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Owing to some explicit concerns, India has been beefing up outreach to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) with greater vigour and focussed vision through bilateral exchanges and regional interactions, especially in the last few years. Is it her reaction to the widening influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to China’s lengthening shadow over the region through BRI and CPEC or to the lurking threat of the resurgence of jihadism? With many menacing activities taking place in her proximity, India has the compulsion of revisiting and streamlining her regional security, upgrading and expanding connectivity and ensuring economic stability. India is faced with hostility from her two neighbours, Pakistan and China. Is she capable of meeting the two-pronged challenge and how? This is what we shall examine in this essay.
The first Sunni radical Taliban regime in Kabul from 1996 to 2001, and the horrendous inhumanities that flowed from it, alerted India to the dangers inherent in the upsurge of fundamentalism in the AF-Pak region. Its ramifications eastward could portend disaster to the South Asian democracies.
Pakistan and China, both inveterately hostile towards India could take it as a rare opportunity of planting footprints in the geo-strategic and mineral-rich Eurasian region. From the Afghan base, Pakistan, in tandem with China, could carry out a subversive agenda and not only in the Central Asian region. India, a major player in the Asian Continent, cannot let her adversaries have a free hand in the region.
9/11 exposed the brutal face of Islamic Extremism. Working in unison with Al Qaeda, the Taliban invited the wrath of the US and NATO. Af-Pak became the hub of forces determined to destabilise Central and South Asia.
The two decades of fierce fighting and bloodshed in Afghanistan proved ineffective. In mid-August 2021, the US and NATO troops abandoned the war-torn land and its people to the Taliban who declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate under sharia law. No country, not even Pakistan, has officially recognized it so far although the UN has de facto established relations with it.
The withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 sounded the first alert to the Indian policy planners to mount attention to the importance of Central Asia. Indian universities and research institutes opened their doors to Central Asian Studies. Protocols for the exchange of specialists and scholars between India and the Central Asian Republics were signed.
Creation of CARs
Under the Soviet State, Central Asia had remained almost a “no go area” for various reasons. Predominantly a Muslim majority region, an anti-autocracy (Khanate) uprising had gained momentum in the heartland of present-day Uzbekistan around the middle of the 19thcentury. The Basmachi Movement (CE 1918-1928) initiated against the Tsarist regime was no less hostile to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. However, unable to withstand the onslaught of the socialist revolution, the Basmachi faded away by 1928.
After the recommendations of the Delimitation Committee headed by Joseph Stalin, the five Central Asian Republics (CARs) came into being after 1924. Two Trans-Caspian countries were also among the new republics.
At a time when the Soviet Union was shaping the destiny of Central Asia, India was deep in her struggle for freedom from colonial rule. The colonial power had imposed curbs on Indians on interaction with the outside world including Central Asia.
In the cold war era, India had strong reasons to go along with the Soviet bloc. After a millennium of subjugation to foreign domination, India decided to be a protagonist of progressive socialist ideology. The capitalist bloc failed to understand India’s compulsions.
Keeping in mind the sensitivity and historicity of the vast Central Asian Steppes, the Soviet Union was apprehensive of external interference in Turkestan. It could hamper or even sabotage the Central Communist Party’s promises of modernization, development and growth enunciated in Lenin’s famous speech called “Address to the Peoples of the East.”Soviet Central Asia virtually remained a region behind the iron curtain.
During the cold war period, no foreign country, including India, was allowed easy access to the CARs. It was only in April 1987 that India opened its Consulate General in Tashkent which was upgraded to Embassy on 18 March 1992. Till then, by and large, Indian political class and academic circles had remained almost unacquainted with the vast region of Central Asia, not to speak of its geo-strategic importance.
India’s threat perceptions
Pakistan and China are the prime actors on the Af-Pak chessboard. Pakistan pursues a two-fold objective: ouster of India from Afghanistan and acquiring strategic depth westward. Claiming to be a partner of the US in the fight against terrorism, Pakistan shielded Osama bin Laden, the chief of Al Qaeda. The US Navy Seals eventually exposed the lie in a blitzkrieg of 02 May 2011 in which they shot Osama dead in his bedroom at a stone’s throw from Pakistan Army headquarter in Rawalpindi.
The Taliban are the creation of Pakistan. Its founder Mullah Omar, and hundreds of his followers have been the alumni of Jama’at-i-Islamiseminaries (madrasahs) in Pakistan. These are hate-generating machines against India. Some Taliban networks in Afghanistan, the proxies of ISI such as the Haqqani network, are blatantly anti-India and anti-Hindu. They have owned attacks on Indian assets in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network representative in the Taliban Cabinet, holding home portfolio had no qualms of conscience in declaring that after Kabul, Kashmir is their agenda. Leftover American sophisticated weaponry items have recently found their way to the hands of Kashmir terrorists.
