THE CONTEXT: The dramatic developments in Afghanistan have catalysed new geostrategic and geoeconomics concerns for the Central Asia region. The evolving situation has also thrown up renewed challenges for India’s regional and bilateral ties with Central Asia and the Caucasus, prompting India to recalibrate its rules of engagement with the region.
INDIA- CENTRAL ASIAN RELATIONS: RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
- Over the years, India has been taking a renewed interest in enhancing its strategic presence in Central Asia.
- India’s full membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) now opens up an opportunity for a closer engagement with the region.
- In 2019, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) participated in the first India-Central Asia Dialogue in Samarkand, Republic of Uzbekistan.
- The 2nd meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in October 2020, under the chairmanship of the External Affairs Minister of India.
- Though, there is no specific Indian diaspora policy in Central Asia. As compared to Indians living in the Gulf, the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), the number of Indians in Central Asian Republics (CARs) is quite less. But India has a strong forum, namely, SCO, to make its outreach to Central Asia.
- In the second week of November 2021, India held an NSA- level meeting in New Delhi to discuss the development in Afghanistan and in that, All Central Asian nations participated.
- The above developments show that the relations between India and Central Asian nations are going upward, but to make an effective presence in Central Asia, India needs to enhance these relations.
ROLE OF SCO IN THIS REGARD
- India’s full SCO membership is considered a forward movement in her engagement with Central Asia.
- This has enhanced India’s strategic ‘presence’ in the Eurasian region.
- While being a part of the SCO, India has put forward many concrete proposals for regional cooperation in different areas.
- However, India needs to be proactive while figuring out its priorities within the SCO.
- India has been able to enhance cooperation with SCO member-states to combat extremism and terrorism through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) mechanism at Tashkent by sharing information. In the SCO, discussions are also under process to use the local currency in trade and economic transactions instead of dollars.
IMPORTANCE OF CENTRAL ASIA FOR INDIA
- India and Central Asian Republics (CARs) – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – share deep civilisational ties. However, the importance of Central Asia for India is not merely cultural and historical.
- Over the next decade, as India’s economy grew, so made its demand for energy and the need to diversify sources beyond the Gulf. During this period, Central Asia also looked toward supplying energy to fast-growing countries in Asia, such as India and China, to overcome its reliance on pipeline routes through Russia.
- India and the CARs also share common concerns on the issue of the rising threat from terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.
- The re-emergence of threat from the Taliban-Haqqani network in Afghanistan, the proposed Western military pullout by 2014, and growing religious radicalisation and sectarian violence within Pakistan have raised serious questions about the region’s stability.
- India thus plans to further strengthen its cooperation with the CARs, especially on the counter-terrorism issue, within the framework of its “Connect Central Asia” policy.
At a more specific level, the five CARs are important to India due to some of the following factors:
Tajikistan: Tajikistan’s importance for India lies in its geostrategic location. While it shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, it is also close to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Moreover, developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have serious security implications for both India and Tajikistan. In addition to its strategic location, Tajikistan is rich in hydroelectric power and has the largest natural water resources in the region. Tajikistan also has rich mineral deposits. India and Tajikistan cooperate over a wide spectrum of political, economic, health, human resource development, defence, counter-terrorism, science and technology, culture, and tourism. Tajik military cadets and young officers have also been attending military training institutions in India.
Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan’s importance for India needs to be viewed in the context of developments in and around Central Asia, India’s growing energy needs, Kazakhstan’s increasing role in the region and its immense hydrocarbon reserves. The two countries cooperate in various hydrocarbon, civil nuclear energy, space, information technology and cyber security, pharmaceuticals, health care, agriculture, and cultural exchange programmes.
Turkmenistan: The importance of Turkmenistan for India lies in its enormous gas reserves, transit potential and geostrategic geo-strategic location. India’s rising energy demand and the fact that it imports 70 per cent of its oil requirements, which is likely to go up to 90 per cent by 2025, has made Turkmenistan an attractive destination for India. In this context, the TAPI gas pipeline is of great significance. Turkmenistan can also serve as a gateway to Central Asia through Iran. From India’s point of view, the North-South Corridor would help India reach out to Central Asia and enable it to transport goods at a cheaper cost to the European markets.
Uzbekistan: Uzbekistan has appreciated India’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and supports India’s candidature for full membership in the SCO and UNSC. The two countries cooperate in diverse sectors, including coal gasification, oil and gas, banking, pharmaceuticals, textiles, science and technology, standardisation, small and medium enterprises, and tourism. More than sixty Indian companies are operating in the country. Economic reconstruction projects and cooperation on counter-terrorism, in the backdrop of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014, have been given priority in India-Uzbekistan ties.
Kyrgyzstan: The visit of Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony to Bishkek in July 2011 has given a new impetus to the India-Kyrgyzstan ties. India has offered assistance to Kyrgyzstan in various areas. This includes sending a team to train Kyrgyz armed forces in UN peacekeeping operations and imparting English language skills. India and Kyrgyzstan have also signed MoUs for cooperation in research and development in high altitude base agriculture, plantation, animal husbandry, poultry, education, sports, culture, IT, health, S&T and food processing.
WHY THE RELATIONS BETWEEN INDIA AND CENTRAL ASIA ARE LACKING BEHIND
- With any planned routes facing serious financial, political, and security constraints, the lack of connectivity between India and the region has frustrated oil and gas diplomacy.
- The long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was first proposed in the mid-1990s. All four actors officially signed an intergovernmental agreement in 2010. Since then, progress has been stalled due to the instability in Afghanistan and the lack of trust between India and Pakistan.
