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Narendra Modi’s Central Asia Voyage and Why it is Significant

Besides Russia, Modi will visit Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan & Kazakhstan. 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Narendra Modi’s Central Asia Voyage and Why it is Significant

Prime Minister Modi will embark on his maiden visit to Russia and Central Asia today. In Russia he will participate in the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) Summits. In addition he will visit five Central Asian States – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In spite of cultural, historical and civilisational linkages that bind India and countries of Central Asia, we have not been able to realise the full potential of our bilateral relations.

India and the five republics started out well. Most leaders of these countries chose India to be the first country of their visit outside the CIS after attaining independence. This was reciprocated in equal measure by PM Narasimha Rao who visited 4 out of the 5 countries, 2 each in 1993 and 1995, notwithstanding the economic, political and social challenges being faced by him domestically.

Since then relations with these countries have become victims of neglect. There have been some inspired initiatives like the invitation to President  Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to be the Chief Guest at our 60th Republic Day celebrations in 2009.

This visit provided a significant impetus with the two countries signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement as well as Agreements on the Satpayev Oil Block, on Civilian Nuclear Energy, Space, Agriculture etc.

Following in Nehru’s Footsteps

(Photo: iStock)

PM Modi’s visit to Central Asia is path-breaking and historic as he will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit all the five Central Asian States.

This journey is somewhat reminiscent of the visit exactly 60 years ago by Pandit Nehru to three of the Republics in June, 1955 when they were still a part of the Soviet Union. Modi’s visit has the potential to radically transform our relations and take them to new hitherto uncharted heights.

It is also a logical extension of his earlier initiatives of improving relations with the neighbours, “look east and link west policies”.

Central Asian Significance

A map of Central Asia. (Photo: iStock)

Central Asia is a part of our extended neighbourhood whose significance in the realm of security, trade, energy security, strategic and economic cooperation has grown manifold in recent years.

The increased and growing presence of China in rail and road connectivity, oil and gas pipelines, trade and commerce, and infrastructure is another reason for India to assert its historical and cultural advantage and deepen its economic engagement with Central Asia.

In addition to energy, security, trade and infrastructure, several other areas like IT, education, health, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, space, culture, tourism and people-to-people contact present huge untapped potential.

While energy and economic cooperation will presumably receive high billing in discussions as in earlier visits by PM Modi to other countries, it can be expected that security and counter-terrorism will also receive high attention and some concrete decisions adopted to fight the increasing threat of ISIS, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Taliban, etc.

India launched the ‘’Connect Central Asia’’ Policy in June, 2012. It focused on high level visits, strategic partnerships, comprehensive economic engagement, development of energy and natural mineral resources, e-networks, land connectivity etc. Its achievements have at best been modest.

Kazakhstan’s Oil Block

A bird’s eye view of the Capital city of Astana, Kazakhstan. (Photo: iStock)

Kazakhstan is the largest country in the region both in its territorial expanse (it is 2.9 million sq kms in area representing 92% of India’s size) as also in its natural and mineral resources like oil, gas, uranium, coal, iron ore, gold and most elements of the Mendeleev periodic table.

Kazakhstan is also the biggest economy accounting for around 80% of the Region’s GDP, trade, FDI and growth, with per capita income standing at USD 13,000. India’s earlier attempts at procuring shares in Kurmangazy, Petro-Kazakhstan and more recently, Kashagan oil field, have not been successful.

In the last two cases, part ownership was assigned to China at the last minute. Drilling in the Satpayev oil block which was acquired in 2009 is expected to commence during Modi’s visit to Astana. Immense potential exists in the area of exploring, prospecting and refining oil, gas and uranium ore.

Better Engagement and Connectivity

Absence of land connectivity with the region has been a big bottleneck. Discussions to use the International North South Transport Corridor to promote trade are continuing. Proposal of a new pipeline from Kazakhstan is under consideration. Development of the Chahbahar port in Iran will help in providing access through Afghanistan.

Discussions on India joining the Eurasian Economic Community have been initiated. Our membership of this organisation will help us to connect seamlessly with this increasingly important economic grouping of around 200 million people. India’s expected membership of SCO will also help in taking forward our interest in security, energy, connectivity and trade with Russia, China and Central Asia.

PM Modi’s comment today, just prior to his departure for the six-nation tour sets out an inspired and ambitious agenda. His visit has the potential to provide a significant, quantum jump to our engagement with this region.

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(Ashok Sajjanhar is Secretary, National Foundation for Communal Harmony. He is also a former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.)

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