Why India should further intensify its efforts to woo Central Asian republics

As India deals with the post-pandemic world, a challenge is the loss of a friendly government in Afghanistan. This has increased the strateg...

As India deals with the post-pandemic world, a challenge is the loss of a friendly government in Afghanistan. This has increased the strategic value of India's relations with the Central Asian (CA) republics. Three of them — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan to the north, and Tajikistan in the northeast — border Afghanistan.

Regional cooperation to enhance the commonality of views with Central Asia, and counter the assertive Sino-Pakistani axis in Afghanistan are a salient feature of the successful India-Central Asia Summit (ICAS) on 27 January. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were invited as chief guests at Republic Day, but the pandemic prevented this.

It is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with these Republic’s which freed themselves from the USSR in 1991. This merited a commemoration of its own. The changes in regional security added importance. It is creditable that India could host a long overdue summit with CA.

CA has been an important trade route for India over history. With Partition, these links were partially broken. Once the CA Republics became independent, the socio-cultural dimension with India came to the fore. The summit has reinforced that.

On Afghanistan there are shared concerns between India and CA which were discussed. Dialogue among national security advisors and thereafter the India-Central Asia Dialogue of foreign ministers, both met to prepare for this summit.

Ostensibly, the India-Central Asia engagement lacks depth. However, the fact that this was scheduled, was enough for China to hastily arrange its own summit with Central Asia on 25 January, two days before the Indian one. It is evident that this was done on the spur of the moment, because otherwise, the presidents would all have been travelling to India to attend Republic Day.

The CA republics, other than Turkmenistan, which retains neutrality, are all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). India joined SCO in 2017 reinforcing its relationship with CA. Since all of them are landlocked, they seek connectivity and enhanced economic interaction.

China’s relationship with CA is vast. Its CA trade is expected to be $70 billion by 2030, growing from $1.5 billion in 1995. At least 10 percent of this is natural gas imports of Turkmenistan. China invested $40 billion by 2020, mostly in Kazakhstan. About 7,750 Chinese companies are operating in CA.

For China, stability in CA is pivotal for its policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. For India too this is a concern. The recent upheavals in Kazakhstan are disconcerting. One of the divergences in the Chinese and Indian summits was that with India, most of the CA leaders spoke uniformly about history, common concerns and our future. With China, as they are linked physically, each had varied concerns and demands. Turkmenistan is interested in building more gas pipelines. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan await a BRI-funded railway. Kazakhstan wants expanded exports. China offers its domestic market to more agricultural products and improved trade facilitation.

What is unstated in the case of China is the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang with which several of the CA republics have an empathy, but nothing is discussed openly.

Some important aspects emerge from the ICAS, even though it came after the summit with China. The Summit decided to institutionalise itself to a biannual event. It will supplement the annual meetings of the foreign ministers. Meetings among trade, cultural ministers and National Security Advisers would emerge. This is a welcome intensification of interaction with CA because these countries are governed in a manner that requires such high-level interaction.

The second important aspect is that the engagement will be supported by an India-Central Asia Centre in New Delhi to facilitate the work of the Dialogue and the Summits. Detailed ideas will be undertaken through joint groups on energy and connectivity, Afghanistan and the Chabahar port project.

Third, it is significant that CA is linked to Russia, China and Afghanistan, but does not have physical connectivity with India. Given the problems that Pakistan creates for transit trade, the use of the Chabahar port in Iran and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is important. This is also an alternative to the BRI-CPEC in Pakistan, and will augment the strategic value of Chabahar. This is essential for enhanced trade and commerce, to overcome the lack of overland connectivity, as stated in the ICAS Delhi Declaration.

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Indian trade with CA is currently between $2-3 billion and CA looks for operational connectivity to enhance their own exports and increase imports from India. If the INSTC besides using the port of Bandar Abbas (developed by Russia and Iran), could include Chabahar and link it to Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashi port, it will aid diversified supply chains. Utilisation of $1 billion Line of Credit announced by India in 2020 for infrastructure development projects in CA may hasten.

The president of Turkmenistan continues to promote the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Given Pakistan’s obduracy, TAPI does not attract Indian support. Turkmenistan will pursue TAPI at the Ministerial Transport Conference for Landlocked Developing Countries in April 2020 which Ashkhabad will host.

The fourth important aspect is the development of people-to-people connections. These diminished due to the pandemic but youth exchanges will be promoted, student exchanges increase and Indian universities are setting up satellite campuses in Central Asia. Universities and hospitals will be encouraged to do more. A parliamentary exchange forum is envisaged.

The Indian education system is appreciated in Central Asia. While they like to send more students to India, setting up educational institutions in CA is important. They attract thousands of Indian medical students whose degrees are unrecognised in India. An IT/ITES Task Force with CA countries is planned. Tourism will revitalise since several CA were well connected by air to India. Special courses for Central Asian diplomats will be conducted at the Foreign Service Institute.

The Summit shows that India and CA now meet at high levels more frequently. Indian membership of the SCO provides two occasions annually for leaders to meet. The India-CA Dialogue and the summit will enhance this interaction.

Unlike ASEAN or Africa, the ICAS is determined by common strategic perspectives rather than the functional basis of the other summits. It is important that substantive elements envisaged in the ICAS are meticulously implemented to make the CA initiative successful.

A point of caution is that the ‘new’ Afghanistan provides India an opportunity for crafting a CA policy without the US element in it. Connectivity and Chabahar are critical elements in it. The US sanctions on Iran, which it expects India to adhere to, can restrict the development of Chabahar, and consequently impact the CA initiative.

Finally, the functional elements of the Delhi Declaration echo many of the ideas that India sought to implement with ASEAN and Africa. The record is patchy: Unutilised Line of Credit, underutilised centres, Joint Working Groups (JWGs) which don't meet adequately and projects lacking business plans have been persistent problems. The lessons of those should be well incorporated as India builds a new strategic partnership with a willing Central Asia.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Germany. Views expressed are personal.

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