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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

India is keeping an eye on Central Asia

M K Bhadrakumar writes: The Republic Day invitation to leaders of five republics from the region is a recognition of its new geopolitical significance, signalling a change in Delhi’s stance.

Written by M K Bhadrakumar |
Updated: December 22, 2021 9:26:48 am
S Jaishankar with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at the India-Central Asia dialogue in New Delhi. (Twitter/@SJaishankar)

The government is inviting the leaders of the five Central Asian countries — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — as guests for Republic Day on January 26. This is a timely move. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has catapulted the Central Asian region as a geopolitical arena where great contestations for influence are unfolding.

Gladiators from faraway lands are appearing in the region with increased frequency, raising anxieties and causing disquiet. It is exciting and worrying when the Great Game, lingering in the shade for long, begins to creep up to the centre stage. There is a growing awareness that for leveraging influence in Kabul and harvesting that influence in the form of material gains, a firm footing in Central Asia is a prerequisite. Given the vast untapped mineral wealth of the region encompassing the five Central Asian countries and Afghanistan — estimated to be worth a few trillion dollars — there is a significant economic dimension to the unfolding saga.

There is geopolitical rivalry too, as the locus of global power is inexorably shifting to Asia. For centuries, prosperity was to be found in the West, but that is no longer so. That lures nefarious elements to the Silk Route from the killing fields of Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, with eyes cast on the steppes and the Pamirs, and deep into China and the Indian Subcontinent. And, all this when things are at an inflection point in Eurasia with confrontation brewing between Russia and NATO. Washington hopes to create in Central Asia a vector of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China and Russia. At the same time, governments in Moscow and Beijing are circling the wagons.

India needs to work on an intricate network of relationships with the regional states while remaining mindful of the “big picture”. Delhi’s moribund non-aligned mindset needs to be turned into a strategic asset to navigate its long-term interests. India’s membership of the BRICS and SCO will help. So indeed will the prospect of the resumption of India-China strategic communication at the highest level, with Moscow’s helping hand.

Delhi’s decision to invite the Central Asian leaders into the first circle of Indian diplomacy cannot be a “stand-alone” event. There were fleeting glimpses of a new line of thinking during President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Delhi. Putin’s one-on-one talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the ambience of their warm personal equations and the presence of Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s “security tsar”, at the dialogue of national security advisers in Delhi on November 10, hosted by NSA Ajit Doval, have breathed life into the new thinking on regional security.

The deepening of the traditional Indo-Russian mutual understanding has injected dynamism into Delhi’s regional strategy on the whole. It is bound to have a calming effect on India’s tensions with China. Central Asia and Afghanistan form a vast landlocked region where Russia and China are big-time players for whom the region’s stability falls within the First Circle of their respective national security agenda.

India has no direct access to the region but has vital stakes. Delhi cannot have an effective Central Asia strategy without the cooperation of these two big powers. India can use the card of regional connectivity to stimulate partnerships. The time may have come to reopen the files on the TAPI and IPI gas pipeline projects. Both involve Pakistan.

Russia is well-placed to act as guarantor and help build both these pipelines, while China too will see advantages in the normalisation of India-Pakistan ties. Similarly, it will be a “win-win” for India if it chooses to undertake the completion of the 600-km railway line from Ghurian (near Herat) eastward across northern Afghanistan. Apart from job creation in Afghanistan, the rail link will facilitate cargo being carried from the Chabahar Port to the Central Asian region and well beyond, including Russia and China.

Recent reports suggest that the new leadership in Bishkek is all set to approve the construction of the railroad segment across Kyrgyz territory that can connect China with the Uzbek rail grid to the Afghan border town. The point is, Delhi must do everything possible to convince the Central Asian states that its newfound interest in that region is anything but a by-product of geopolitical considerations or a mere offshoot of tensions with Pakistan.

From such a perspective, the third meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue in Delhi on Sunday served a purpose to sensitise the Central Asian interlocutors that it attaches primacy to geoeconomics. But India will have a challenge on its hands to flesh out the “4Cs” concept that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar presented at the event — commerce, capacity enhancement, connectivity, and contact being the four pillars of a new geoeconomic partnership. There is hardly a month left to flesh out this concept before the five Central Asian leaders arrive to attend the Republic Day parade on January 26 as chief guests.

The signal from the December 19 conclave is that Jaishankar has kindled hopes. Now, ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme) is a hackneyed tool — Central Asians are learning English even without India’s tutoring. The key areas are transit and transport, logistics network, regional and international transport corridors, free trade agreements, manufacturing industry and job creation. They ought to be front-loaded into India’s Central Asian strategy. Certainly, the EAEU integration processes must be speeded up.

A host of new possibilities open up if India’s initiative on Central Asia runs on a parallel track with an improvement in relations with China. India kept away from the recent G7 ministerial in Liverpool that berated China and Russia — and was the only Quad member to do so. Jaishankar’s call for coordination between Russia, India and China over Afghan issues is a call to energise the RIC format. India’s regional strategies must be anchored on a non-aligned, independent foreign policy.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2021 under the title ‘A large circle of diplomacy’. The writer is a former diplomat who worked on the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan desk in the Ministry of External Affairs

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