Asian Giants on Central Asian Chessboard

Relations between India-Central Asia received a boost after PM Modi's maiden visit to all the CARs in 2015.
Keywords: Central Asia, India, Pakistan, China, International Relations, Economic, Strategic, Security, Afghanistan, Border, Virtual Summit, Trade
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India has awoken albeit belatedly to an active role in Central Asia after the implosion of the erstwhile Soviet Union. In comparison, China has been alive to her strategic and economic interests in the vast region.

Direct overland connectivity with the Central Asian region via Pakistan and Afghanistan, the shortest overland route, is not available to India owing to Pakistan’s non-cooperative attitude. History has shown that it was a serious mistake in India’s Kashmir policy to accept a ceasefire with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir on the midnight of December 31, 1948 and thereby accept occupation of western Kashmir by its inimical neighbour.

On the other hand, China never lost sight of the strategic importance of her western border with India. In keeping with her expansionist designs westward, China first took control of the Tibetan Plateau while India remained passive. Beijing grabbed the Aksaichin region in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Not content with it, and with a clear picture of China’s plans for her eastern region, Beijing signed a deal with Pakistan in which the latter ceded over 5,000 sq km of the Shaksgam valley. China had plans of bringing a railway line from Urumchi to Lhasa and it would pass through the western regions she had managed to grab through fair or foul means.

No such opportunity was available to New Delhi to forge an overland connection to Central Asia. Had Gilgit and Baltistan not gone to Pakistan, India could have imagined overland connectivity via the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan.

Of course, Pakistan illegally occupies the Gilgit-Baltistan region but the ground situation is that a ceasefire has been signed and that has allowed Pakistan the legitimacy of perpetuating its control. War with Pakistan is the only way of re-capturing Gilgit-Baltistan and then establishing connectivity with Kyrgyzstan and onwards to other Republics. But the era of big land wars is gone and many other serious problems are facing the world.

China has carried far ahead its multifaceted programme of connectivity and trade with Central Asian Republics. The region is of great importance to her Belt and Road Initiative because, under the BRI, China intends to connect Central Asia with the European countries. Moreover, she is also pursuing the programme of rail connectivity with Europe via Central Asia. President Xi had announced the railway project in 2013 at the time of his visit to Kazakhstan and recently said that the project is progressing satisfactorily. 

The building of highways and expressways linking China with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan will give great impetus to trade and commerce between the two regions. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are rich in oil and gas deposits and China has big plans for exploiting these resources. Groundwork in this direction is already underway. These measures are good enough to help Chinese goods find a big market in Central Asia and beyond. 

India has had a faint idea of the rising importance of Central Asia not only in the context of regional strategy but also in terms of economy and energy. But she has remained handicapped for want of an overland route. 

India was able to convince Iran that the development of Chabahar port in the Gulf of Oman could have the potential of strengthening Iran’s economy and also naval security. India and Iran conducted negotiations over a long period and finally, India received the consent of Tehran for developing the Chabahar port. About a hundred kilometres away from Chabahar to the east lies the Pakistani port of Gwadar which the Chinese had taken over to make it a major naval base and terminal for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under construction, besides providing an alternative to Karachi seaport. India had agreed to lay the railway line from Chabahar to Sirakhs on the Iran-Turkmenistan border which India could use for conducting trade and commerce with the Central Asian countries. India had also agreed to build overland connectivity between Chabahar and Kabul via Helmand in western Afghanistan. 

Iran is eager to establish a better connection with Kabul and the north-western provinces of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif where there is considerable Shia population. Iran is cautiously dealing with the Taliban regime in Kabul for the reason that the Taliban have not been friendly with the Shia elements in the country. Moreover, the Taliban have not been willing to form an inclusive government in Kabul; something which is obstructing the recognition of the Taliban regime by many foreign countries.

It has to be said that the Afghan issue has become a catalyst for India taking an active part in the regional strategy. India fears that as Pakistan has succeeded in pushing it out of Afghanistan, Islamabad will ultimately gain considerable influence over the Taliban with an impact on regional security. For example, the Haqqani network, a major component in the Taliban regime, is committed to upholding Pakistan’s agenda in Afghanistan. Besides, the powerful anti-India non-state actors in Pakistan like the LeT and JeM are in cahoots with the Taliban. The Taliban have made no secret of their close connection with Al Qaeda, which even the US and NATO forces could not disrupt although that was the stance adopted by the US when it launched an attack on Taliban-Al Qaeda combine in 2001.

China and India, the two Asian giants have grown increasingly active on the Central Asian chessboard. Two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted India’s first virtual summit with Central Asian leaders on 27 January, China’s President Xi Jinping offered $500 million in assistance to the region and pledged to ramp up trade in his virtual meeting with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Chinese President pledged to “import more quality goods and agricultural products from countries in the region” and “strive to increase the trade between the two sides to $70 billion by 2030”. China’s trade with the five countries crossed $40 billion in 2018, roughly 20 times India’s trade with the region that year. Mr. Xi on Tuesday flagged “several big projects of strategic importance” including the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline, the China-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway, and the China-Tajikistan expressway.

He said that the China-Europe Railway Express which runs through Central Asia “has seen rapid growth” since the launch of his Belt and Road Initiative, which was first announced by him during an official visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.

The virtual summit between Prime Minister Modi and the Presidents of the five CARs is the first of its kind. Of course, a meeting of the intelligence chiefs of the five republics along with those from Russia and Iran hosted by their Indian counterpart in November last had been held in New Delhi but it mainly focused on the Afghan crisis and its fallout. The Virtual Summit on 27 January between PM Modi and the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizia essentially concentrated on three areas of mutual interest. New Delhi’s engagement holds promise for ambitious bilateral agendas including security in Afghanistan, the revival of dormant projects, and potential collaboration in renewable energy generation, space exploration and information technology.

Relations between India-Central Asia received a boost after PM Modi’s maiden visit to all the CARs in 2015. Over the past six years, interactions have been enhanced in strategic areas including defence, security, counter-terrorism, and intelligence-sharing. About Afghanistan, the stakeholders would like to ensure that any adverse fallout of the Afghan crisis is limited.  In the sectors of healthcare and education, the Indian presence has been increasing. Several Indian universities now have campuses in Central Asia and there are about 10,000 Indian students in those nations.

Indian states have made direct contact with their counterparts in Central Asia. “Particularly noteworthy is the collaboration between Gujarat and Andijan in Uzbekistan in pharmaceuticals, education, agriculture, IT, and other areas. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan attended the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2019.  The then Chief Minister Vijay Rupani of Gujarat reciprocated later in 2019, participating in the India-Uzbekistan regional investment forum in Andijan”, reported Gateway House of 25th  January. 

There are indications that the long-stalled TAPI gas pipeline project may find a revival. In a meeting on 16 January, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan announced that the project will recommence in Afghanistan in March 2022. The pipeline aims to bring 33 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan to India. Along with its prospects for another connectivity initiative – the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor also look brighter.

Finally, in terms of regional security, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have common borders with Afghanistan. The CARs want to make sure that terrorists do not use the Afghan soil as a base to launch attacks against them. India can meet their need for spare parts of Russian military hardware if the CARs feel it necessary to reinforce their defence capabilities. India has already sanctioned aid to the tune of one billion dollars to the CARs.

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K N Pandita

K N Pandita has a PhD in Iranian Studies from the University of Teheran. He is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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