Relations between India and Central Asia are ancient and civilisational. India has been connected closely with Central Asia through the Silk Route from circa 3rd century BC till 15th century AD when the sea route from Europe to India was discovered. This made the land journey unviable because it was more risky, longer in duration, more expensive and volumes of cargo that could be carried by sea-faring vessels were much larger than by caravans over the land route.
The Silk Route connected India with Central Asia not only for transportation of goods and wares like silk, textiles, spices etc but was an effective channel of exchange of thoughts, ideas, religion and philosophy. Budhism travelled over this route from India to Central Asia and from there to West China in contemporary Xinjiang region.
In medieval times, Babar came from Fergana Valley after losing his kingdom to try his fortune in foreign lands. During the Soviet period culture, music, dance, movies and literature bound the Soviet Republics closely with India. Political contacts grew and expanded with frequent exchange of visits. Visit by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi to Almaty, Tashkent and Ashgabat in 1955 brought the region closer to India. Popularity of iconic Bollywood stars like Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Mithun Chakraborty and others brought India into the homes and hearts of common people of this region.
Bilateral relations however suffered considerable neglect in the 25 years after emergence of these countries as independent States in 1991.
None of the five Central Asian States had to fight for its independence from the Soviet Union. Freedom was granted to these countries as a gift. They were not confident about their financial and economic viability, and survival as independent states. Hence they were the last to declare their independence, eg. Kazakhstan on December 16, 1991, Uzbekistan on September 1, 1991 while Russia had announced its freedom in June, 1990.
All these countries are landlocked. Some of them are doubly landlocked. It is generally assumed that unless countries have access to warm-water seas, they will not be able to develop fruitful economic relations with the outside world. These countries hence felt that it will be difficult for them to prosper as they do not have access to seas.
Most Central Asian States particularly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have converted the perceived disadvantage of being landlocked into an asset by constructing a web and network of roads, railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines cris-crossing from East to West and North to South to connect industrial and production hubs with consumer markets. Last few years have seen highways and railroads traversing from the East in China through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Europe, Russia, Iran and the Middle East. Similarly oil from Caspian Sea offshore facilities in Kazakhstan and gas from Turkmenistan is being shipped by pipelines to the western region of China.
All Central Asian States are rich and well endowed potentially with mineral and hydroelectric resources. Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest reserves and is the world’s largest producer — 23,000 tons of uranium in 2014. It has almost all minerals on Mendeleev’s table including iron-ore, coal, oil, gas, gold, lead, zinc, molybdenum etc. in commercially viable quantities. Uzbekistan has large reserves of gas, uranium and gold. Turkmenistan is endowed with world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas. Tajikistan is blessed with huge hydroelectric potential. Kyrgyzstan is rich in gold and hydroelectric power.
Central Asian States have used the 25 years since independence in nation building and consolidation of their statehood.
Track record of these countries on socio-economic development is mixed. Kazakhstan with its vast mineral resources has done better than others. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lag behind. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain closed and controlled societies. Uzbekistan is a potential leader in Central Asia, but has difficult relations with its neighbours, namely Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on water issues, and Kazakhstan to become the pre-eminent power in the region. Religious extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism pose challenges to these societies and to regional stability. Issues like water security, borders, environmental degradation and migration have become acute. Central Asian republics face serious threat from illegal drug trade emanating from Afghanistan. Traditionally, Central Asia has been an arena of ‘’great game’’. The modern version is being played out even today. Russia, China, US, Turkey, Iran, Europe, EU, Japan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan have substantial security and economic stakes in the region.
Significance of this region in foreign policy matrix of India cannot be overemphasised. India’s foreign policy is conceptualised as comprising of sets of ever widening concentric circles around a central axis of historical and cultural commonalities. Security, stability and prosperity of Central Asia is imperative for peace and economic development of India.
PM Modi, through his ''Neighbourhood First'' policy has given increased importance to India's proximate region. This became evident when he invited all SAARC leaders and PM of Mauritius to his swearing in ceremony on May 26, 2014. Since Central Asia comprises our ''extended neighborhood'', it deserves much greater attention than it has received so far.
