National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval hosted a meeting of his counterparts from five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — in New Delhi on December 6. All countries except Turkmenistan sent their NSAs; Ashgabat was represented by its ambassador in New Delhi.
The meeting, which took place in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the security situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, flowed from the first India-Central Asia virtual summit of January 27 this year. The leaders of the Central Asian countries had been invited for the Republic Day celebrations, but their in-person participation was scuttled by the Omicron-led Covid surge in India.
Engagement with Central Asia
The Silk Route connected India with Central Asia from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD. From the export of Buddhism to the lasting influence of Bollywood, India has shared old and deep cultural ties with the region.
In 1955, during a 16-day visit to the erstwhile Soviet Union, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru travelled to Almaty, Tashkent, and Ashgabat, all of which became capitals of newly-independent countries after the 1991 collapse of the USSR.
Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1992, and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995. In 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first Prime Minister to visit Tajikistan; he had travelled to Kazakhstan in the previous year. Manmohan Singh visited Uzbekistan in 2006, and the Kazakh capital Astana in 2011.
Despite India’s focus on its other relationships — the US (nuclear deal), China (2003 border pact), and Pakistan (in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks — diplomatic parts continued to move on Central Asia. India also attended Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits, which were attended by the Central Asian countries, and put in its request for membership.
Focussed engagement began with the “Connect Central Asia policy” in 2012, which received a fillip with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to all five Central Asian countries in July 2015 — the first by an Indian Prime Minister.
Battle for strategic space
Central Asia has always been seen as Russia’s backyard — some 20-30% of the population is of Russian origin, and Russian is spoken widely.
Central Asia is extremely rich in mineral and natural resources. Kazakhstan has one of the biggest reserves of uranium, besides stores of coal, lead, zinc, gold, and iron ore. The Kyryz Republic is rich in gold and hydro-power, and Turkmenistan has one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. Tajikistan has huge hydro-power potential and Uzbekistan has gold, uranium, and natural gas.
In 2010, a former general in the People’s Liberation Army, Lt Gen Liu Yazhou, wrote: “By custom, people group Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan together with Xinjiang into the Central Asian region. This is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.”
That China’s President Xi Jinping chose to visit four Central Asian countries on his first overseas trip in September 2022 after two years of Covid-related disruption, underlines the strategic importance of this region.
For India, engagement with the Central Asian countries is important because of a range of reasons — security cooperation after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan; to counter China’s influence in the region; plans for connectivity with Europe including the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC); to meet its energy needs (Turkmenistan is part of the proposed TAPI gas pipeline); and for reasons of old cultural links and trade potential.
New Delhi’s engagement
The recent engagement began with the India-Central Asia foreign ministers’ meeting on December 19, 2021. That meeting was held against the backdrop of the fall of Kabul in mid-August last year, and a little more than a month after the NSAs of Central Asian countries, along with the NSAs of Russia and Iran, attended the Afghanistan-focussed Regional Security Dialogue in New Delhi. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan.
At the December 19 meeting, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his Central Asia counterparts that their “concerns and objectives” in Afghanistan were “similar”, and their goal was “a truly inclusive and representative government, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, ensuring unhindered humanitarian assistance and preserving the rights of women, children and the minorities”.
This was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s January 27, 2022 virtual summit with the leaders of the Central Asian countries, in which he called for an integrated approach to regional cooperation and flagged Afghanistan as a common concern. Two days earlier, China had hosted these leaders at its own summit, which Beijing had swiftly organised after India’s announcement.
Modi and the five Central Asian leaders decided, among other things, to hold a leaders’ summit every two years; regular meetings among their foreign and trade ministers; a joint working group on Afghanistan; joint counter-terrorism exercises between India and interested Central Asian countries; and a group to operationalise the use of Chabahar port by all five countries.
“We all have the same concerns and objectives for regional security. We are all concerned about the developments in Afghanistan… In this context also, our mutual cooperation has become even more important for regional security and stability,” Modi said.
Imperatives now, for future
China, which has a direct border with the region, has a bilateral trade of $50 billion with Central Asia, and has made major investments in these countries with its Belt and Road Initiative. India’s trade with the region is a paltry $2 billion.
The lack of overland transport access — with Pakistan blocking the way — is a major challenge to India’s Central Asia plans. India wants to integrate the INSTC with Chabahar port in Iran to access the resource-rich region. The NSAs, who generally focus on security issues, discussed these connectivity corridors at the December 6 meeting.
From the security perspective, the NSAs discussed the challenges of extremism, terrorism, and radicalisation in the region. Central Asia is seen as the northern boundary of the Islamic world, and with the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan, the threat of radicalism and possible regrouping of the Islamic State poses a serious security challenge for the countries in the region. NSA Doval said financing is the “lifeblood” of terrorism, and countering it should be a priority.
India does not want the post-Soviet space to be captured by the Chinese, and the NSAs engagement is a key mechanism in Delhi’s toolkit. In June 2002, Vajpayee had said in Almaty that the new “Silk Route Initiative” of India’s foreign policy seeks to build a new Silk Road of Friendship and Cooperation between India and Central Asia. Twenty years later, New Delhi remains on the road, and on the job.