Central Asia

Narendra Modi, like his predecessors, P.V Narasimha Rao and others, visited the central Asian countries in July 2015. Although, he became the first Indian prime minister to visit all five of them.

Back then in 2015, Modi signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and agreements related to defence and military technical cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

In the future, it seems that the Indian government is also looking for a stronger economic cooperation in the region. India maybe eyeing for its natural resources, to spur its deprived energy sector. It is because over the next decade, as India’s economy grows, its demand for energy will also increase, which will prompt it to diversify sources beyond the Gulf.

Modi’s antecedent, Narasimha Rao, had visited four of the five republics – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1993, followed by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995. This visit had emphasised the shared secular values and drew attention to common perils such as religious fundamentalism, ethnic chauvinism, narcotics-funded violence and crime. Some commentators suggest that this was articulated through a ‘Look North Policy’ that emphasised shared concerns along with a desire to ‘promote stability and cooperation without causing harm to any third country.’ Modi’s attempt to anew similar political associations might develop something constructive for India in the future.

In these advantageous times, several profitable Indian companies would be looking to tap markets, where they can expand their business operations. Indian agrarian sector, which is one of the spheres, that drives the local economy, might be a good match for the export business inside central Asia, if the crops are of good quality with value additions.

The central Asian regions, being backward, is one of the prejudiced reasons, which regional economists and analysts, give about low Indian investments there. However, it is not the case, as several country indexes put central Asian regions above south Asian nations in terms of infrastructure, human capital, and economic development. India, now, must take a note of this reality, which would inturn make it imperative for India to connect with central Asia, for its energy needs. It is because with Middle East, India doesn’t have a bargaining power in oil prices. India also suffers from extremely high transportation costs, from places where it has bought oil fields.

Historically, India’s ties with central Asia can be traced back to the ancient Silk Road, when civilisations and ideas intermingled, and when goods and people moved freely. After the dissolution of the Silk Road, there were limited exchanges between two regions. Additionally, there was also a period of long engagement during the Kushan Empire.

In the recent past, India’s foreign policy was largely not aimed at central Asia, because of the region’s colonial heritage. Countries were part of erstwhile USSR till 1991. And, India at the time of the dissolution of USSR, was fighting its own tribulations, when it attempted for economic reforms in 1991. After India’s independence, the country’s foreign policy focused primarily on immediate neighbourhood, the major powers in global system, and as with solidarity with other Afro-Asian colonies.

Since the turn of the century, central Asia, nevertheless, had become pivotal to India, for maintaining regional stability, especially in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Strategically, during the 1990s central Asia was seen as a route for supplying the anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance, in Afghanistan. The region also neighbours ‘Golden Crescent’ of opium production (Iran –Afghanistan-Pakistan), and is also a victim of extremism, illegal arms trade, and ISIS extremism. Instability, due to these factors, in central Asia and beyond, can have a spillover effect with India.

In practice, it was only Tajikistan, which functioned as India’s bridgehead in the region. India provided material and logistics assistance to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, routed through Tajikistan. Subsequently, Tajikistan also became the recipient of long-term Indian military training as well, as well as a prospective location of what could have been India’s first overseas military base. In 2002, India and Tajikistan signed a bilateral defence agreement, as part of which India refurbished Ayni, a disused Soviet airbase. However, the plan did not eventually materialise. Though, India’s military role with other central Asian nations has been limited, it conducted its first ever joint military exercise with Kyrgyzstan, Khanjar, in 2011.

However, since the last few years, India should realise central Asia’s growing important economic- geostrategic position, despite the fact that an increasing importance of the region’s oil and gas resources has generated new rivalries among other external powers: China has made deep inroads through Belt and Road Initiative in the central Asian republics in terms of investments in and with the region. Also, Russia convergence in central Asia, given its fractious ties with the West after its annexation of Crimea. has also changed the dynamics of India’s relations with central Asia.

The only significant achievement for India in the energy sector has been civil nuclear cooperation. In 2008, Kazakhstan supported India in obtaining India-specific exemption to allow civil nuclear cooperation with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) countries. The following year, India and Kazakhstan signed an agreement for the supply of 2,100 tonnes of uranium to India until 2014. Two years later, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhstan, they signed an agreement for ‘Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.’ In 2015, with their earlier deal having expired, India and Kazakhstan signed a new agreement for the purchase of 5000 tonnes of Kazakh Uranium until the end of 2019. Currently, both sides are negotiating a third agreement, as part of which Kazakhstan is planning to increase its supplies to India to 7500-10000 tonnes. In 2019, India has also signed a uranium supply agreement with Uzbekistan.

India’s Connect Central Asia policy has the potential for extensive potential for trade, investment, and growth, as the region is richly endowed with commodities such as crude oil, natural gas, cotton, gold, copper, aluminum, and iron.

The economic development of central Asia has also triggered a construction upsurge, and development of IT, pharmaceuticals and tourism in the local business clusters. India has expertise in these sectors, and a deeper cooperation will give a fresh momentum to trade relations with these countries.

In this quest for New Great Game, India must balance the realpolitik and moralpolitik. But there are enormous challenges to India in terms of connectivity. Due to landlocked nature of central Asian states, there is no direct sea route between India and the region. The region doesn’t share a border with India. So, it would be better for India to establish a seamless connectivity with the region. For this purpose, India has faced enormous challenges. In the long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which was first proposed in the mid-1990s, all actors officially signed an intergovernmental agreement in 2010. Since then, progress has been stalled due to the instability in Afghanistan, and the lack of trust between India and Pakistan.

Due to border disputes, ethnic problems and conflict over control of natural resources, central Asian countries have also failed to congregate as a regional bloc, like SAARC or ASEAN, despite some of central Asian’s countries being part of the Euro Asian Economic Union. Hence, it has been difficult for India to formulate a coherent regional policy, despite drafting the Ashgabat agreement, International North-South Transport Corridor, and Chabahar port agreement in the past.

Naveed Qazi is an author of six books. He is the editor of Globe Upfront, and can be mailed at naveedqazi@live.com


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