Afghanistan poses a rising challenge for these countries as well as India. Withdrawal of US and Nato forces as well as change in national leadership in Afghanistan in 2014 has increased violence and turbulence in the country. President Ashraf Ghani’s policy of cozying up to Pakistan since his assumption of power in Sept, 2014 in an effort to control attacks by Taliban and ensure peace in the country has failed. Talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, USA and China to persuade Taliban to enter into negotiations with Kabul are drifting aimlessly. It is necessary to evolve an inclusive regional solution for ensuring peace in Afghanistan. For this, India and Central Asia need to collaborate with other regional powers like Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan as also with USA and EU to promote security and stability in Afghanistan.
Central Asia finds itself exposed and vulnerable to influences like Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Taliban, IUM, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and others. Although the region has been stable since the five countries gained independence, except Tajikistan immediately after independence and Uzbekistan in 2005, the threat and risk of extremist, fundamentalist influences seeping into minds of young women and men is rapidly increasing. India notwithstanding its huge diversity has been able to counter these destabilising influences effectively so far because of its cultural heritage and legacy, its acceptance of diverse views and thoughts, its value based education system etc. India and Central Asia can collaborate to mutual benefit to strengthen the fabric of their social, inter-ethnic, inter-racial structures so that extremist and divisive pressures are contained and minimised.
This perceived neglect of the region ended with assumption of office by National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, 2014.
India has not been able to take advantage of its civilisational and historical ties with the region as adequate attention was not accorded to the relations.
Another significant reason for the listless state of bilateral ties is that India does not share physical borders with any of the Central Asian states. This is a huge bottleneck in promoting and expanding economic, commercial, energy, tourist links etc. with them. No direct route from India to these countries is available as Pakistan does not permit goods, cargo or people to move through its territory to Afghanistan, let alone to Central Asia beyond it. Trade hence has been conducted with Central Asia through China. This is both time consuming and expensive. Alternatively cargo has to be sent to by sea to Northern Europe from where it is transported by rail and road through Russia and other adjacent countries. India has registered significant progress in concluding a trilateral agreement for renovation of Chabahar port, development of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and becoming a member of Ashgabat Agreement. India’s membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as also of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) should go a considerable way in bridging this gap.
India uses the instrumentality of soft power and its ready acceptability in Central Asia to strengthen bilateral ties. There is immense interest in Indian classical dance, music, Bollywood films, yoga, literature etc. in these countries. India regularly and frequently arranges cultural events in these countries and also provides scholarships for study in India of these disciplines by young men and women of these countries. Several of them on their return to their native countries after receiving high quality training in eminent institutions like Kalakshetra in Chennai; Ganesa Natyalaya, New Delhi run by Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan; Asavari, New Delhi run by Guru Shovana Narayan and several others open their own institutions to teach and promote Indian culture and further reinforce ties with India.
The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme is an effective instrument under which young professionals of these countries undergo training and human capacity development in areas ranging from banking, remote sensing and English speaking to agriculture, rural development and information technology in the premier institutions in India. This initiative exposes the youth of these countries to India’s economic progress as well as its civilisation and heritage. ITEC has significantly contributed to economic and social growth and development of beneficiary countries.
More energy and vigour needs to be imparted to the area of commercial and economic ties. One important reason for the uninspiring level of bilateral commercial ties is lack of authentic and up-to-date information on potential and possibilities available in this area. Chambers of Commerce as well as official government agencies need to be more active to bridge the ‘’information deficit’’ between India and the region. Private sector needs to look at these countries s with greater seriousness and focus. Our companies need to participate in trade fairs and organise single country trade fairs in major commercial and industrial centres of these countries. The Indian Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO) needs to pay more attention to this region. Several private agencies also organize sale-cum-exhibition shows with 100-200 private companies in different cities. These shows provide greater exposure for Indian companies and products amongst business and consumers of these countries.
Significant opportunities exist for Indian companies to undertake projects for building infrastructure related to rail network, roads, highways, power stations, transmission lines, renewable energy, nuclear power etc in these countries. Many projects are funded by international agencies and multilateral banks like ADB, EBRD, IBRD, IDB and others. It is expected that AIIB and NDB will also enter this market shortly. Indian companies with wide experience can make a significant contribution to development of this region.
Several areas present excellent opportunities for enhancing bilateral trade and economic cooperation. In addition to oil and gas, information technology, pharmaceuticals and textiles, areas like higher education, space, civil nuclear energy, small and medium business, power generation, food processing and agriculture present rich potential for deeper engagement.
