For sheer scale and ambition, it is hard to think of an Indian diplomatic mission that has matched Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the five Central Asian “stans” — Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The big prize, of course, is getting India a share in the region’s giant hydrocarbon resources — resources that have led Europe and China alike to woo the region’s authoritarian regimes with blank cheques. For years now, New Delhi has been hoping to gain access to Turkmenistan’s gas fields, the fourth-largest in the world, by building a pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called TAPI pipeline, though, will have to traverse some of the most violent killing fields in the world, a prospect that renders its viability questionable. No consortium has so far offered to lead the financing and execution of the project — and given how rapidly the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, it is improbable volunteers will be lining up soon.
Even if the TAPI turns out to be a pipe dream, though, there is plenty of other business to be done. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping toured the Central Asian states, holding out billions in loans for infrastructure development. The road, railway and hydrocarbon pipelines China hopes to build will enmesh its troubled western
region with Central Asia. India hopes to get in on the act. Even if it can’t match China dollar for dollar, the Central Asian states are seeking alternate partners to ensure their economies do not become dependent on a single client. The Indian-financed port at Chabahar will give exporters easier access to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Indian firms in Central Asia are already active in everything from engineering to pharmaceuticals and even tourism. The prime minister’s visit will give a helping hand to Indian firms fighting for a larger share of business from Central Asia’s energy-fuelled economies — ensuring they’re seen to have political backing, just like their rivals.
Finally, there’s the important business of security cooperation. The agenda for discussion is formidable. Like India, the Central Asian states fear growing instability in Afghanistan could destabilise the region. In the 1990s, India partnered with Tajikistan in a secret effort to fight back the Taliban, setting up its first — and only — overseas airbase at Farkhor. Then, there are shared concerns about violent Islamism. The Central Asian states have been aggressive in their efforts to stamp out neo-fundamentalist Islam, and Delhi will be seeking to deepen security cooperation. The prime minister has had some harsh press for appearing to spend too much time abroad, instead of focusing his energies on pursuing economic reform at home. In this case, though, his extended visit marks a long overdue Indian focus on its northern extended neighbourhood.