India and Central Asia: Despite Historical Links and Modi Government’s Outreach, Ties Need Renewed Focus

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India has not been able to take full advantage of its close ancient linkages with this region after their independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991.

India has enjoyed historical, cultural and civilizational links with Central Asia for several millennia. Brisk trade of goods, ideas and thoughts took place from India to Central Asia and beyond over the Silk Road from 3rd century BC to 15th century AD. Buddhism travelled to Afghanistan, Central Asia and western China from India over this route. India and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) viz. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan shared vibrant economic, people-to-people and cultural ties till recent times when the latter were a part of the Soviet Union.

India has not been able to take full advantage of its close ancient linkages with this region after their independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991 because it does not share a de facto land boundary with any of these countries (although de jure it shares a border with Tajikistan through the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir). To overcome this obstacle, several initiatives which have been in the pipeline for many years have now been fast-tracked. Two of the most significant are the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Chabahar port.

Evolution of relations

In current times, Central Asian Republics constitute the extended neighborhood of India. Peace and security in Central Asia is critical to peace and stability in India. This is intimately connected with peace and security in Afghanistan. Three Central Asian Republics — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — share borders with Afghanistan.

India and Central Asia need to collaborate with other regional powers like Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan as also with the US and the EU to promote security and stability in Afghanistan. The advent of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in August 2021 after the sudden and unceremonious withdrawal of the US and NATO troops has introduced further complications in promoting connectivity between India and Central Asia.

In addition to the above, the region is also richly endowed with natural and mineral resources like oil, gas (Turkmenistan contains the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas), uranium (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium ore and has the world’s second largest reserve of this mineral), lead, iron ore, coal, rare earths, water, etc. The region can contribute to India’s energy security through fossil fuels and hydro-power and meet its need of many critical minerals and metals. The area is ideally situated for providing seamless connectivity between Europe and India. It encompasses the “heartland” of Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory” propounded in his article “The Geographical Pivot of History” in 1904. Moreover, the region harbors great potential for promoting trade and investment, tourism, people-to-people connect, cultural, business and academic exchanges between India and these countries.

India and Central Asia started on a strong and robust note when these countries attained freedom from the Soviet Union in 1991. The then Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao sensed the strategic significance of the region and visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1993, and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995. The next twenty years however witnessed a relative neglect of the region by the Indian leadership owing to its preoccupation with domestic affairs, absence of a strong, single party government in New Delhi and its focus on expanding ties with major, strategic powers.

The 20 years from 1995 to 2015 witnessed only four prime ministerial visits from India to the region — in 2002 by PM Vajpayee to Kazakhstan for the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia) Summit followed by a half day bilateral visit, and in 2003 to Tajikistan; in 2006 by PM Manmohan Singh to Uzbekistan, and in 2011 to Kazakhstan for an overnight visit on his way back from Sanya, Hainan after the BRICS Summit.

Relations expand in Modi era

This indifference was corrected after PM Narendra Modi assumed power in May 2014, becoming the first Prime Minister after 30 years with a full majority in the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha). In just a little more than a year after becoming PM, he travelled to all five Central Asian countries in July 2015, the first Indian Prime Minister to do so, sending out a clear message about India’s intent in expanding its ties with these countries.

The last 10 years of PM Modi’s rule have witnessed a significant upswing in bilateral partnership and engagement with these countries. The rapidly changing dynamics of Central Asia’s regional and global political, strategic and economic architecture provide a bright opportunity for India to diversify and deepen its partnership with these countries.

Prime Minister Modi organized a Central Asia + India Summit in virtual format on 27 January, 2022. The Summit would have been held in person in the physical format in New Delhi in the context of celebration of India’s Republic Day except that it was changed to a virtual Summit because of the preoccupation of the Kazakh President with the unprecedented violent protests and clashes in his country. The Leaders discussed the next steps in taking India-Central Asia relations to new heights. In a historic decision, the Leaders agreed to institutionalize the Summit mechanism by deciding to hold it every two years.

On connectivity, the leaders agreed to utilize the services of the Shahid Beheshti Terminal at the Chabahar Port for facilitating trade between the landlocked Central Asian countries and India. The leaders discussed far-reaching proposals to further cooperation in areas of trade and connectivity, development cooperation, defense and security and, in particular, in cultural and people to people contacts.

On the evolving situation in Afghanistan, the leaders reiterated their strong support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan with a truly representative and inclusive government. PM Modi conveyed India’s continued commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. A comprehensive Joint Declaration was adopted by the leaders that enumerated their common vision for an enduring and comprehensive India-Central Asia partnership.

In the context of SCO Summits, PM Modi visited Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2016; Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2017; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2019, and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in 2022. The PM interacted inter alia with the SCO Central Asian leaders on the sidelines of other SCO Summits in Ufa, Russia in 2015; in Qingdao, China in 2018, etc.

The President of Uzbekistan visited India in 2018 and 2019; of Kyrgyzstan in 2016 and 2019; and of Tajikistan in 2016.

India under the chairmanship of PM Modi hosted a successful, virtual SCO Summit in July, 2023.

All Central Asian nations participated in the two Voice of Global South Summits organized virtually by India during its Presidency of the G20 in January and November 2023.

All the above interactions and discussions helped to significantly enhance understanding and cooperation between India and Central Asia.

