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

Besides the centrality of the Afghan issue, the other elephant in the room is China, which poses an even greater geopolitical threat to India.

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan

India will hold its first summit dialogue with the presidents of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – virtually on January 27, 2022. There were initial indications of their possible collective participation as main guests in the Republic Day parade on January 26, but it is evident that the global Covid situation has not made itself conducive to such an engagement. in person. An India-Central Asia dialogue mechanism exists at the level of Foreign Ministers who last met in New Delhi for the third dialogue on December 18-19, 2021.

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

In the 1990s, when the five Central Asian republics gained independence, India faced the twin challenges of adapting to the emerging post-Cold War order and economic reform. interior. Over time, India’s foreign policy evolved to place greater emphasis on engagement with India’s extended neighborhood, which included Central Asia.

As newly independent states, these five republics were not very confident about their financial and economic viability. They are all landlocked, but some have turned this weakness into an asset like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have done by building a network of roads, railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing from east in the west and from north to south to link industrial centers to consumers. markets. In recent years, highways and railways have traversed eastern China through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Europe, Russia, Iran and the Middle East. Similarly, oil from offshore facilities in the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan and gas from Turkmenistan are transported by pipelines to the western region of China.

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

Religious extremism, fundamentalism, drug trafficking pose challenges to these societies and to regional stability. Questions relating to water, security, the environment and migration have become acute. The region faces new threats of narco-terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. The region is said to be a “big game arena” between Russia, China, the United States, Turkey, Iran, Europe, EU, Japan, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, all of which have significant security and economic challenges. the region.

The fact that India does not share a common land border with any of these states has been a major bottleneck in fostering and expanding ties. Pakistan does not allow direct routes to Afghanistan or Central Asia. China is therefore the overland transit route for trade which is time consuming and expensive. To improve connectivity, India has made considerable progress by concluding a trilateral agreement for the rehabilitation of Chabahar Port, the development of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and becoming a member of the Ashgabat Agreement . India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) promises to bridge this gap.

India’s Connect Central Asia (CAA) policy of 2012 is an overarching framework involving political, economic, security and cultural connections. Following the announcement of the Connect Asia policy in 2012, the Indian Prime Minister visited all five countries. India uses its considerable power through dance, music, Bollywood films, yoga, literature, etc. India’s International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program attracts young professionals for capacity building. There is considerable scope for participation in trade shows and infrastructure construction projects, such as rail, road, highway, power lines, nuclear power, etc. In addition to oil and gas, IT, pharmaceuticals and textiles, higher education, space, SMEs, power generation, food processing and agriculture present a rich potential for deeper engagement. SCO can act as guarantor for projects. In the third dialogue, India urged focusing on the 4Cs: trade, capacity building, connectivity and contacts.

Increased engagement should help improve mutual security and regional economic prosperity. Economically, Central Asia provides a “near abroad” market for Indian industry, land routes to the rich resources of Russia and the Middle East, and significant energy supplies a long way off. relatively short. The INSTC corridor route is shorter than Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. As competition for resources with China intensifies, this region is likely to take on greater importance. The third dialogue emphasized project accountability and transparency in a veiled reference to the debt trap that is China’s BRI. The $1 billion line of credit already announced by India is for High Impact Development Projects (HICDPS) for socio-economic development in the region. The third dialogue introduced the additional element of connectivity between Indian states and Central Asia. The India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) established in 2020 has been asked to encourage such activities.

From a security perspective, this region potentially acts as a buffer to contain the fallout of fundamentalism, to prevent encirclement by any regional or external power, and ultimately, to insulate India from narco-terrorism. India’s presence may well serve to neutralize the region’s anti-Western bias and reassure the US and EU. India may still have to balance the geopolitical ambitions of China and Russia to craft a mutually beneficial framework. Although active partners of the BRI, the disenchantment of Central Asian countries has increased not only with the growing Chinese footprint in their economic and political systems, but also due to the repression of several Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims as well as Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, leading to numerous anti-Chinese demonstrations.

The importance of the region has increased with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the threats of narco-terrorism that have spread to Central Asia, Russia and China. India and the 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 inclusive government, unhindered humanitarian aid and the preservation of the rights of women, children and minorities in Afghanistan. In a veiled reference to Pakistan, the third dialogue stressed non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and respect for its territorial integrity and sovereignty, as stated in UNSC resolution 2593 (2021), as well as the importance of the fight against terrorism and the rapid adoption of the United Nations 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. Aware of the rapidly changing scenario, the national security advisers of these five countries attended the regional meeting on the situation in Afghanistan which India hosted in November 2021.

Besides the centrality of the Afghan issue, the other elephant in the room is China, which poses an even greater geopolitical threat to India. Apart from that, compared to the $100 billion trade turnover with China, the region’s trade with India is only $2 billion. Although India is part of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, progress has been slow. Uzbekistan has also pushed ahead with a joint plan with India and Iran to improve connectivity through Chabahar port, but this is expected to take time.

In sum, Central Asia’s location, its geographical proximity to India and its ancient ties make the region highly relevant to India’s strategic interests. India has enormous goodwill in Central Asia. The next dialogue of the first Summit is overdue.

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

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