Why India must re-work its Central Asia strategy

By Gulshan Sachdeva

The third meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialog was held under the shadows of the pandemic as well as the uncertain situation in Afghanistan. The Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan underlined their “civilizational, cultural, trade and people-to-people linkages” with India and agreed to “continue close consultations on the situation in Afghanistan.”

The changing dynamics in Afghanistan is pushing India to be proactive in the Eurasian region and re-work its Central Asia strategy. There are reports that the presidents of all five Central Asian Republics are likely to be invited together by India as Republic Day guests.

Central Asia has long been part of the Indian imagination because of old civilizational linkages and cultural connections. In the last three decades, India had the ambition to raise its profile and connect with its Central Asian neighborhood. This has been reflected through its ‘Extended Neighborhood’ and ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

Although India established close political ties with all countries in the region, commercial ties remain limited. An unstable Afghanistan and difficult India-Pakistan relations created problems for direct connectivity. Currently, bilateral trade between India and Central Asia is in the range of about $3 billion, out of which $2.5 billion is only with Kazakhstan.

At the dialog, the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar asserted that to take India-Central Asia ties to the next level, we must “focus around 4 Cs: Commerce, Capacity enhancement, Connectivity, and Contacts”.

Earlier, New Delhi tried to resolve connectivity issues by working with Russia and Iran via the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) and its tributaries. Engagements in Afghan infrastructure were also part of this strategy.

The US New Silk Road Strategy of connecting Central Asia with South Asia via Afghanistan also coincided with Indian designs. Unlike the United States seeking to spread democracy and market economics, India, however, primarily focused on ensuring political stability in the region. With the US debacle in Afghanistan, these narratives are no longer valid. Some of the connectivity linkages are now being discussed in the context of the Ashgabat Agreement and the inclusion of Chabahar Port.

After signing strategic partnerships with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, India announced its own twelve-point ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy in 2012. The idea was to look at the region collectively in a more proactive manner and strengthen India’s political, security, economic and cultural connections throughout the region.

In July 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five Central Asian States. In 2017, India also became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In 2019, New Delhi initiated the ‘India-Central Asia Dialogue’ at the Foreign Ministers level including Afghanistan. During the same year, bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan were also elevated to a ‘strategic partnership’.

Indian strategy toward the region in the past has been subservient to its Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan policies. In addition, Russian and US designs have further influenced Indian strategy towards Central Asia. Till the time there is some stability in Afghanistan, India will have to work with Central Asians to safeguard the region from negative repercussions of Taliban takeover in terms of radicalization, increased terrorist activity, and drug trafficking. However, pro-active initiatives indicate that it is also re-working an independent Central Asia policy.

(The author is Chairperson, Centre for European Studies & Coordinator, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal)

Image courtesy of (Photo courtesy: Cartarium/shutterstock.com)

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