New approach to wooing CARs
In the wake of an unprecedented summit between Indian and Central Asian leaders, Sudha Ramachandran stresses the need for Delhi to boost its engagement with the region
On January 27, India hosted the first ever India-Central Asia summit. The meeting, which was in a virtual format, saw the participation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Presidents of five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The India-Central Asia summit came over five months after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, a development that has shaken India and the Central Asian countries, all of whom are highly vulnerable to religious extremism and terrorism. The Taliban’s rise to power has implications for the security and stability of these six countries, which have a shared interest in containing the forces of destabilisation emanating out of Afghanistan.
It was amid this worrying security situation that India hosted two important meetings – the first of national security advisors of the six countries in November, and the other of their foreign ministers in December. Discussions at these meetings revealed that the six countries had a broad ‘regional consensus’ on issues related to Afghanistan, whether on the question of the inclusivity of its government or on the need to step up humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.
Building on discussions at these meetings, the six leaders participating in the January event decided to set up two Joint Working Groups (JWG), one on Afghanistan and the other on Chabahar port.
The Afghanistan JWG will be at the senior officials’ level and can be expected to evolve further consensus on dealing with the Taliban and coordinating strategies of the six countries on issues such as supplying humanitarian aid.
As for the Chabahar JWG, this is being set up to improve trade.
Drawing attention to the ‘landlocked nature’ of the Central Asian countries and their ‘lack of overland connectivity with India’ – successive governments in Islamabad have denied India access to the overland route to Central Asia via Pakistani soil – the Delhi Declaration saw the six countries showing interest in connectivity projects.
‘India and the Central Asian member countries of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor called upon the other Central Asian countries to consider joining these connectivity initiatives. The sides supported India’s proposal to include the Chabahar Port and noted Turkmenistan’s proposal to include the Turkmenbashi Port within the framework of INSTC,’ the declaration said.
To ensure continued engagement, the leaders of the six countries also agreed to institutionalise the summit mechanism by deciding to hold a summit every two years, in addition to holding regular meetings between their foreign, trade and culture ministers. An India-Central Asia Secretariat is being set up in New Delhi to support the new mechanism.
When the Central Asian Republics emerged independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India believed that strong ties with the CARs were inevitable. After all, India’s relations with Central Asia have been historically close; strong civilisational links, cultural bonds, people-to-to people contact and trade ties go back several centuries. Besides, India had a warm relationship with the Soviets too.
However, while political and diplomatic ties have grown, economic relations stalled, largely because of the lack of an overland route between India and the landlocked Central Asian countries, and turmoil in Afghanistan. Besides, with the United States imposing sanctions on Iran, India dithered over robustly committing to developing the Chabahar deep-sea port in Iran and in developing an alternate route via Iran to Central Asia.
Consequently, India’s trade with Central Asia is a meagre US$2 billion, most of it comprising energy imports from Kazakhstan, compared to Chinese trade with the CARs, which amounts to roughly $41 billion and poised to double by the end of this decade.
In the last three decades, India has been expressing interest in enhancing its profile and influence in the Central Asian Region. It looks upon Central Asia as its ‘extended neighbourhood’. Yet it is only over the past decade that policies are being put in place to deepen ties. Foremost among these is the ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which was first enunciated in June 2012. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to all five Central Asian countries in July 2015 provided a fillip to India’s engagement of Central Asian countries.
India needs to accelerate its engagement of Central Asian countries, not only to be able to access their markets, energy and other resources, but also to draw on their support to further its interests in Afghanistan. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, India, Russia and Iran joined hands to support the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taliban regime. India ran a military hospital at the Farkhor air base in Tajikistan near the Afghan border, providing medical treatment to injured Northern Alliance fighters.
After two decades of smooth relations with the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments, India is in a difficult situation today. Its influence in Kabul has declined precipitously with the Taliban’s return to power. Herein lies the impetus behind New Delhi’s heightened engagement of the Central Asian countries in recent months.
But India’s return to Central Asia will not be easy. In part this is because it will have to contend with China’s formidable presence in the region. Chinese investments in the Central Asian countries are estimated at around $140 billion, and all five Central Asian countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Then there is the security situation in Afghanistan. And although Pakistan is allowing Afghan trucks to take the overland route via Pakistan to ferry Indian humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, Islamabad is unlikely to shift away from its long-standing policy of denying India overland access to Central Asia.
However, New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for its failure to step up to availing opportunities in Central Asia over the past 30 years. Not only does it lack the financial muscle and the diplomatic resources, but it has also failed to muster the political will to assiduously build bonds with the region and persist with its engagement.
New Delhi has not given Central Asia focused attention. Its engagement of the region is, rather, linked to events and is episodic rather than continuous.
In order to make the build the necessary bonds, its courting of Central Asian countries needs a change in approach.