Some analysts speak disparagingly about India's relations with Central Asia as compared to their relations with China. Two aspects that are particularly mentioned by scholars are that China enjoys a bilateral trade of USD 50 billion with Central Asia in comparison to India’s trade of USD 2 billion. Moreover China imports about 20 million tons of oil from Kazakhstan and 40 bcm of gas from Turkmenistan in addition to large quantities of uranium and other minerals from these countries. On the contrary, India has imported just around 3000 tons of uranium from Kazakhstan and its first acquisition of Satpayev oil block off the Caspian sea shore in Kazakhstan commenced drilling operations during PM Modi’s maiden visit to Kazakhstan on July 8, 2015. This comparison is unfair and untenable. China shares a border of more than 1500 kms with Kazakhstan, more than 850 kms with Kyrgyzstan and over 400 kms with Tajikistan. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are also easily accessible through the land route. This provides it with a huge advantage over India.
Deepening engagement with China is a relatively recent feature. China conducts its relations both bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China’s primary thrust has been to make use of Central Asia’s vast mineral resources for its economic development — to supply the much needed consumer goods to Central Asia and to protect itself against the threat of “separatism, extremism and terrorism” from its Uyghur minority from Central Asian territories. China has sought to build connectivity through networks of rail, road, oil and gas pipelines with and through the Central Asian countries.
Several significant developments have taken place in last few years. The most momentous is the bold and decisive move by PM Modi to visit all five Central Asian States in July, 2015, combining his travel with his tour to Ufa, Russia for the BRICS (and SCO) Summit. His visit to these countries sent out a loud and clear message to the region and the world that India is determined to make up for lost time and expand its ties with these countries. He found a more than ready and keen leadership in all these countries to strengthen relations with India.
The second significant development is decision at SCO Summit in Russia in July, 2015 to induct India (and Pakistan) as new members of the organisation. India is expected to assume full membership of the organization at the forthcoming summit on June 23 and 24, 2016 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This will provide an opportunity to India’s Prime Minister to meet and interact with all his counterparts from Central Asia every year. An important reason for India’s failure to fully realize potential of our partnership with this region is the infrequent contacts between leaders of these countries. Annual SCO summits will provide a forum to leaders of these countries to meet and discuss issues of bilateral and regional interest.
An added advantage is that Russian leadership will also be present at these conclaves. Because of the historical association of Central Asia and India with Soviet Union/Russia, several possibilities exist to promote cooperation in security, defence, energy and economy with Central Asian region in conjunction with Russia.
The third significant development, although confined to relations with only one Central Asian State and not the region as a whole, is commencement of construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline on Dec 13, 2015. India was represented at the ceremony by Vice President Hamid Ansari while Presidents of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and Prime Minister of Pakistan represented their countries. This project has been under protracted discussions for last several years. It is significant that this project has been launched in about a year and a half of coming to power of NDA government. The 1800 km long pipeline is expected to be completed by end 2019. India is expected to receive about 13 bcm per annum once the pipeline is completed.
Additionally, a study was instituted at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, 2015 to examine the benefits and disadvantages of India’s membership of EEU, current membership of which is Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The issue was initially broached by Kazakh President Nazarbayev during PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Astana in April, 2011 but no progress was evident. The NDA government has however given it a decisive push soon after coming to power.
Discussions on INSTC have been going on for the last more than 15 years, but scant progress was visible. The project has suddenly come to life with visit of PM Modi to Iran in April, 2016 and signing of trilateral Agreement with Presidents Rouhani of Iran and Ghani of Afghanistan for upgradation of Chabahar sea-port and construction of related rail net-work at a cost of USD 500 million for which allocation has been made by India. These initiatives which are closely linked can prove to be a game-changer in dramatically improving India’s connectivity with Central Asia, Afghanistan and Russia.
Strengthening of relations between India and Central Asia is to mutual benefit of all countries involved. It is not directed at countering China’s presence in the region. India is interested in expanding its ties with the region as it will promote security, stability, economic growth and development of all countries. Good relations with India will provide an assured market to these countries for their energy, raw materials, oil and gas, uranium, minerals, hydro electric power etc. India is the fastest growing economy in the world today and can be a stable, assured, expanding market for these countries.
The current political, strategic and economic scenario, both regionally and internationally, presents immense challenges but also potential for India and Central Asia to qualitatively enhance their engagement. Both India and Central Asia are factors of peace, stability, growth and development, in the region and the world. Stronger relations between them will contribute to increased security and prosperity of these countries and the world.
The author is a former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.
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