China is the next challenge for India. India identifies three areas of concern: security, connectivity and energy. The launching of One Belt One Road or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will enhance China’s influence in Central Asia because it provides her overland connectivity to Europe and the Middle East. Passing through the part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan and in part illegally ceded to China, the CPEC has become a source of threat to India’s security. Growing domestic energy demand has increased China’s presence in the region. Its daily consumption of oil has risen from 4.2 million barrels in 1998 to 13.5 million in 2018. Its consumption of natural gas is projected to increase by nearly 190 percent from 2020 to 2050. China is eyeing Central Asia’s oil reserves estimated at 40 billion barrels and natural gas reserves of more than 500 trillion cubic feet. The last few years have seen highways and railroads traversing from the East in China through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Europe, Russia, Iran, and the Middle East.
On January 27, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual Summit with the Heads of the five Central Asian countries to mark 30 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the CARS. It discussed steps to take bilateral relations forward significantly and exchange views on the evolving regional security situation.
The momentum generated by the 2015 visit of Prime Minister Modi to all Central Asian countries resulted in the initiation of the India-Central Asia Dialogues — with the participation of Afghanistan – at the level of Foreign Ministers, and enhanced engagement in many areas. This coincides with the resurgence of Central Asia’s importance in trade and transport.
India and CARs have a similarity of views on most geopolitical issues, including Afghanistan, with which three CARs share a border. Their shared interest is in ensuring that Afghan territory is not used for sheltering, training or financing terrorists. Over the past six years, they have enhanced relations in strategic areas including defence, security, counter-terrorism, and intelligence-sharing. This will further deepen as India and Central Asia seek to limit any adverse fallout of the developments in Afghanistan.
The regional security dialogue hosted by India in November 2021, with the participation of heads/secretaries of National Security Councils of the Central Asian countries along with Russia and Iran, also outlined a common regional approach to Afghanistan. They reiterated their support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan, and agreed to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.
Beyond Afghanistan, is Central Asia necessary to seriously enhance the economic agenda of India, bilaterally and regionally, as those countries step out of their geopolitical bubble and increase in strategic importance?
Recent years have seen a growing Indian presence in Central Asia, especially in the healthcare and education sectors. Several Indian universities now have campuses in Central Asia and there are about 10,000 Indian students in the area. Over the past few years, Indian states have made direct contact with their counterparts in Central Asia, particularly between Gujarat and Andijon in Uzbekistan.
In 2021, India announced a $1 billion line of credit for infrastructure development projects in Central Asian countries, and grants for High Impact Community Development Projects for socio-economic development. Discussions on identifying and implementing specific projects are ongoing.
Trade between India and Central Asia has been languishing at $2 billion, pegged mostly on the import of crude oil and uranium from Kazakhstan and the export of pharmaceuticals to the region. This must broaden into wide ranging economic exchanges, especially as India, an established global technology and emerging e-commerce player, has much to offer. The forthcoming meeting of the India-Central Asia Business Council in Tashkent will be looking for ways to enhance and diversify trade and investment.
Some of the dormant connectivity projects are seeing signs of life. The proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project is a winning proposal for all participating countries. The Taliban government in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have been in discussions, and on 16 January at a meeting in Turkmenistan they announced the project will recommence in Afghanistan in March 2022. The pipeline aims to funnel 33 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to India.
With TAPI back on the table, it is time to progress another connectivity initiative – the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor. India, Iran and Uzbekistan have long been discussing joint use of the Chabahar Port in Iran. Given Pakistan’s intransigence, overland connectivity through Pakistan remains an unlikely possibility. The key then lies in trade through the maritime and rail routes via Iranian ports.
The trading community in India and other countries has to be convinced of the attractiveness of the INSTC compared with other available options. Dry runs along INSTC between India and Azerbaijan/Iran conducted in 2014 demonstrated cost and time savings. It may be worthwhile considering a test shipment to India from Kazakhstan, India’s biggest trade partner in Central Asia. Currently, much of the bilateral trade between the two countries is via China. There is a need to complete the missing rail links on the INSTC, which will reduce costs and address the problem of congestion at road border crossing points.
Russia still retains a major influence in Central Asia, bilaterally and through regional mechanisms. India and Russia exchanged a ‘non-paper’ to increase Central Asia engagement. Defence is among the identified areas for cooperation. Russia too has an interest in ensuring the security of the Central Asian borders. between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in particular and working against the possible influx ofterrorism and extremism into Central Asia. Russia is also a partner country in the INSTC. As India and Russia have similar interests, a framework for cooperation among India, Russia and Central Asian countries can be developed. Aligning with Russian engagement in Central Asia will benefit India in the long run.
In the meantime, India can press ahead with cooperation in renewable energy, including through the International Solar Alliance, and participation of the Central Asian countries in the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), is a winning proposition. Science and technology, agriculture and food processing, space applications, information technology, uranium (from Uzbekistan) – there is considerable scope for bilateral collaboration in these emerging areas.
The two countries that pose a real threat to the rise of India as an economic and military power in the Asian Continent with a secular-democratic political dispensation, are China and Pakistan. They often work in tandem to harm the interests of India wherever they can, especially in the Central Asian region made up of five CARs and two Trans-Caspian Republics where India has significant plans for extending cooperation and collaboration in developmental endeavours. India’s purported role in Central Asia is bound to contribute immensely to regional and global peace and development.
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