Event ReportsPublished on Mar 04, 2013
Both India and Russia need to start thinking strategically about the Central Asian region, not letting emotions guide their foreign policy decisions. This was the consensus reached at a conference organised recently in Delhi.
India, Russia need to think strategically about Central Asia

Geo-strategically located and energy abundant Central Asian republics are attracting enormous global attention today. In this background, both India and Russia need to start thinking strategically about the region, not letting emotions guide their foreign policy decisions. This was the consensus reached at a conference organised by Observer Research Foundation and the Experimental Creativity Centre (ECC), Moscow recently in Delhi.

The conference at the ORF campus on March 4-5, 2013 completed the fifth leg of their collaborative research project on the theme "Central Asia: Perspectives from India and Russia". The dialogue focused on four aspects of Central Asia in which India and Russia have overlapping interests and concerns. These included, ’SCO in Central Asia’, ’Energy Politics in Central Asia’, ’Afghanistan-Central Asia Relations, and ’Central Asia-The Battleground of various powers-between competing powers’.

The Russian team consisted of Dr Yury Byaly, Mr Andrey Arkhipov, Mr Yuri Bardakchiev, and Ms Maria Podkopaeva. Speakers from India included Dr Angira Sen Sarma from ICWA, Ms Sadhavi Chauhan, Mr Aryaman Bhatnagar, and Mr Rahul Prakash (who presented Dr Uma Purushothaman’s paper), all from ORF.

The conference began with an analysis of the role that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has come to play in Central Asia. The first presentation by Ms Chauhan gave an Indian perspective of the SCO in Central Asia. According to her as India is just an observer of the SCO; the importance of the organization follows India’s interest in SCO’s area of activity. Accordingly, she outlined New Delhi’s political, economical, and cultural interests in the Central Asian Republics. The SCO, she stated, along with being the only group that allows an interaction between the Central Asian and South Asian countries, has also been catering to the Indian interests in the CARs. Understandably therefore, India views the organisation in a favourable light and has been making efforts to seek its membership. Nevertheless, the organisation has certain drawbacks and India acknowledges this. Ms Chauhan concluded by stating in the coming years the SCO will be able to play a crucial role only if it brings about structural change and becomes more authoritative. This she believed will help the group overcome the numerous deadlocks that it has been facing. Economically, she stated the group needed to overcome the existent trust deficit. And culturally, there was a need for the group to encourage socialisation among its member states population.

Giving a Russian perspective of the role of SCO in Central Asia, Mr Andrey Arkhipov stated that there is increasing interest in the organisation with a large number of countries participating shows that there is great hope tied with SCO. Nevertheless, he too acknowledged that the group needs to overcome a number of shortcomings. Giving Kazakh expert Sabyrzhan Madeyev’s explanation of the problem faced by the grouping he said that there exist three contradictions within the SCO. First, there exists differences within the Central Asian countries-not only inter state but conflicts between elites and there understanding of the role of the SCO. Second, contradictions lie between China, Russia and the CARs. And finally, the most important element affecting efficiency of the organisation is relationship between China and Russia within the organisation. Although Moscow and Beijing currently seem to have a common geostrategic interest in the region-to check the US hegemony, Mr Arkhipov described this to be temporary. According to him there is an element of competition between the two in Central Asia, which will continue. He concluded by stating the achievements of goals and tasks laid out in SCO will have significance for member’s states as well as the larger geographical space.

Dr Yury Byaly initiated the second session of the conference by stating that according to serious and scientifically justified forecasts the global energy deficit is going to increase. While modern technologies have made it possible to add new energy reserves, this would be at a higher and constantly escalating cost. This in turn has lead to an increase in the global competition for accessible and cheap energy resources. Central Asia with its rich oil, gas and uranium reserves has understandably become a focal point for these energy trends. However, Mr Byaly highlighted that while the Central Asian Republics (CARs) are ready to increase export of energy resources they face significant geographical and infrastructural constraints.Talking about Russia’s involvement in the energy sector he stated Russian companies have been involved in the production and transit of oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Moscow has also supported the development of hydel projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With a constantly rising domestic demand for oil and gas Beijing too has come to enjoy a stronger position in the energy complex of the region. China is already participating in major oil production projects in Kazakhstan. It has taken a stake in financing the construction of the oil pipeline from Central Kazakhstan to Xinjiang region, and has also financed the gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and China. At the same time there has been an active involvement in the developments of the oil and uranium fields by US, Japan, Italy, and South Korea.

Dr Angira Sen Sarma in her presentation analysed the geopolitical competition over pipeline politics in the region. She stressed that given the rich hydrocarbon reserves of the region and the fact that the region is landlocked, an understanding of the pipelines becomes crucial. USA, China, Russia and the EU were recognised as the main international players and the geopolitical competition between them particularly in the energy sector was described to be prominent. Elaborating on this she stated Soviet linkages and geographical proximity gives Russia an advantage in the region. Russia has been taking steps to build new pipelines to preserve its markets in European countries. The Central Asia Center gas pipeline is the main pipeline carrying gas from CAR to Russia. However, post 1991 there has been constant efforts by the West to bypass this pipelines by the construction of the Nabucco-West pipeline. According to Dr Sarma, US energy interest in Central Asia’s Caspian region is part of its effort to reduce the Russian dominance of the region.China, Iran, and the EU were also identified as important regional players in the energy sector. Dr Sarma concluded by stating that power politics over pipelines in the region will continue. She predicted the region would see multiple pipeline rules, which will also reflect the multivector foreign policy approaches of CARs. Eventually however, she asserted it would be the national interest of these republics that will determine the future course of action.

