With Afghanistan proving to be an important point of convergence, India must enhance its relation with Central Asia and its economy
India plans to invite the presidents of all five Central Asian countries as guests for this upcoming Republic Day, preceding which all foreign ministers are also expected to visit on 18 and 19 December for a third bilateral dialogue. This adds to a series of comprehensive engagements in the recent past that could facilitate a strategic tilt in Indian foreign policy towards laying more emphasis on Central Asia.
Central Asia’s location at the heart of Eurasia, its geographical proximity, and historic linkages, render the region highly relevant to India’s strategic interests. India has intermittently endeavoured to devise policies focusing on Central Asia after the Central Asian Republics (CARs) became independent in the 1990s, but these have produced limited results.
Following the introduction of the Connect Central Asia policy in 2012, aimed at expanding India’s political, security, and cultural connections with the region, some headway has surely been made in relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Central Asia and met Central Asian leaders on various occasions. India has previously conducted two bilateral dialogues while also maintaining regular channels of communication with the CARs through forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in India (CICA). Yet, India’s role as a player remains underwhelming in the region compared to Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, etc.
India has intermittently endeavoured to devise policies focusing on Central Asia after the Central Asian Republics (CARs) became independent in the 1990s, but these have produced limited results.
However, Central Asia’s importance has been accentuated post the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan because of a variety of factors. Firstly, because India and CARs have common grounds to enhance cooperation due to the threat of terrorism and drug-trafficking spilling over into their countries from Afghanistan looming large. Secondly, anything that spills over into Central Asia has the potential to progress towards Russia and China. Therefore, because stability in Central Asia remains critical to the interests of big players like Russia and China, the CARs are likely to remain in focus at multilateral forums concerning Afghanistan, which bolsters the importance of improving relations for India.
With India vividly recognising the aforementioned factors, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has already visited the region thrice since the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded. Additionally, National Security Advisors from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan had also attended the regional meet that India had hosted in November on the situation in Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the cruciality of navigating the Afghan scenario, these enhanced engagements also provide India and the CARs with an opportunity to take their bilateral relationship to a level that has not been achieved in 30 years. Even though India and the CARs have always had a positive perception of each other and have historically shared cordial relations, they have been unable to leverage this to their advantage. Trade between India and Central Asia lies at a measly US $2 billion compared to Chinese trade with the CARs, which roughly amounts to a US $100 billion. These numbers are even more unsatisfactory when contextualised with India’s extremely high import dependency for energy, with the CARs being rich in resources such as oil, natural gas, uranium, etc. Moreover, trade in energy, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, defence equipment and agricultural products, etc. exists but is far from adequate. Increased access to India’s huge markets would undoubtedly be highly beneficial for Central Asian countries that are constantly on the lookout to boost their struggling economies.
Because stability in Central Asia remains critical to the interests of big players like Russia and China, the CARs are likely to remain in focus at multilateral forums concerning Afghanistan, which bolsters the importance of improving relations for India.
The foremost factor hindering India-Central Asia relations from reaching its true potential is connectivity because the CARs are landlocked. There are a few connectivity projects such as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which had been conceived quite a while ago but the progress on these has been quite slow because of geopolitical, financial, and security constraints. Uzbekistan had also recently pushed ahead for a joint plan with India and Iran to enhance connectivity through the Chabahar Port but the plan is in its nascent stages and might take a while to come to fruition. Furthermore, on a macro level, India’s foreign policy has understandably been more focused around the bigger powers such as Russia and the United States (US) and in dealing with challenges from China and Pakistan. The CARs have inevitably been sidetracked in the process.
Given that Afghanistan has compelled India to look more towards the CARs, this should be used to forge a mutually advantageous relationship that is much more robust than what currently exists. While the precarious situation in Afghanistan undoubtedly merits to be at the top of agenda in all engagements, further domains of cooperation could be discussed, especially in order to work around the connectivity obstacle that is likely to persist for a foreseeable future.
India’s foreign policy has understandably been more focused around the bigger powers such as Russia and the United States (US) and in dealing with challenges from China and Pakistan. The CARs have inevitably been sidetracked in the process.
Although China has the largest regional presence in Central Asia, by far beyond India’s reach in the near future, the CARs are interested in diversifying their economic linkages so that no single country has the wherewithal to dominate the region. This, coupled with the goodwill that it possesses amongst the CAR countries, could be utilised majorly by India to expand its influence. India could also look to deploy its time-tested friendship with Russia, one of the most influential countries in the region, to make progress on this front.
To be sure, there had been indications of an Indian foreign policy tilt towards Central Asia after the first two bilateral dialogues took place in 2019 and 2020 (virtually), followed by the extension of an additional US $1 billion line of credit by India in 2020 for development projects in various spheres. However, there is certainly a long way to go before India could be designated as one of the most consequential actors in Central Asia. Nevertheless, India is on the right track, and milking these recurrent diplomatic engagements adeptly could bestow a new dawn upon India-Central Asia relations.
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Saaransh Mishra was a Research Assistant with the ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. His research focuses on Russia and Eurasia.Read More +