Author : Ayjaz Wani

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 17, 2019
India in pivotal geographies: Central Asia India has a long history of cultural and commercial relations with Central Asia (CA), facilitated by its geographical proximity and the Silk Route. However, India–CA relations stagnated in the 20th  century, due to the Anglo-Russian rivalry in the “Great Game”<1> and the consequent emergence of nation-states with differing ideologies. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to the formation of the independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Due to its strategic location and rich natural reserves, CA is an important player in global politics. Consequently, the “New Great Game,”<2> which defines modern geopolitics in CA, has seen fierce competition between global players to increase influence, hegemony and power over the region.  However, unlike during the  Great  Game,  CA governments are now working to use the renewed external involvement of the New Great Game to their sovereign advantage by fending off disruptive demands, reinforcing their political control at home and bargaining for bilateral or regional agreements.  Under  Prime  Minister  Narendra  Modi, India has adopted a coherent strategy to upscale its relationship with CA and reinvigorate the ancient socioeconomic and traditional ties with the region through new initiatives. In 1991–92, all the heads of CA countries visited New Delhi. India, in turn, sent a semi-official delegation led by former Union Minister R.N. Mridha to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and Almaty (Kazakhstan) to establish diplomatic relations. Then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited CA in 1993 and provided a much-needed financial support of US$10–15 million to each country in the region. Thus, during the early 1990s, the India–CA relations started to improve. However, issues such as instability in Afghanistan and the India– Pakistan discord prevented India from reaping the benefits of its engagement with the hydrocarbon-rich and geostrategically important region. Political problems within the CA countries further hindered India’s outreach, e.g. the civil war in Tajikistan; the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan; and authoritarian regimes in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The growing  geostrategic  and  security  concerns  regarding  the  China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—China’s flagship venture with Pakistan under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—forced New Delhi to fix its ineffectual strategy. Soon after assuming office, Narendra Modi visited all the CA countries in July 2015, boosting the momentum of the “Connect Central Asia” Policy of 2012 and setting in motion the next stage of international cooperation. The visits also marked a major shift in India’s diplomatic relations with CA. For the first time, New Delhi was looking at the region as a composite geographical unit. Eventually, the CA became the link that also placed the Eurasian region firmly in New Delhi’s zone of interest. India and CA signed several deals on a range of issues including security, energy, trade and culture, with the prime minister reiterating<3> the region’s importance to India’s future. The reciprocal high-level state visits by the presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the last four years further highlight the evolution of the India–CA dynamics through bilateral and trilateral arrangements (See Table 5). Uzbekistan’s president returned to India within three months of his Table 5: India–CA High-Level Official Visits and Agreements Consequently Signed Source: Data collected by the author first visit as the chief guest at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. These developments are indicative of improved relations as well as India’s constructive engagement with the region for energy, market and security. India’s renewed focus on the region has coincided with CA’s efforts for internal regional integration. A “silk visa”<4> has been proposed to allow tourists to visit all countries in the region with a single visa. The stronger economic integration proposed by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Ashgabat–Turkmenabat highway between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan<5> also shows that the CA countries are keen to take advantage of the renewed global interest in the region.<6> The Chabahar port that was recently made partially operational gives New Delhi direct land access to CA. India has made a capital investment of US$85.21 million and committed to an annual revenue expenditure of US$22.95 million for the equipping and operating of two berths in Chabahar Port Phase-I.<7> In the last five years, India has invested in projects such as the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).<8>   The INSTC made substantial progress after India joined the Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods under cover of TIR Carnets (TIR Convention).<9> In 2016, some CA countries (e.g. Uzbekistan) signed trilateral transit-and- trade corridor agreements with India, Iran and Afghanistan.<10>  It was agreed that the existing Iranian road network from Chabahar port would be linked to Zaranj in Afghanistan, which could then connect to the 218-km Zaranj– Delaram Road—constructed by India in 2009 at a cost of INR 680 crore—and finally to Afghanistan’s Garland Highway. India’s Central Asia Policy received a significant boost in 2018, when New Delhi’s diplomatic efforts paid dividends in the form of admission into the Ashgabat Agreement,<11>  signed in 2011 between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and Qatar, for the establishment of an international transport and transit corridor. In 2016, Kazakhstan and Pakistan joined the group. This agreement allows India to use the existing land connectivity networks to facilitate trade and commercial interaction with both CA and Eurasia, by exploiting the natural resources of the region and exporting products to CA . One of the railway lines under the Ashgabat Agreement that connects Iran Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan became operational in 2014. Such high-level engagement in the last five years is reflected in increased trade between India and CA countries (See Figure 19). Figure 19: India’s Trade with Central Asian Countries by Year (Value in USD Millions) Source: Department of Commerce, Export Import Data Bank, accessed 10 March 2019, CA countries, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are keen to have India as a key partner in their quest to consolidate their position in the global arena. In February 2019, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to India, Bulat Sarsenbayev, said, “Our trade is growing but the potential is much more. Chabahar and Bandar Abbas are part of one project in reality. Chabahar will be completed, they (Kazakhstan) will construct a railway from Chabahar to the Iranian railway network; it will later go to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.”<12> A direct access to CA will help India to not only establish itself as one of the major players in the New Great Game but also undermine China’s much-hyped BRI flagship projects.
This article originally appeared in special report Looking Back looking Ahead.
<1> “The Great Game—also known as Bolshaya Igra—was an intense rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through 1907 wherein Britain sought to influence or control much of Central Asia to buffer the ‘crown jewel’ of its empire: British India.” See, “What Was the Great Game?”. <2> Alexander Cooley, “The New Great Game in Central Asia: Geopolitics in A Post-Western World”, Foreign Affairs, 2012. <3> BBC Monitoring, “Can Modi Reconnect India With Central Asia?BBC, 2015. <4>Uzbekistan,  Kazakhstan  To  Launch  ‘Silk  Visa’  Program  In  February,Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 2018. <5> It was inaugurated on 11 January 2019. <6>Construction Launch Ceremony of Ashgabat–Turkmenabat Highway Is Held,Turkmenistan Today, 24 January 2019. <7>Cabinet Approves Provision of Credit Of 150 Million USD To Islamic Republic of Iran For Chabahar Port Development,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 24 February 2016. <8>INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor): Express Corridor from India to Russia,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 18 May 2017. <9>Cabinet  Approves  India’s  Accession  to  The Customs  Convention  on International Transport of Goods Under Cover of TIR Carnets (TIR Convention),” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 6 March 2017. <10>India, Iran and Afghanistan Sign Chabahar Port Agreement”, Hindustan Times, 24 May 2016. <11> P. Stobdan, “Significance of India Joining the Ashgabat Agreement,IDSA, 12 February 2018. <12> ANI, “Kazakhstan  Expresses  Confidence in  Trade  with  India  Through Chabahar”, ANI, 11 February 2019.
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Ayjaz Wani

Ayjaz Wani

Ayjaz Wani (Phd) is a Fellow in the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. Based out of Mumbai, he tracks China’s relations with Central Asia, Pakistan and ...

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