India in Central Asia – A Window of Opportunity

| Isha Tripathi
  • India needs stronger foothold in the region, assuming that Taliban takes over Afghanistan.
  • All the other key players such as Russia, US, China etc have had their interests in enhancing their relations with the CARs
  • Central Asia is rich in terms of resources while Kazakhstan is one of India’s primary source for Uranium.
  • CARs view India favourably as against wariness for China due to growing realization that promises of prosperity attached with the BRI are not forthcoming.
  • Smaller or weaker nations which cannot push back on their own then turn to other countries like India to balance it out, as is happening in Central Asia.

(This is the first part in the 2-part series on India in Central Asia)

As India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar completed his visit to Central Asian nations this July, attention is drawn within India towards a region that tends to remain out of limelight, perhaps because it is a region of stability surrounded by headline-grabbing nations like Iran, China, Russia and others. The larger part of this visit was centred around the Taliban situation in Afghanistan. What is the significance of the region for India, and what are the optionsthe Indian establishment is faced with in dealing with a delicate, and potentially explosive situation developing so close to home?

The widely used nomenclature ‘CARs’ or Central Asian Republics is understood to include the five countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The region is just north of Afghanistan. Historically, India has shared a good relation with the region. Trade and cultural exchanges were especially facilitated by the ancient silk route, and also because present day Pakistan and Afghanistan were a part of India. Cities like Samarkand and Bukhara were known throughout Eurasia. The Kushan empire was particularly instrumental in the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and China. The Islamic heritage is another common cultural link.These relations, however, petered out with the decline of the silk route. Post-independence relations have remained stunted for several reasons.

Causes of India’s lukewarm relations with Central Asia

Lack of Common Border

First, India lost common borders with Central Asia when the Durand Line was drawn by the British colonizers to separate Afghanistan. On top of that, India’s only sliver of border with Afghanistan was gone with Pakistan’s occupation of parts of Kashmir, which could have provided access to Central Asia and beyond.

Pakistan

Second, in conjunction with the above, India is ‘blessed’ with a rabidly hostile neighbour called Pakistan. Had good relations prevailed between the two countries, South Asia would have become the fulcrum of world trade.On the other hand,India had a good equation with Afghanistan, and New Delhi had invested its resources in Iran, particularly the Chabahar port, to gain access to Kabul while circumventing Pakistan. However, with USA gone from Afghanistan, Taliban is gaining upper hand which is resulting in India losing its influence there. But if India’s relations with Iran are salvaged, it can still access Central Asia.

Myopic Foreign Policy

Third, lapses in India’s foreign policy is also an important cause. Since independence, Indian foreign policy has been perennially short-sighted and indecisive. Successive socialistically inclined governments in India chose to ignore building independent relations with the CARs, partly because of closeness with USSR, and partly because of the policy decision to remain focussed on the immediate neighbours primarily. Rectification began after PM Narsimha Rao visited the region in 1993 and 1995, after which negotiations for the Farkohar air base in Tajikistan commenced. It was through Tajikistan that India supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against Taliban. Connect Central Asia Policy was formulated in 2012 based on 4 Cs of commerce, connectivity, consular and community.

More recently, PM Modi visited all the five CARs in 2015. India became party to the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018. Apart from several business agreements, India holds regular military exercises with Kazakhstan, and occasional with Uzbekistan. India -Central Asia Business Council was launched in 2020. The second edition of India-Central Asia Dialogue was virtually held in October 2020.

Successive socialistically inclined governments in India chose to ignore building independent relations with the CARs, partly because of closeness with USSR, and partly because of the policy decision to remain focused on the immediate neighbours primarily.

Importance of Central Asia for India

It is not just India but all the other key players as Russia, US, China etc have had their interests in enhancing their relations with the CARs rekindled recently. And the two primary reasons for this is the rising influence of China and Taliban. Why is Central Asia important for India?

Containing Islamic Extremism

First, the region to India’s North-West is a potential cinder-box for Islamist extremism- warring factions, terrorist groups, separatists- hostilities abound in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, China’s Xinjiang. Tajikistan itself went through a bloody civil war from 1992 to 1997. Taliban’s resurgence here forebodes instability which will most likely spill over in India, and particularly into Kashmir. India needs stronger foothold in the region, assuming that Taliban takes over Afghanistan and pushes India out, in order to have a say in the situation as it unfolds, as it did previously through Tajikistan.

Afghanistan

Second, in continuation of the above, if India has a meaningful presence in Central Asia, the chances of Taliban training its extremism guns on India would reduce. Even other countries like the CARs and Russia might urge them to some restraint. In other words, given the current scenario, if India wants to have any say in Afghanistan, it needs influence in Central Asia.

Resources

Third, Central Asia is rich in terms of resources- Uranium, petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, aluminium etc. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest supplier of Uranium and is one of India’s primary source for the material. In 2019 India signed a Uranium supply deal with Uzbekistan. India needs these to achieve its target of increasing nuclear energy capacity from 7GW to 63 GW by 2032.

