First India-Central Asia Dialogue: Resetting Ties
The first Ministerial Meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Xinhua)
By Aditi Bhaduri

First India-Central Asia Dialogue: Resetting Ties

Mar. 06, 2019  |     |  0 comments


On January 12-13, 2019, India and the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — held their first ever ministerial dialogue in the beautiful and historic Uzbek city of Samarkand. Abdulaziz Kamilov, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan, Chingiz Azamatovich Aidarbekov, Foreign Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, Beibut Atamkulov, the Kazakh foreign minister, Rashit Meredow, the foreign minister of Turkmenistan, and Sirodjidin Muhriddin, the Tajik foreign minister participated in the dialogue which also included the foreign minister of Afghanistan Salahaddin Rabbani. The dialogue was floated first a year ago during a seminar on India and the Central Asian Republics (CARS) organized by the Indian Council for World Relations, under the aegis of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

 

The Indian minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj termed the dialogue as “historic”, which testified to the “centuries old ties between the peoples of India, Central Asia and Afghanistan”, who are “natural partners”. She identified development partnership as a major emerging component of India’s foreign policy and urged the CARS to engage in similar partnership with India.

 

The CARS pledged their commitment to dynamic and fruitful friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation between India and the Central Asian countries at bilateral and multilateral formats. In Delhi too, the CARs representatives have been on a diplomatic blitzkrieg, holding road shows, food festivals, participating enthusiastically in cultural, people to people, business and trade events, aggressively advertising and wooing Indian tourists and investors to their beautiful countries.

 

So why are India and the Central Asian Republics suddenly focused on deepening relations?

Central Asia poses an opportune moment for India as it watches the rise of China in the region, and its once close friend and ally Russia steadily moving into the Chinese orbit and cultivating ties, including in energy and military with its arch-rival Pakistan.

 

For India, three fundamental requirements drive its Central Asian policy. One is the natural resources in the resource rich Central Asian region. From Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas, to Uzbek uranium, India sees a lucrative source for its energy procurement, which it has been seeking to diversify for some time now. The ever volatile Middle Eastern region, the Western and now US sanctions against Iran, the steadily rising price of oil, with India’s ever increasing energy demands, most of which has to be imported, makes the Central Asian region a coveted one for India. In fact, ONGC Videsh Ltd., the overseas investment arm of India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp had entered Kazakhstan’s hydro-carbon sector in 2011 through the purchase of the Satpaev oil block, though it has not met with any luck till now.

 

The second requirement is connectivity. All the CARS are landlocked states, and though it once was a contiguous neighborhood for India, the partition and subsequent emergence of Pakistan in 1947 deprived India of any direct routes to those countries. This has hampered trade and the movement of goods and people. The much touted TAPI (Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India) gas pipeline project for instance, has still not been implemented in spite of being floated way back in the 1990s precisely for this reason; India-Pakistan rivalry has hampered overland trade routes to and from India to Eurasia.

 

This is why India has engaged in the construction of the multi-modal International North South Trade and Transport Corridor (INSTC) which ambitiously seeks to connect India’s Mumbai port with St. Petersburg in Russia. To that end India has invested majorly in developing Iran’s Chabahar port through which the corridor will run. The Central Asian countries form a major component of the INSTC. For some it is also perceived as balancing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China has aggressively courted the CARS, with more resources at its disposal, and some of the countries have come on board, the CARS still remain skeptical about China’s cheque book diplomacy in the region. A diplomat from a Central Asian country, who did not want to be publicly quoted, said that his country was still “studying” the BRI. For them the INSTC is an option they would like to explore. More recently, in 2018, India joined the Ashkhabad Agreement, facilitated by Uzbekistan. It is now mulling its own “Silk Route” which will traverse the region.



Airlines of the CARS majorly depend on the Indian sector for their business. Thousands of medical tourists from the CARS make their way to India for state-of-the-art treatment at competitive cost. Hundreds of citizens of the CARS undergo training in Indian IT, diplomacy, and police institutions.



The third driver of India-Central Asia relations is the fight against terrorism and religious radicalism. The CARS have been the frontline states of the jihad that spilled over into their territories from the Afghan war. States like Tajikistan have seen gory civil war and Uzbekistan has had a long and bloody fight against the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, while religious radicalism continues to exist in Kyrgyzstan, with transnational links. Constituting the northern boundary of the Islamic world, and emerging from the ruins of the Soviet empire, the CARS have tried to fashion themselves as model and modern Muslim societies. The expanding Islamic state constitutes a major threat for them. The CARs thus form a valuable partner for India in tackling religious radicalism and extremism in the region. This is particularly relevant regarding Afghanistan where every recent development makes it more probable for the ascendancy of the Taliban to power.

 

In fact, as a natural corollary to the stance of the CARS towards religious extremism, the CARS are a major stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan and in ensuring regional peace and security as almost all of them, with the exception of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, border Afghanistan. This makes Afghanistan an important land link in regional cooperation, and transit of goods and energy. This also ensured the presence of Afghanistan at the dialogue in Samarkand. In the joint statement that emerged from the dialogue, both India and the CARS expressed their support and commitment “to peace, security and stability of Afghanistan; to promote inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan owned peace process and reconciliation; and to assist in economic reconstruction of Afghanistan through the implementation of joint infrastructure, transit and transport, energy projects including regional cooperation and investment projects.”

 

The CARS become a desired partner for India in Afghanistan to hedge against any religious backlash should radical elements come to power there. In Tajikistan, India operates its only overseas airbase at Ayni, and has renovated and built the military hospital at Farkhor.

 

On their part, the CARS, find in India a vast market for their goods and services. Gradually emerging from the shadows of Russia, and under new dispensations in places like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the CARS are aggressively wooing Indian tourists and investments to their countries. Connectivity, thus, is also major imperative for them. For instance, Beibut Atamkulov, the Kazakh foreign minister strongly pitched the creation of a consortium with all Central Asian countries to connect the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran and Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail routes with the port of Chabahar to transport cargo along the Central Asia-India route. The Kyrgyz ambassador to India Samargul Adamkulova, who has been one of the most dynamic envoys in Delhi’s diplomatic circle, pointed out to this writer the advantages Indian business and investments would have in Kyrgyzstan since the country had joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), automatically providing Indian businesses in Kyrgyzstan instant access to other markets via the EEU. Kazakh and Uzbek uranium have found a major market in India. Tajikistan wants to tap into India’s IT sector and expand it there. Airlines of the CARS majorly depend on the Indian sector for their business. Thousands of medical tourists from the CARS make their way to India for state-of-the-art treatment at competitive cost. Hundreds of citizens of the CARS undergo training in Indian IT, diplomacy, and police institutions. Kyrgyzstan and India have entered into joint military cooperation, while for the first time in November 2018 Kazakhstan sent its troops to join Indian peacekeepers under the UN mission in Lebanon. Relations are punctuated with numerous high-profile visits between India and CARS each year.

 

Sitting on enormous reserves of natural resources, the Central Asian republics are just beginning to come onto their own. Still unsure, they find in India a more reassuring partner, their ties anchored in centuries of shared history and culture, while India’s geographical distance ensures a safety unlike that of China’s proximity. Further, India’s inclusion and participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides a platform for annual summits and exchanges and for collaboration in trade, security, and counter terrorism. With the dialogue set to become an annual feature and greater regional integration amongst the CARS, closer India-Central Asia cooperation is foreseen in the future.

 

 

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