The region is significant to India not just for its natural resources, especially hydrocarbon reserves and uranium, but also because of geostrategic and security reasons
The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought five new Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — into existence for the first time in the modern world as independent and sovereign nation states. These states are Islamic states with predominantly Turkic peoples who vociferously retain their secular outlook towards the world. Islam holds them together in terms of ‘identity’, but that is not their only identity marker. They are further divided into clans, tribes and sects.
In geographical terms, Central Asia has been described as “the island part of Asia, farthest removed from the world oceans, in the midst of the greatest land mass on earth”. The location of the Central Asian states has made this region very pivotal. Being landlocked makes them vulnerable and dependent on their neighbouring states for trade or communications with the world.
Importance of Central Asia
India and the Central Asian regions have a deep and shared historical past spanning from the Kushan period to Babur, who came from Andijon in the Uzbek part of Ferghana Valley with 12,000 soldiers in 1526 to set up the Mughal dynasty in India. The region is significant to India and the world because of its natural resources, especially hydrocarbon reserves, uranium and other mineral resources. It lies at the junction of ancient civilisational and trading routes surrounded by two major powers, China and Russia.
Central Asia is a significant region to have engagements with India. Three Central Asian states, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, share their borders with Afghanistan which in the past has been spreading religious extremism in these countries and India. No wonder India has substantial stakes in this region’s security and political stability. India’s immediate concern is the chances of rising terrorism in Kashmir aided and abetted by the Taliban. India shares its concern with the states of this region on the dangers that Taliban consolidating in Afghanistan will have a destabilising influence on Central and South Asia. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been at the receiving end of Taliban influenced religious extremism in the past. Besides the scourge of religion-based violence, the region is also prone to narcotics trafficking, ethnic clashes and cross-border crime which has not been localised to this region but also Russia and China. The drugs produced in the region end up being sold to the part as far as Europe.
India recognised the Central Asian region’s importance as soon as the Soviet Union dissolved and 15 new entities came into being in 1991. India was one of the world’s few countries which recognised these states and established full-fledged diplomatic relations. Soon after the formation of Central Asian states, the then Prime Minister of India, PV Narasimha Rao, visited four out of the five states — Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1993, and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995.
Over the years, the region’s importance has further increased so has the engagements. Though the entire region has been politically volatile, the immediate neighbours of the Central Asian states are not always on the right side of the global power dynamics. Due to geographical and political factors, India’s land access to these states is restricted. Maritime access is also limited to states like Iran, Russia, Pakistan and China.
Despite limited means to develop the relationship, India came up with the ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy unveiled in 2012 at Bishkek. Besides many other things, the idea was to concretise the ties based on observing the outcomes and focusing on security and strategic partnership with an eye on the developments in Afghanistan, energy security and connectivity.
There was little progress in the relationship for the next three years. The closeness received an impetus with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to all the five states in 2015. This visit followed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) policy announced by China which had trade routes, mostly overland in Central Asia under development which covered most of Central Asia. This initiative involves billions of dollars in investments, altering the fragile economy and priorities of this region.
Following Modi’s visit to these countries, several MoUs and other agreements were signed between these states and India to further concretise this relationship, mainly between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Since then, India has regularly conducted military exercises and trained defence personnel.
The main issues India has concerns with relates to land connectivity to facilitate transborder trade. India has taken the initiative by taking Iran on board and helping Iran develop the Chabahar port as an access to Central Asia via the land route and signing the Ashgabat Agreement, a multi-modal transport network between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, India, Iran, Oman and Pakistan. This move would help connect Central Asia with these states via land and maritime routes.
India will have to develop multi-modal transport connectivity and rely on air and digital connectivity, promoting tourism to and from this region besides trading in goods and services. In a digitally engaged world, we should look forward to increased tele-medicine and online education networks in the short run and look for avenues and opportunities for maritime and land connectivity in the long run. Besides being strategic and security, our focus should also be on more people to people contacts, increased para diplomacy, and other ways to showcase our civilisational connection and closeness.
The writer is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, JNU. Views expressed are personal.