive means in institution, human resource development and capacity building.
The Central Asian Republics (CARs) or Central Asian countries is located at the heart of Eurasia and as geographer Halford Mackinder observed, “He who controls the heartland controls the world.” Hence the tussle is inevitable where no country would dare to miss the chance to mark its strong presence in the region and turn the fortunes towards it.
What current scenario decodes for India and what would be the road ahead?
Besides the historical links, India needs to explore other dimensions to cement its relationship with Central Asian nations and trade, however, languishing only at US$2 billion holds huge potential to foster its relationship with CARs.
India’s ambition of becoming a five trillion economy is heavily dependent on the availability of oil and gas to drive its economy, and the vast natural resources of Central Asian countries offers huge optimism. Trade in pharmaceuticals, chemical, defence equipment and agriculture products needs to be strengthened.
India’s ambition of becoming a five trillion economy is heavily dependent on the availability of oil and gas to drive its economy, and the vast natural resources of Central Asian countries offers huge optimism. Trade in pharmaceuticals, chemical, defence equipment and agriculture products needs to be strengthened
Connectivity through rail, road, water and air is part and parcel element of India’s Connect Central Asia Policy and it is determined to eliminate the connectivity issues.
Reiterating India’s commitment, PM Modi in SCO Summit in 2018 mentioned: “We believe that land-locked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with India’s vast market. Unfortunately, many connectivity options are not open to them today due to the lack of mutual trust. Our investment in Iran’s Chabahar port and our efforts towards the International North-South (Transit) Corridor (INSTC) are driven by this reality.”
The International North South Trade Corridor which connects Mumbai from South to Moscow in the North via Chabahar port, passes through Central Asia, holds strategic, economic and socio-political importance to India. On a similar line a high-level International Conference on Central and South Asia: Regional connectivity, challenges and opportunities was concluded in Tashkent on July 15-16 last year, which eyed on boosting the trade and regional connectivity with emphasis on sustainable development leading to regional cooperation and healthy relations with neighbouring countries.
Moreover, India-Iran-Uzbekistan held a trilateral meeting in December 2021 to further the regional connectivity and expand trading options in the region.
India’s success in Central Asia will depend on how smartly it handles Afghanistan and analysing the current scenario, India seems on a better front against Pakistan who tried every possible way to oust India from the Great Game.
In a nutshell, India has to invest in multi-modal transport connectivity and rely on air and digital connectivity, promoting tourism to and from this region besides trading in goods and services. Moving with time, India must boost its digital connectivity thereby promoting telemedicine, short run educational courses etc.
Moving beyond strategic and security partners, India must cherish and propagate people to people ties, para diplomacy and other means to highlight its cultural and civilisational closeness with Central Asian nations.
-The writer is a student of political science in Delhi University. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in.