- The only significant achievement in the energy sector has been civil nuclear cooperation. In 2008, Kazakhstan supported India in obtaining India-specific exemption to allow civil nuclear cooperation with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) countries.
- The following year, India and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to supply 2,100 tonnes of uranium to India until 2014. Two years later, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhstan, they signed a deal for ‘Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.’
- The adverse geographic terrain and the complicated India-Pakistan border dynamic, significantly impede connectivity, thereby curbing greater economic cooperation between India and the region.
- In contrast, external powers such as Russia and China have benefitted from close cooperation and influence, courtesy of their porous borders with the region.
- Thus, apart from pipeline routes through the region, India has also been looking towards Iran for connectivity with Central Asia. As far back as April 1995, India, Iran and Turkmenistan signed an MOU to create transit corridors through the latter two states to facilitate trade among each other, and transit through territories crossing the latter two states. Nonetheless, the full potential of this route is yet to be realised.
THE RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IS A POSITIVE SIGNAL
- Engagement with the region in 2020 saw a clear focus on regional economic development, connectivity, and security — apart from the immediate need to deal with the ongoing pandemic.
- Among the highlights was the announcement of an additional 1 billion USD Line of Credit extended by India for priority development projects in energy, healthcare, connectivity, IT, agriculture, education, etc. India’s ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ covers an entire gamut of a multi-model approach to strengthen politico-economic, security, and cultural ties between the two.
- To that endeavour, India proposed grant assistance to implement High Impact Community Development Projects that aim to boost socio-economic development in the region.
- This development came at a time when countries around the world were still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. India has provided humanitarian and medical assistance to the Central Asian partners in their fight against the pandemic.
- Although Central Asian countries are heading towards Russia-based vaccines, the rollout has been slow. India, which has already supplied 5.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to its neighbours, is now looking to further expand its outreach. It would be worthwhile to consider including Central Asian countries in this effort.
POWER DYNAMICS IN THE REGION AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INDIA: ANALYSIS
RUSSIA: While still a widely influential political and security player in the region, Russia has seen China take its place as the leading economic player in the post-Soviet period. As the latter’s influence has grown, Russia has promoted its own Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to pursue regional and economic integration. The EAEU, which has become an established actor in the region, has not coalesced into a political union due to member-states objections to accept Russian proposals to this effect. Since its inception in 2015, it has only attracted two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as members and thus it is far from a happy union.
CHINA: China has been expanding its regional presence, as seen in the ‘5+1 format’ launched in 2020 to further its clout. However, its advances are already causing concerns of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ given the economic situation of Central Asian countries. Turkmenistan owes at least US$ 8 billion in loans to China and the latter holds roughly 50 per cent of Tajikistan’s US$ 2.8 billion foreign debt. Kyrgyzstan has turned to China for debt relief to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic. The Export-Import Bank of China holds US$ 1.7 billion of the country’s US$ 4 billion foreign debt. As the BRI expands, China’s largest trading partner in the region, Kazakhstan, is also growing conscious of China’s manoeuvres
OPPORTUNITIES FOR INDIA: These developments create an opening for India, which benefits from possessing goodwill and a positive image among Central Asian states. As New Delhi cements its position as one of the fastest-growing major economies of the world, its increased engagement with the region can lead to mutually beneficial gains — both in economic and strategic terms. The presence of multiple strong powers in the region offers options to regional actors to balance external pressures. However, India has been a latecomer and has only turned its attention to the region in recent years. It has sought to deepen linkages through the regular exchange of high-level visits, cooperation in areas of mutual security concerns, and improving trade ties. PM Modi’s comprehensive visit in July 2015 to all 5 CARs was a step in the same direction. Yet, India has a long way to go before it can present itself as a key player in Central Asia. India’s trade with the region amounts to US$ 2 billion, owing to limited connectivity and low economic engagement with the region. This amount is less than 0.5 per cent of India’s total trade, whereas the region’s trade with China amounts to US$ 100 billion.
THE WAY AHEAD: Efforts are now being made to address the weak trade ties by encouraging cooperation among businesses on both sides, as is evident in the launch of the India-Central Asia Business Council in 2020. India needs to direct investment to the region to reap the economic benefits of the strategic location of Central Asia that puts it at the crossroads of key trade and commerce routes. Sectors like the construction industry, sericulture, pharmaceuticals, IT, and tourism offer potential for collaboration. Beyond strategic and economic cooperation, India must increase its developmental and humanitarian aid to the region and promote closer people-to-people ties through education, knowledge transfer, medicine and health, culture, cuisine, and tourism. Multilateral organisations like SCO, EAEU, and CICA can serve as platforms for sustained engagement and regular exchange of ideas. The SCO is a crucial grouping that provides India with a strategic convergence with Russia and China to address new security challenges, enhance infrastructural development projects, and create a network of regional oil and gas pipelines for the greater benefit of the Central and South Asian region. It bears the high potential to give India a stake in the Eurasian integration process. Although several challenges such as China’s aggressive posture in the region and the unholy nexus of Pakistan and China looms large over its success, a calibrated coordination with the stakeholders will enable New Delhi to accentuate its own role not only in the Eurasian region but also in South Asia.
THE CONCLUSION:In a region where Russia and China remain the key players, India has a long way to go before being recognised as a consequential actor in Central Asia. The proposals and ideas discussed in the 2020 virtual summits possess the potential to form the bedrock of a sustained, balanced, long-term strategy — which New Delhi will have to capitalise on to achieve its policy goals in the region.
- Discuss the importance of central Asia for India. How can multilateral organisations like SCO serve as platforms for sustained engagement and regular exchange of ideas between India and central Asia?
- ‘To fulfil its energy requirement, India should look beyond gulf nations and Central Asia is an ideal for that’. Comment.