By Nantoo Banerjee
India’s External Affairs Ministry may disagree, but the country’s attempt to make its presence felt in Central Asia has come rather too late. The initiative should have started three decades ago. India could probably rope in Russia to launch a joint trade and economic cooperation programme with the five Central Asian republics soon after the disintegration of the USSR. The government seemed to have lacked the vision or underestimated China’s well-calculated move to expand its influence in this strategic region ahead of others. Last month, India held its third round of Central Asia dialogue with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar talking about India’s readiness to take its cooperation with the region to the “next level” to become a “steadfast partner” in their developmental journey. India has invited the heads of all the five Central Asian countries to attend the Republic Day celebrations on January 26. New Delhi is said to be keen on rapid expansion of ties with the region. However, it is not clear how fast such ties can be expanded when the region is already deeply involved with China for its trade and economic development and the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has raised a fresh connectivity problem for India.
To make a meaningful entry in Central Asia to improve its trade and economic relations with the region, India possibly needs to partner collectively with other friendly countries such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. The growing Chinese dominance in the region is being noted with concern by all the three countries having historical links with Central Asia. Interestingly, China’s geographical proximity to the region was helped by Soviet Union’s most powerful prime minister Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin by supporting China’s Mao Tse Tung to invade and grab the independent and critically placed state of East Turkistan (originally known as Kashgaria), in 1949. The state became the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) large Xinjiang province. The Moslem-dominated Xinjiang makes up nearly one-quarter of Communist China’s international borderline. The province borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the northwest, Pakistan and India to the southwest, Mongolia to the northeast, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan to the west. The Aksai Chin and Trans-Karakoram Tract regions, both administered by China, are claimed by India. Turkey is particularly concerned about the plight of Xinjiang’s repressed Moslems. Lately, Turkey has been successful to set up a direct railroad connection with Central Asia seeking to play a more active role there.
China remains possibly the best international strategist to win over the confidence of Central Asian countries with attractive economic and financial offers that help them exploit natural resources, strengthen militaries and create local jobs. China is by far the most successful applicator of multifaceted infrastructure tools to connect with countries that badly need such assistance. This explains China’s growing presence in former Soviet-controlled Central Asian countries despite their closer historical and cultural linkages with Turkey, Russia, Iran and India. China’s relations with the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have witnessed impressive growth over the last three decades since the end of the Soviet rule in 1991 making all of them independent. Russia still remains a top strategic partner. But, it has lost grip over the region in recent years. The establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 and China’s increasing economic and energy cooperation with Central Asia broke the political monopoly of Russia. Today, the Central Asian region poses a threat to strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow.
The formation of SCO, a regional security forum, covering four central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — along with Russia and China, did not improve the relations between the two superpowers from Europe and Asia. Turkmenistan, following a neutral foreign policy, stayed away from the grouping. Russia wanted to include its ally, India. China, fearing that its role will be weakened by India’s inclusion, put up a counter proposal to include Pakistan. As a result, both India and Pakistan became members of SCO since 2017. The Russian authorities will have to accept the gradual loss of influence in Central Asia following the expansion of China’s economic, political and military power in the region. While India continues to maintain excellent relations with Russia, New Delhi’s relations with China deteriorated sharply over clashes in eastern Ladakh and India’s strategic cooperation with the US, Australia and Japan (Quad). It is to be seen how Russia and India further cement their relations and work together to pursue their interest in Central Asia.
Today, China accounts for as much as 18 percent of the Central Asian region’s arms import over the last five years, from only around 1.5 percent between 2010 and 2014. China’s engagement focused principally on state-backed investments in hydrocarbon and mineral extraction in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It later shifted to hydrocarbon pipeline construction to move gas and oil to China. The foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into Kyrgyzstan from China have remained consistent since 2013 but for a drop in 2020-21 caused by the coronavirus pandemic. China’s geographical proximity to the region through the Xinjiang province has been of great help to stay focussed on trade and investment expansion under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the contrary, India’s trade with Central Asia remains below 0.5 percent of India’s total trade, amounting to less than US$2 billion in stark contrast with China’s trade with the region at around US$100 billion.
For now, connectivity poses a big challenge to India’s bid to enhance its economic and strategic relations with Central Asian states to the “next level”. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan added to the challenge for both India and Central Asia. Three Central Asian states — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — share a direct border with Afghanistan and are vulnerable to the consequences of the developments in Afghanistan. They adopted a varying response to the Taliban government based on their domestic compulsions. While all Central Asian republics barring Tajikistan have engaged with the Taliban government, India’s long-standing contribution to Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction now seems to be of no avail. India needs to work more closely with Iran to develop the Chabahar port fast and get it included in the International North-South Transport Corridor to connect land-locked Central Asia. Until then, India could strengthen its air corridor to connect the region for a more meaningful economic cooperation. Finally, India has to take Iran, Russia and Turkey on board to closely work together to make its presence felt in Central Asia. (IPA Service)