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India Engaging With Central Asia – Better Late Than Never

In a step long overdue, India has invited heads of state of Central Asian nations to the Republic Day celebrations.

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Opinion
5 min read
India Engaging With Central Asia – Better Late Than Never
i

The heads of state of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been invited to the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. This is a step long overdue. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the sovereign republics, including the five Central Asian Republics (CARS), India has acknowledged and kept on reiterating the civilisational and historical ties that it has had with the region, going back to even before Buddhism. But much of its Connect Central Asia policy, announced in 2012 by then External Affairs Minister for State E. Ahamad, remained just homilies, till Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to all the five CARS in 2015.

Given the groundswell of goodwill that India has there – a legacy from Soviet times – India has wasted precious time. Thereafter, India’s relations with all the five CARS have been on an upward trajectory, complemented by India’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Council, and demonstrated through a number of high-profile visits to and from the region.

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India Has Been Slow to Act

Located in the heart of the Eurasian landmass, crisscrossed by major trade routes, these landlocked countries, neighbouring Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan, are rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, petroleum products, uranium, gold, cotton, etc. India is also important to Central Asia for its vast market, but bilateral trade hovers only around $2 billion, hampered by connectivity issues. Last year, India announced a $1 billion credit line to the CARs in order to invigorate bilateral trade, and the India-Central Asia Business Forum was also established for the same.

Pakistan’s reluctance to allow Indian overland trade through its territory and the volatile situation inside Afghanistan are major impediments to India’s trade with the landlocked CARs. This is why both India and the CARs are investing in multimodal connectivity routes through Iran, namely, the Chabahar port project and the International North-South Corridor (INSTC). But for a variety of reasons, not least the US sanctions on Iran, the projects have been slow to pick up.

Central Asia’s strategic location bordering China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan also imparts strategic salience to it.

While traditionally, the region is Russia’s strategic backyard, China has become an important investor and stakeholder in the region, while India has been slow to act.

China’s Belt and Road (BRI) corridor runs through the region, and many of the countries, eager for Chinese investments, have signed up to the BRI. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the Silk Road Economic Belt, a component of the BRI, connecting East with the West at the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.

China's Growing Influence

According to data from China’s customs service, in 2018, the trade turnover with the five Central Asian countries was in excess of $41.7 billion. For most of the five Central Asian countries, China remains the largest or second-largest trading partner, often the biggest investor. But its loans have also pushed some of the countries into the Chinese ‘debt trap’. For instance, China accounts for 45.3% of Kyrgyzstan's external debt, while the recent Chinese military base is widely believed to be an outcome of Tajikistan’s enormous debt to China. China also provides military support to many of the countries through arms sales, grants and loans.

In 2019, India initiated the India Central Asia Dialogue. With the beginning of the drawdown of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the dialogue became a necessity and went on to include an intelligence component, as seen in the Delhi meeting of the national security advisors of the CARs together with those of Iran and Russia in November this year. Three of the five Central Asian countries border Afghanistan – Tajikistan (with the longest border), Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While Tajikistan has determinedly refused to recognise the Taliban government in its current composition, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have struck up a more conciliatory position, keen to keep up supply lines and to push for trade and transit routes through Afghanistan into Pakistan and India.

In spite of their varying positions, India has found common ground with these countries, as seen in the Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the NSA meeting in Delhi.

In that, calls were made for a broad-based inclusive government in Afghanistan, that the Taliban first need to gain legitimacy in the eyes of local Afghans before it can expect international recognition, for not allowing Afghan territory to be used to harbour terrorists and launch terror attacks in other countries, and the need to coordinate position and combat terrorism, religious radicalism, and drug trafficking.

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Can India Make Its Presence Felt?

The Central Asian countries, however, are important also as model Muslim countries. While Islam is the majority religion in all these countries, all of them are modern with respect for womens’ and girls’ rights, pluralism, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and commitment to secularism. Uzbekistan, for example, recently enshrined secularism in its legislation. Therefore, the region is an important partner for India and more people-to-people contacts will be hugely beneficial for both.

The region, however, is becoming crowded. A more recent player to make forays into the Eurasian region is Turkey. With cultural, historical, and linguistic linkages, Turkey’s forays into the region began soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But new life has been breathed into it recently after the Armenia-Azerbaijan war last year, where Turkish military arms, advice, and support resulted in a decisive Azerbaijani victory over Armenia after decades. The Central Asian states watched it closely and consequently, Turkish military sales to the region have soared. The recently concluded summit of the Organisation of Turkic States in Istanbul also sought to position Turkey as the leader of the Turkic world, to which four of the five Central Asian republics belong: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With Afghanistan free of US forces, Turkey is trying to establish its presence there, which would give it a strategic foothold in the ‘Heart of Asia’, contiguous to the Turkic world, offering itself as the alternative to both Russia and China in the region.

It is in this crowded arena that India will have to make its presence felt and bring to life, in a meaningful way, the old civilisational bonds with the region that it keeps invoking every now and then.

Inviting the heads of state of the five Central Asian countries is a good beginning where the India-Central Asia Dialogue can take place at the level of heads of state and government. Better late than never.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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