Originally Published 2015-07-06 00:00:00 Published on Jul 06, 2015
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun yet another important foreign visit, this time to all the five Central Asian republics. It is a well-timed visit. India cannot possibly replace or compete with China and Russia, but it can definitely improve its visibility in the region and provide much needed room for strategic manoeuvrability.
PM Modi's well-timed visit to Central Asia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday began another important foreign visit, this time to all the five Central Asian republics (CARs). The visit began with Uzbekistan on 6 July and will end in Kyrgyzstan on 13 July. Modi will be the first Indian PM to go to all the Central Asian nations in one trip. The Indian PM will also attend the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summits (8-10 July) in Russia.

Despite India's historical and cultural links with the Central Asian region, its engagement in the region has been low-key. Now it is expected this may be about to change with Modi's visit. In fact, there are high expectations from the PM's visit. It is taking place at a time when the region is undergoing a huge transformation and appears to signify India's willingness to assume a more active role in a region.

China is making huge inroads with large-scale investments, particularly to deepen connectivity and energy cooperation. It is the major economic stakeholder now in the region. However, at present, China is underplaying its influence in the region, preferring to publicly defer to Russia.

Russia has historical and cultural links with Central Asia, but its role as the dominant player in the region is waning. However, Russia continues to be seen as the main security provider and maintains military cooperation with the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the Afghan developments, and the rise of ISIS, it is not surprising that Russia has reenergised its engagement with Central Asia.

Broadly, the focus of Modi's visit will be on security, energy cooperation and enhancing trade with the region.

Unlike either Russia or China, India does not have direct access to the Central Asian Republics. However, it enjoys goodwill in the region. This could help India make up somewhat for the geographical constraints by using its soft power. India could use multilateral organisations like the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to its advantage to attain greater visibility in the region.

Areas of cooperation

Being strategically located, the Central Asian region is of deep strategic interest to India. The CARs, except Kazakhstan, share borders with Afghanistan. In addition, the three of them, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, also border China's Xinjiang region. Any instability in the region could quickly spread and therefore stability in Central Asia is of vital importance to India.

On the military side, India needs to widen its defence cooperation with the CARs. India could contribute to their capacity building. Media reports suggest that India has a possibility of establishing a base at Tajikistan. Any move in this direction is likely to significantly enhance defence cooperation with the region as a whole. Similarly, Indiacould lease the torpedo-testing base at Issyk Kul Lakein Kyrgyzstan. According to an analyst, "it would turn out to be more cost effective than the DRDO's proposal to create our own testing range".

The CARs being resource rich, cooperation in energyis likely to dominate the agenda, particularly in the bilateral talks with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

The focal point of India's economic engagement in the region is likely to be Kazakhstan, which is also a member of the EEU. New Delhi should incentivise its private sector to invest in Kazakhstan to take advantageof the EEU's common custom tariffs. Ample uranium reserves make Kazakhstan additionally attractive.

Energy cooperation would also dominate the talks with Turkmenistan, which is the starting point of TAPI gas pipeline.India is pressing Turkmenistan to start construction of the pipeline as early as possible. Successful completion of TAPI could be a game changer for reforming Indian presence in the region. Once completed, it will cater to about 35% of India's annual demand for natural gas. Fertilisers are another major area of possible cooperation between India and Turkmenistan. India is expected to set up a urea-manufacturing unit in Turkmenistan.

With the other CARs - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- the talks are likely to focus on boosting trade, increasing connectivity and identifying possible joint ventures. India would be well advised to look at possible cooperation in hydropower project in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Up to now, the lack of direct road and rail access is a major impediment hampering India's full realisation of its full trade potential with the region. Now, India is seeking to overcome this handicap by focussing on the development of Iran's Chabahar port, which could then be the base from which to transport goods into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

"Connect Central Asia"

Modi's visit would prove eventful if it could make some practical accomplishments in realising the ambitious aims of India's "Connect Central Asia" policy, announced in 2012. In the short term, there is a confluence of interests of all major powers as maintenance of stability in the region is the major thread that connects them. India is thus not likely to face any major impediment in its efforts to intensify its engagement with the region. India cannot possibly replace or compete with China and Russia, but it can definitely improve its visibility in the region and provide the Central Asian states with much needed room for strategic manoeuvrability.

It is a congenial time for India to utilise the opportunity and spread its sphere of influence. In this regard, Modi's visit is well timed. Whether it would bring a strategic shift would only be clear later. Hence, it is important to focus not only on the visit but also on the follow up.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa Member Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan India

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