The third session on ’Afghanistan-Central Asia Relations’ started with a presentation by Mr Aryaman Bhatnagar who explained the position held by Afghanistan in the India-Central Asia equation. Mr Bhatnagar stated one of the primary challenges faced by India with regard to expanding ties with the CARs has been its lack of physical connectivity with the region. According to him most of the infrastructure development that India has done in Afghanistan is done with an intention that these can later be expanded to Northern Afghanistan and from there into Central Asia. However, he highlighted there are many problems with this ambition. First, is the security threat emerging from an unstable Afghanistan. This according to him has acted as a deterrent for India’s investments in the region. Second, given the uncertainty of developments in Afghanistan, India has cut down funding for the region. Lastly, India’s lack of direct access to Afghanistan has made it dependent on a third part, either Pakistan or Iran.

According to him, Pakistan is not a viable option given the tensions in Indo-Pakistan relations. Iran too becomes a difficult option given the western imposed sanctions that makes Indian companies apprehensive about investing in projects there. Additionally, he stated India realises that any attempt to strengthen ties with Iran will adversely impact its ties with the US. This puts India in a dilemma as it wants to balance ties with both the countries. Mr Bhatnagar concluded by stating while Afghanistan is important in the India-CAR equation, one should not exaggerate its importance. According to him although India wants Afghanistan as a bridge, it is developing and looking at other avenues-like Iran. Additionally, he stated given the differences between the CARs and their current approach towards Afghanistan there is little that one can expect from the region.

The next presentation by Ms Maria Podkopaeva focused on the Hizb-ul-Tahrir an organisation that has been threatening the CARs for the past few years and has emerged as a threat to the Russian Federation recently. According to her this extremist organisation, which has the power to link with radical forces of Afghanistan and Pakistan represents the most crucial aspect of Central Asia-Afghanistan ties today. While the presence of the Hizb-ul-Tahrir in Russia was observed only last year, she stated the group has been active in the Af -Pak region since 2003. Explaining the structure of the organisation Ms Podkopaeva stated the group works in secrecy and nobody knows the exact number of its members. Further, the party works on the ideology of not using force. The main factor driving this ideology according to her is the groups desire to not be identified as either an extremist or terrorist group. It has in fact been quite successful in this goal as the West refuses to recognise the group as a terrorist organisation. Interestingly however, the mere proclamation of not using force has not stopped the group from carrying out jihad. She highlighted the Hizb-ul-Tahrir has called for the help of those who can take up arms. Their main objective is to set up a Caliphate for installing Islamic law. Ms Podkopaeva concluded by stating that in the Af-Pak region powerful warring contingent of Taliban has been in operation for many years. Therefore, the rise of the Hizb-ul-Tahrir did not receive much global attention. However, according to her this group deserves closer observation as with its increasing claims over large territories it will prove to be a major source of instability, particularly in post 2014 Afghanistan.

The last session of the Conference focused on the ’Role of major powers in Central Asia’. Dr Uma Purushothaman’s paper ranked the importance of the regional players as follows- Russia, China, the US, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and lastly India. She stated given the historical and geopolitical links and the numerous interests that it has in the region Russia would continue to be the most crucial regional player. This will be followed by China whose engagement with the region has mainly been economic. According to her one of the main factors driving China’s policy towards Central Asia is its desire to reduce America’s influence in the region. Nevertheless, she highlighted China’s security interaction with the region continues to be limited. Describing the main US interest in the region as its desire to maintain Central Asia as a transit route she stated US’s involvement in the region can be viewed as a part of its policy to check the growing influence of China and Russia in the region. The European Union she stated has two major interests in the region-energy reserves of the CARs, and its desire to check the spread of instability. For this the group has assured monetary assistance and is today the second largest donor to the CARs. Turkey according to her not only wants to boost its access to the energy reserves of the region but also offers an alternate route for the export of oil out of Central Asia. Iran’s interest in the region resides in its desire to build ties with the Shiite population. And the interests of the last three countries namely Japan, South Korea and India, according to her, are similar and emerge from their desire to tap the energy reserves of the region. Dr Purushothaman concluded her paper saying that given the large number of players involved in the CARs, the multi vectored foreign policy of these countries is not hard to understand.

The last presentation of the conference was by Mr Yury Bardakhchiev. According to him over the past two decades the CARs have become the region for the great game between the three major powers-US, China, and Russia. Although Mr Bardakhchiev acknowledged that in recent years apart from these three powers many regional players have tried to operate and collaborate in the region-Turkey, Iran, India, Pak, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, he chose to focus on the role of the three major powers. Contrary to Dr Purushothaman, he considered the US to be most the important regional player, followed by China and finally Russia.He stated the US had two major interests in the region- economic and energy. However, the means to achieve these interests are numerous- encouragement to the Silk Route, promotion to human rights in the region, installation of military capacity, and provision of weapons to the CARs. Elaborating on the roles of China and Russia he stated while the two are currently seen as strategic partners opposed to the US presence, economically and geopolitically these two are competitors in the region. Explaining the current regional balancing dynamics he stated that while Russia has been concentrating on the regions security, China has been making financial inductions in the region. Mr Bardakchiev concluded his presentation by giving three likely scenarios’, which will come up in the next 10-15 years. First, big players in the region will divide and disintegrate the Central Asian space into specific zones of influence. Second, there will be an increase of China’s influence to the extent that it becomes a strategic force. Last, there will be a strengthening and integration of the space under Russia.

(This report is prepared by Sadhavi Chauhan, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)

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