India's Connect Central Asia Policy


By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In 2015, Narendra Modi, like P.V Narasimha Rao and other prime ministers, visited central Asia. Although, he became the first Indian prime minister to visit all five central Asian countries. 

Back then, Modi signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and agreements related to defence and military technical cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

Even now, it seems that the Indian government is looking for a stronger cooperation in the region. That's why, in its ongoing efforts to the boost strategic partnership, the second India-Central Asia Dialogue was hosted virtually on 28 October 2020, under the chairmanship of India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar. His counterparts from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and the First Deputy Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan participated in the dialogue along with the acting Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Haneef Atmar, who was invited as a special guest.


The clear focus of engagement was on issues related to regional economic development, connectivity, and security. Among the other significant 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.

With Uzbekistan, India also recently conducted the first virtual bilateral summit in December 2020. This was the seventh bilateral interaction between the two leaders in five years. New Delhi and Tashkent also signed an MoU where the Indian side confirmed the approval of a US$ 448 million Line of Credit for road construction and development of the IT sector for digital connectivity. In 2019, Uzbekistan had invited India to join its proposed Afghanistan-Uzbekistan rail link project.

As a matter of fact, India even realises that it needs to eye for central Asia's natural resources, to spur its deprived energy sector. It is because over the next decade, its demand for energy will also increase, which will prompt it to diversify sources beyond the Gulf. 

In the past, Modi’s antecedent, Narasimha Rao, had visited four of the five republics – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1993, followed by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995. These visits had emphasised the shared secular values, and drew attention to common perils such as religious fundamentalism, ethnic chauvinism, narcotics-funded violence and crime. Some commentators suggest that this was articulated through a ‘Look North Policy’ that recognised shared concerns along with a desire to ‘promote stability and cooperation without causing harm to any third country.’ Modi’s attempt to anew similar political associations might develop something constructive for India in the future.

In these advantageous times, several profitable Indian companies would be looking to tap markets, where they could expand their business operations.

Although, the central Asian regions, being backward, is one of the prejudiced reasons, which Indian economists and analysts, give about low investments there. However, it is not the case, as several country indexes put central Asian regions above south Asian nations in terms of infrastructure, human capital, and economic development. India, now, must take a note of this reality, which would inturn make it imperative for India to connect with central Asia, for its energy needs. It is because with Middle East, India doesn’t have a bargaining power in oil prices. India also suffers from extremely high transportation costs, from places where it has bought oil fields.

Historically, India’s ties with central Asia can be traced back to the ancient Silk Road, when civilisations and ideas intermingled, and when goods and people moved freely. After the dissolution of the Silk Road, there were limited exchanges between two regions. Additionally, there was also a period of long engagement during the Kushan Empire. The contacts were also further strengthened in the medieval ages with the advent of Islam and Muslim rule in India, many of whose rulers had their origins in central Asia.

In the recent past, India’s foreign policy was largely not aimed at central Asia, because of the region’s colonial heritage. Countries were part of erstwhile USSR till 1991. And, India at the time of the dissolution of USSR, was fighting its own tribulations, when it attempted for economic reforms in 1991. After India’s independence, the country’s foreign policy focused primarily on immediate neighbourhood, the major powers in global system, and with solidarity with other Afro-Asian colonies.

 Since the turn of the century, central Asia, nevertheless, had become pivotal to India, for maintaining regional stability, especially in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 Strategically, during the 1990s, central Asia was seen as a route for supplying the anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance, in Afghanistan. The region also neighbours ‘Golden Crescent’ of opium production (Iran –Afghanistan-Pakistan), and is also a victim of illegal arms trade, and ISIS extremism. Instability, due to these factors, in central Asia and beyond, can have a spillover effect with India.

 In practice, it was only Tajikistan, which functioned as India’s bridgehead in the region. India provided material and logistics assistance to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, routed through Tajikistan. Subsequently, Tajikistan also became the recipient of long-term Indian military training as well, due to a prospective location of what could have been India’s first overseas military base. In 2002, India and Tajikistan signed a bilateral defence agreement, as part of which India refurbished Ayni, a disused Soviet airbase. However, the plan did not eventually materialise. Though, India’s military role with other central Asian nations has been limited, it conducted its first ever joint military exercise in Kyrgyzstan, Khanjar, in 2011.

 However, since the recent past, India hasn't realised central Asia’s growing economic- geostrategic position, despite the fact that an increasing importance of the region’s oil and gas resources has generated new rivalries among other external powers: China has made deep inroads through Belt and Road Initiative in the central Asian republics in terms of investments in and around the region. Also, Russia's convergence in central Asia, given its fractious ties with the West after its annexation of Crimea, has also changed the dynamics of India’s relations with central Asia.

 The only significant achievement for India has been the 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 for the supply of 2,100 tonnes of uranium to India until 2014. Two years later, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhstan, they signed an agreement for ‘Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.’ In 2015, with their earlier deal having expired, India and Kazakhstan signed a new agreement for the purchase of 5000 tonnes of Kazakh Uranium, until the end of 2019. Currently, both sides are negotiating a third agreement, as part of which Kazakhstan is planning to increase its supplies to India to 7500-10000 tonnes. In 2019, India had also signed a uranium supply agreement with Uzbekistan.

 India’s Connect Central Asia Policy has the potential for trade, investment, and growth, as the region is also richly endowed with other commodities such as crude oil, natural gas, cotton, gold, copper, aluminum, and iron.

There is a construction upsurge, and development of IT, pharmaceuticals and tourism in the local business clusters in central Asia. Due to this fact, India needs a deeper cooperation in these sectors that might give a fresh momentum to trade relations.

 In this quest for New Great Game, India must balance the realpolitik and moralpolitik. But, there are enormous challenges to India in terms of connectivity. Due to landlocked nature of central Asian states, the region doesn’t share a border with India. So, it would be better for India to establish a seamless connectivity with the region. For this, India actually tried to put to test its diplomatic mantle in the past. In the long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which was first proposed in the mid-1990s, all 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.

 Due to border disputes, ethnic problems and conflict over control of natural resources, central Asian countries have also failed to congregate as a regional bloc, like SAARC or ASEAN, despite some of central Asian countries being part of the Euro Asian Economic Union. Hence, it has been difficult for India to formulate a coherent regional policy, despite drafting the Ashgabat agreement, International North-South Transport Corridor, and Chabahar port agreement in the past.

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 percent of India’s total trade, in comparison with China that amounts to US$ 100 billion.


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