Recently, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj embarked on a four day trip to the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in that respective order. This expedition to the Central Asian republics has been one of many instances of the growing ties between India and its extended neighbours.
With bilateral meetings with the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and the Uzbek foreign ministers, the ambitions of all four participant countries is clear: building ties which have till now not been utilised to their full potential and went into dormancy post the declaration of sovereignty by these nations after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
This outing by the representative of the Indian administration comes after the recent meetings at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit held in June 2018, where all the four countries are full-members. The SCO was formalised back in 2001 as an initiative to combat ‘three evils’ of extremism, terrorism and separatism. Although now, it has taken on a much bigger role to provide a wider forum for talks on finance, investment, transport, energy, agriculture, as well as cultural and humanitarian ties.
The summit, to contextualise, was crucial for PM Modi to focus on strengthening connectivity projects like the Chabahar port project and the International North-South Transport Corridor which promised to boost trade between regions of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
India’s attempt of deepening ties with the rest of Asia is a strategy relevant to not just itself but to the other countries. With the United States’ exercising trade bans with Iran and their allies with ‘Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’, there was increasing pressure on India to not invest in the projects. Thus, India had to go out of the way to seek approval from the United States and make a plea to not be blacklisted.
India’s bold move stems from it having one eye on the foreseeable future where Central Asian countries will prove to be valuable for crucial energy imports as well as providing a market for goods and services. It is also wary of China racing to capture the region with its already well-established connections with the bordering nations.
The Chinese administration has bilateral relations with the nations which enable China to utilise the energy resources from the Central Asian region, and conversely helping develop them the facilities for the same. In the recent past, officials from China signed major energy deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, announced a railway route connecting ‘China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan’
There has been a growing trend in India’s existing bilateral ties with Central Asia. All three countries are an excellent source for oil resources as well as for other chemical needs. Kazakhstan, in particular, has a civil nuclear pact with India to provide Uranium to India’s atomic plants. The pact which was signed in 2009 between the two countries was in addition to four other pacts on extradition, space cooperation, oil and natural gas and cooperation for Kazakhstan’s joining of the WTO. It also India’s biggest trade partner from that region. Both countries are also a part of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) project. Recently, troops from both countries went through joint peacekeeping operations.
Similarly, India has ties with Kyrgyzstan on oil and petroleum resources. It has helped the Central Asian republic set up a food processing unit in 2014 and provided with other financial assistance. India also assists Kyrgyzstan with human resource development in the IT sector for which the two nations signed an MoU in 2006. According to data from 2017, about 4500 Indian students are studying medicine in Kyrgyzstan. Very recently, the visa processes for Kyrgyz nationals traveling to India has been made smoother and easier.
India’s recent strides in technological research and information technology are beneficial to Uzbekistan who regularly import Pharmaceutical products, mechanical equipment, automotive parts, optical instruments. There have also been reports of talks of allowing the Indian government to build a defence manufacturing unit in exchange for increasing inroads connectivity. The issues of rising terrorism in the forms of cyber and militant has been extensively discussed amongst India and all the three extended neighbours, as has been maintaining peace in the region with focus on Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s endeavour to find stability is beneficial to all of Asia.
The growing influence of India in the geopolitical forum is favorable for the Central Asian republics who have consistently supported and voted for India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The nations believe India can help as an ally for the nations to flourish further in exchange for some of their energy resources which can be used as major bargaining chip. And in the coming future, India’s relevancy on the international stage could be proliferated with the backing of these nations. This would not sit well with China, who have tried to quash India’s attempt of gaining permanency in the Security Council. In fact, for the future having the Central Asian economies dependent on itself would provide China the status quo required to deny India the permanent seat at the table.
Recently, with the turn of the decade, China has been increasing its presence into Central Asia. The exit of NATO forces from Afghanistan means lesser attention will be diverted to Central Asia which presents a gainful window to China who have been looking forward to play up the dismemberment of the Soviet Union to reduce the diplomatic importance of Russia and capture the markets part of the former Silk Road. Additionally, with its geographical location, exerting influence in the region would serve China’s purpose to build a bridge beyond into Eurasia and Europe.
With China looking to capture the continent with its mega-developmental projects under the BRI as well as the Shanghai summit, India needed to make sure it keeps its friends close.
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
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