In pursuance of the decision at the India + Central Asia Summit in January 2022, the first India-Central Asia Meeting of National Security Advisers (NSAs)/Secretaries of Security Councils was held on December 6, 2022 in New Delhi. The participants reiterated their strong support for a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan, emphasizing respect for its sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity and urging non-interference in its internal affairs.

The Second India-Central Asia NSAs meeting took place in October 2023 and discussed measures for enhancing cooperation in cyber security, digital infrastructure, rare earths, and people-to-people contacts. India proposed the establishment of an India-Central Asia Rare Earths Forum to attract investment from the private sector. India also offered to provide technology related to digital payments free of cost to facilitate the setting up of sovereign digital real-time payment systems in line with the needs of these countries.

Prior to the Summit, India had launched a C5+1 Dialogue at Foreign Minsters’ level between India and Central Asian countries in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in January, 2019. This was designed to bring dynamism and energy to the languishing relationship. On account of the pandemic, the second Dialogue was held virtually in October, 2020. The third in the series was held in New Delhi in December 2021. This first in-person meet after more than two years provided a valuable opportunity to the foreign ministers to take stock of progress in their relations and identify new areas of cooperation. The ministers decided to step up efforts to achieve the full potential for trade between India and Central Asia and make optimum utilization of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

At the NSA level, meetings have been taking place to discuss security issues in a focused manner. These started soon after the capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August, 2021. The first meeting took place in New Delhi in November 2021 and was attended by the NSAs of Central Asian Countries as well as Russia and Iran. The meeting focused on Afghanistan and stressed the crucial need for good and efficient governance there, ensuring the fundamental rights of women, children, and minority communities and to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including its financing, the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure and countering radicalization.

These meetings have been taking place on a regular basis, the last one having been held in Moscow in February, 2023 in which the NSAs of all Central Asian countries also participated.

The way forward

Some recommendations for taking the relationship to the next level are given below:

1. In the midst of growing geo-political turbulence, Central Asia is looking for partners other than Russia and China to engage with. India eminently fits the bill as there is no threat perception that Central Asia harbours from enhanced partnership with it. India will, however, need to significantly augment its collaboration with the region in all areas viz. political, official, security, business, scientific, technological, health, education, cultural, think tanks and others, both at the bilateral as well as at the regional level.

2. After the virtual India-Central Asia Summit held on 27 January, 2022, the first in-person India + Central Asia Summit should be held in India at the earliest after the elections in 2024. Adequate preparations would need to be made so that a strong impetus to bilateral and regional ties is provided.

3. It was decided to institutionalize the relations between India and Central Asia at the virtual Summit in 2022. The next and subsequent Summits could be held alternately in India and one of the countries of Central Asia. After the 2024 Summit in India, the next Summit could be scheduled either in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan in 2026.

4. It was decided at the Virtual Summit in 2022 that regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Trade Ministers, Culture Ministers and Secretaries of the Security Council should be held to prepare the groundwork for the Summit meetings. An India-Central Asia Secretariat in New Delhi was also to be set up to support the new mechanism. It appears that so far only the meetings of the Secretaries of the Security Councils have been held in New Delhi in December, 2022, and in Astana, Kazakhstan in October 2023. Other meetings should also be held expeditiously before the in-person Summit later this year.

5. Several other decisions were taken at the Summit in 2022 i.e. creation of an ‘India-Central Asia Parliamentary Forum’; implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) in Central Asian countries; utilization of $1 billion Line of Credit announced by India in 2020 for infrastructure development in Central Asian countries, and more. Action on all these decisions should be expedited.

6. India needs to identify further opportunities in areas spanning political, security, strategic, trade and investment to academic, culture, tourism, youth, women development, sports and people-to-people connect to strengthen ties with Central Asia.

7. Although all countries of Central Asia should be given due attention, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan merit special focus — Uzbekistan because it has emerged as the most proactive among the Central Asian states in its desire to increase partnership with India; and, Kazakhstan because it is the largest country in geographical area, endowed with significant mineral resources, and is the largest economy of the region.

8. It would be desirable for India to collaborate with other like-minded countries like the US, Japan, Europe and others to strengthen and deepen engagement with Central Asia. This would be to the mutual benefit and advantage of Central Asian countries as well as the partner nations.

9. To take full advantage of the emerging opportunities for partnership in Central Asia, India should appoint a Special Envoy for the Region who can reach out to the concerned authorities in the region at the appropriate level, and also get decision making expedited in India.

Taking action on the above has the potential to provide an early, significant fillip to the strategic and vital partnership between India and Central Asia.

Conclusion

There is an immense identity of views and position on most regional and global issues between India and Central Asia. Some of these include peace and stability in Afghanistan; rapidly promoting Connectivity (INSTC and Chabahar); counter-terrorism; climate change; trade and investment, security and defense, etc.

India can share its expertise in the areas of IT, digital payment infrastructure, health, education, startups, space industry, textiles, leather and footwear industry, gems and jewelry, tourism, pharmaceuticals, counter-terrorism, anti-radicalization and much more with the Central Asian countries. Once suitable connectivity is established, the region could meet India’s energy security needs in oil, gas, hydropower, etc, in addition to uranium which India is importing from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There is empathy, warmth and trust between the people of India and Central Asia. There is no fear, distrust or threat perceived from India as is the case with some other neighbors in the region.

The future holds huge potential for a much brighter and robust relationship between India and Central Asia, both at the bilateral as well as the regional level.

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar
+ posts

Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

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