Chinese Expansionism

Fourth, the elephant in the room for India, USA, and increasingly for Russia too, is China. Bugged by the superpower syndrome, Beijing is barreling towards its goal of being the undisputed hegemon in entire Eurasia. To that end, its primary weapon of choice is the much-publicized Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is claimed to be guided by the lofty ideas of ‘win-win cooperation’, and ‘partnership on equal footing’. For reasons of sovereignty, and realist common sense, India has refused to be a part of the initiative despite several invitations from China. Like many other countries, the CARs were wooed to BRI with promises of infrastructure development and ensuing prosperity. Soon enough their economies were flooded with Chinese debts. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are already embedded in the Chinese debt-trap, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are growing wary of it. China’s considerably larger economy and greater proximity to the region lends it an upper hand in exercising influence there. Overbearing Chinese presence obviously means there would only yield unfavourable situations for India.

Like many other countries, the CARs were wooed to BRI with promises of infrastructure development and ensuing prosperity. Soon enough their economies were flooded with Chinese debts. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are already embedded in the Chinese debt-trap, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are growing wary of it.

Connectivity initiatives

Fifth, backed with a steadily growing economy, coupled with a change in political thinking, India has begun looking beyond its immediate neighbours. There is greater coherence in India’s foreign policy, at least with respect to securing some core national interests. New Delhi has become a part of several multilateral projects that can yield substantial long-term benefits not just in economic terms but also political and strategic. For instance, connectivity initiativeslike International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC), TAPI pipeline, Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) and Trans Arabian Corridor. For initiatives that seek to interlink Europe, Asia and Africa for boosting trade and cultural exchanges, Central Asia is important. As the famous geo-strategist Halford Mackinder has stated, it is the heartland of the Eurasian landmass. Besides, if India wants to have a higher seat in international politics, non-committal fence sitting will not be enough.

In Central Asia, Russia and China will have predominant influence as against India, simply owing to geographical proximity. China also has the advantage of a significantly larger economy. The difference in the size of trade that takes place between them and CARs lends perspective- China’s trade looms around a hundred billion as against India’s two billion. Still, there are several factors that work in India’s favour which can help India become a strong stakeholder in the region, if not the biggest or the strongest.

Factors working in India’s favour in Central Asia

Russia’s sphere of influence

First, Russia’s geo-political interests in the region make India almost indispensable for Moscow, especially as the so called New Great Game is picking pace in Central Asia. The CARs were once part of the Soviet Union, and even after their independence, they are primarily under Russia’s sphere of influence. Naturally, Russia is apprehensive of instability that growing Islamic extremism might cause here. US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has created opportunities for China. The unprecedented increase in its influence in Central Asia has triggered a recalibration of foreign policy in Russia.

The latest Russian National Security Strategy no longer dwells on the new era of strategic relations with Beijing, but instead it was clubbed together with India in this document. Russia is also wary of USA trying to gain a foothold in Central Asia. It has conveyed this clearly to the US as well as to CARs that it does not want US interference in the region. To limit the influence of China and Taliban in the area without inviting US, Russia’s most viable option is to rely on India. That the Russian establishment is aware of the conundrum as is evidenced in Russia’s support for India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and INSTC. Moscow is also backing India’s Free Trade Agreement with EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union).It is worth remembering here that establishment of India’s only foreign airbase, Farkohar in Tajikistan has been facilitated by Russia.
Landlocked Central Asia’s need for connectivity

Second, Central Asia is landlocked. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are entirely surrounded by land. Aral Sea lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Caspian Sea borders Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Neither of these water bodies can provide considerable facilitation of connectivity which the five countries are looking for. India can provide them the opening through the Chabahar port. Pakistan and Afghanistan are perennially subject to instability, so trade route through their territory is lesser viable. Additionally, these republics also view India as balancing influence against China.

Favourable perception

Third, CARs view India favourably as against wariness for China. There is growing realization that promises of prosperity attached with the BRI are not forthcoming. While Chinese goods flood their markets, exports to China comprise mostly of raw material, and especially energy resources. This is a classic example of why BRI is often called out for being a neo-colonialist geo-political project. India has been a responsible state throughout its history since independence- it has never displayed expansionist tendencies, it is a responsible nuclear power (contrast with Pakistan and China), it has complied with most international norms, it does not support religious extremism (good terrorism, bad terrorism).

China’s Hegemony

CARs view India favourably as against wariness for China. There is growing realization that promises of prosperity attached with the BRI are not forthcoming. While Chinese goods flood their markets, exports to China comprise mostly of raw material, and especially energy resources. This is a classic example of why BRI is often called out for being a neo-colonialist geo-political project.

Fourth, China’s hegemonic behaviour is ultimately working in India’s favour. No self-respecting nation likes putting up with bullying. Had China used its money to really build partnerships, it would have gained tremendous support from the developing world for its claim to be ‘the’ superpower. Unfortunately, it choses deceit and aggression, even is places where it does not need to. Smaller or weaker nations which cannot push back on their own then turn to other countries like India to balance it out, as is happening in Central Asia.

Containing China

Fifth, key players on the global scene- USA, Russia, Japan, France, and others are witnessing China’s expansionist policies with greater unease, and any attempt at countering or containing it require India’s participation. Most of the connectivity projects proposed in the Eurasian landmass as alternatives to the BRI include India. This is evidenced in India being invited to be a part of Ashgabat agreement, Israel’s Trans Arabian Corridor, Japan’s Asia Africa Growth Corridor etc.Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have invited India to a part of their rail link project. Trilateral talks between India Iran and Uzbekistan are taking place to link the Central Asian nation with INSTC and Chabahar.

(To be continued in part 2)

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