In the view of the recently held leader level India-Central Asia Summit, India needs to build a thriving and prolific relationship with its Central Asian neighbours. It is vital for India to work conclusively towards converting objectives and dialogues to strategic realities. New Delhi’s role for improvement in its Connect Central Asia Policy needs overturning its laxed trade ties, actively picking-up some of its idle developmental projects which are of geo-strategic importance, taking a game theory approach with fellow competitors and re-assessing the Central Asian neighbourhood as a region of the New Great Game. India should sketch its developmental plans in a way that would prevent any chance of bleak visibility issues in the region, striving forward.
Aiming at improving trade, connectivity, and security dynamics- the first of its kind, leader level India-Central Asia Summit was virtually held on 27th Jan 2022. Presidents – Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan and Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyz Republic participated in the summit hosted by Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. The Summit contemplated on the scopes of increasing engagement between India and its Central Asian counterparts, as a part of the formers’ extended neighbourhood policy. The three main objectives of the discussion were- to lay out an ambitious roadmap for future collaboration for the next 30 years; to emphasize on the importance of this cooperation for regional security and prosperity; and to efficiently work towards cooperation.
The ongoing developments in Afghanistan and geo-political shifts in the wake of the pandemic has pushed the CARs and India to work in a coordinated manner. Four essential decisions were taken at the India-Central Asia Summit- support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan; utilize the Shahid Beheshti Terminal at the Chabahar Port to facilitate trade; optimal usage of the International North-South Transport Corridor; institutionalize the Summit by deciding to hold regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Trade Ministers, Culture Ministers and Secretaries of the Security Council, hold the leader level Summit every 2 years and establish an India-Central Asia Secretariat of New Delhi. These blooming evolutions throw light on the interests of the parties to put in place, a prudent and well thought out relationship.
While India’s bonhomie with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) has been perceptible, it still necessitates New Delhi to build a thriving and prolific relationship to keep pace with the other countries aiming to strengthen their footprints in the region. India and the five Central Asian states are already part of the inter-governmental Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and India’s trade ties with CARs stands at $2 billion and as described in the Delhi Declaration of the 1st India-Central Asia Summit, it is far from realizing its true potential. This siphons the need for India to build up a strategic plan to raise its game with the energy rich friends.
The ties between India and Central Asia are rooted in historical, cultural, economic, and geo-strategic factors. Ensuing that, one should know that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd India-Central Asia dialogue (in 2019, 2020 and 2021 respectively) attended by the Foreign Ministers of the participating countries set the precedence for the strengthening of ties and building a comprehensive and enduring partnership. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to implement High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) for socio-economic development in Central Asian countries established India’s odyssey for strategic partnership and further developmental projects in the region. As a part of the recent developments, “India-Central Asia Centre” is likely to be established in Delhi, to act as an official secretariat for the collaboration between the two regions.
The 2022 leader-level summit proffers New Delhi’s impulse to strengthen its “Extended Neighbourhood Policy” while making an over-arching move towards the “Connect Central Asia” strategy. It is only India, which can drive the plot in developing strategic relations with CARs. Therefore, it is time for New Delhi to re-assess Central Asia as a region of the ‘New Great Game’ by not only looking at geo-strategic scopes but also by re-looking at frailties of other players in the region. As a part of developmental plan, India should break the chain of CARs economic inter-dependency on China by outlining investment strategies in terms of setting up of Special Economic Zones (SEZs); developing specialized state-owned financial institutions like development banks to promote geo-economic growth. India needs to give a befitting reply to China’s growing closeness to CARs in terms of pledging aims worth millions of dollars, investing in developmental projects, engaging in BRI, etc. In current times, India has been open in telling countries about violation of sovereignty as its chief reason to oppose China’s developmental projects in foreign countries. At the 20th Meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of Government under the chairmanship of Kazakhstan, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said, “India believes that greater connectivity is an economic force-multiplier which has acquired greater salience in the post-Covid era. However, any serious connectivity initiative must be consultative, transparent, and participatory. It must conform to the most basic principles of international law – respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In the recently held Summit, the Central Asian countries have shown interest in utilizing the Shahid Beheshti Terminal at Chabahar Port to facilitate trade with India and other countries. Given, the strategic location of the Chabahar, India needs to be favorable towards the interest of the Central Asian countries in accelerating trade connectivity beyond the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The Chahbahar Port is one of the strategic ports which gives direct access to the IOR. Hence, if operational, the terminal can be a major transit route for India the landlocked CARs. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), India is not a key trading partner for any of the Central Asian states despite warm relations and Indian exports to the region stood at $658 million during 2020-21. To revitalize trade ties across various sectors in the wake of the post-pandemic world and to avoid certain inevitable situations such as the blockade of the Suez Canal, piracy at the Horn of Africa, competition against the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, etc., a workable framework for the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) and the International Transport and Transit Corridor/ Ashgabat Agreement is the need of the hour. As intended, if the Chabahar Port is included in the INSTC, both India and CARs will be well connected to the Caspian Sea, western parts of Russia, Europe and the Middle Eastern countries located around the Mediterranean and Red Sea. This would in turn prevent long transit routes and also save on logistical expenditures.
One of the key highlights of the summit was an agreement for continuous consultation on the Afghan situation by setting up a joint working group comprising of senior officials. Stability in Afghanistan is not only important for the CARs, but also for India and South Asia. If terrorism and security related issues in Afghanistan ripple its way into Central Asia and South Asia, it would have deplorable and unfortunate impact on the socio-economic projects in the region.
It is essential for India to work conclusively towards converting objectives and dialogues to strategic realities. In the absence of a comprehensive plan of action, India could otherwise stand a chance of facing a bleak visibility problem in the CARs just like the European Union. New Delhi needs to divulge in various spheres (such as technological, security, tourism, connectivity, trade, etc.). Diversification of engagement in ground level is the key factor/issue. In the energy sector, India needs to soar its relations with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to build up on the production and supply of natural gas and with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for hydroelectric energy. These gambits would be essential for India, given developments in the geopolitical arena.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India will overtake the European Union as the world’s third largest energy consumer by 2030. India accounts for nearly one-quarter of global energy demand growth from 2019-40 — the largest for any country, per IEA. India’s oil demand is estimated to rise by 74% to 8.7 million barrels per day by 2040 under the existing policies scenario. The natural gas requirement is projected to grow more than triple to 201 billion cubic meters and coal demand is expected to rise to 772 million tonnes in 2040 from the current 590. In view of the same, India is likely to look forward to increasing its energy imports. During the India-Central Asia Summit, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan stressed on the importance and resumption of talks around the TAPI project. If geo-political and socio-economic scenarios are in favour, the TAPI project is likely to resume in Afghanistan in March 2022.
To advance the plot in enhancing its relationship with the energy rich Central Asian neighbours, India will have to take a “Game Theory” approach. There is a need to analyse the act of other potential players in the region interdependently, to formulate a strategy that is vigorous than before. There may be a point where CARs will have to choose amongst the different powers competing for strategic ties in their soil. During such a time, India should be able to sketch its developmental plans both economically and culturally. As programmed, if the next India-Central Asia Summit is held in 2024, New Delhi would have to make an exceptional effort to stand a chance against the other players in its Central Asian neighbourhood.