The dramatic developments in Afghanistan have catalysed new geostrategic and geo-economic concerns for the region.
The evolving situation has also thrown up renewed challenges for India’s regional and bilateral ties with Central Asia and the Caucasus, prompting India to recalibrate its rules of engagement with the region.
- External Affairs Minister was in the region earlier this month, his third within a span of four months.
- In Kyrgyzstan, External Affairs Minister extended a credit line of $200 million for the support of development projects and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on High-Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP).
- At Foreign Minister’s Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), India targeted China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- Admonishing China’s methods in promoting the BRI, he said while greater connectivity was essential for the promotion of regional stability, it must not be pursued for parochial interests.
- He also confronted Pakistan for its support towards cross-border terrorism. Before reaching Armenia, External Affairs Minister met his counterparts from Russia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to discuss regional cooperation.
India and Central Asia Relation:
- India’s relations with Central Asia has a long history. The two regions have shared deep cultural linkages with each other over the past two millennia in terms of people to people contact, trade, and commerce.
- Ancient kingdoms like the Kushana Empire had territory in parts of both regions.
- Both regions had been connected through the Silk route from 3rd century BC till 15th Century AD until the sea route from Europe to India was discovered.
- The Silk Route connected both regions not only for transportation of goods like silk and spices but was also an effective channel of exchange of thoughts, ideas, religion and philosophy.
- Buddhism travelled over this route from India to Central Asia and from there to West China.
- The historical and civilizational linkages have spilled over into many areas including religion and culture.
- Contacts between the both regions were further strengthened during the medieval ages with the advent of Islam and later with the establishment of Muslim rule in India, many of whose rulers had their origins in Central Asia.
Importance of the Central Asia Region:
- The Central Asian countries are bestowed with substantial hydrocarbon fields, natural gas and oil reserves which makes them an attractive point for investment.
- Kazakhstan is the leading manufacturer of uranium and has enormous gas and oil reserves as well.
- Uzbekistan is also rich in gas, and is a significant local producer of gold together with Kyrgyzstan.
- Tajikistan has enormous hydropower potential and Turkmenistan has the fourth largest gas reserves of the world.
- To tackle the challenges of terrorism, drug trafficking and arms smuggling.
- Keeping a check on the rise of radical Islamist groups that may pose a threat to India’s security.
- Geographically, the strategic location of Central Asian countries makes them a bridge between different regions of Asia and between Europe and Asia.
- Strategic location of Central Asia is a central point of geopolitical manoeuvring affecting India’s relations with Pakistan, China, the US, Russia and other powers in the region.
- Central Asia offers a relatively untapped market for Indian consumer goods. Indian tea and pharmaceutical industries have acquired a foothold in the Central Asian market.
- The rapid economic development of Central Asia has sparked a construction boom and development of sectors like IT and tourism.
India’s Evolution of Relationship with Central Asia:
- After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the formation of the independent republics in Central Asia, India reset its ties with the strategically critical region.
- India provided financial aid to the region and established diplomatic relations.
- India signed the Strategic Partnership Agreements (SPA) with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to stimulate defence cooperation and deepen trade relations.
- In 2012, India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy aimed at furthering India’s political, economic, historical and cultural connections with the region.
- However, India’s efforts were stonewalled by Pakistan’s lack of willingness to allow India passage through its territory. China took advantage of the situation and unveiled the much-hyped BRI in Kazakhstan.
- The growing geostrategic and security concerns regarding the BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its violation of India’s sovereignty forced New Delhi to fix its lethargic strategy.
- India signed MoUs with Iran in 2015 to develop the Chabahar port in the Sistan-Baluchistan province that was in the doldrums from 2003.
- Most of the Central Asian leaders view India’s Chabahar port as an opportunity to diversify their export markets and control China’s ambitions.
- China’s assertive approach led to rising social discontent on the ill-treatment of their ethnic brethren in neighbouring Xinjiang.
Recent India-Armenia ties:
- India has become the first Indian External Affairs Minister to visit Armenia.
- The Minister and his Armenian counterpart, agreed to enhance trade and cultural exchanges to boost bilateral relations.
- During the visit, Mr. Jaishankar also supported efforts for a peaceful solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk group.
- The Taliban re-establishing its supremacy over Afghanistan has also exposed the weaknesses of coalitions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), created in response to the threats of terrorism that sprang from Afghanistan.
- However, the SCO has been used by most member countries for their own regional geostrategic and security interests, increasing the trust-deficit and divergence within the forum.
- As the SCO failed to collectively respond to the Afghan crisis, the Central Asian leaders met in Turkmenistan in August to voice their concerns over the Afghan situation, and also discussed the presence of Central Asian terror groups within Afghanistan and along their borders.
Central Asian countries have been keen to have India as a partner as they have sought to diversify their strategic ties.
Central Asian regional dynamics will become very interesting with India’s involvement in the region in the coming years.
Rising anti-Chinese sentiments within the region and security threats from the Taliban allow New Delhi and Central Asia to reimagine their engagement.
India cannot afford to lose any time in recalibrating its regional engagements.
Central Asian countries have admitted India into the Ashgabat Agreement, allowing India access to connectivity networks to facilitate trade and commercial interactions with both Central Asia and Eurasia, and also access the natural resources of the region.