Intro: The contours of world politics are changing now. Narendra Modi as a Prime Minister is stirring foreign policy from the front and trying to elevate India’s place in the world. Modi’s strategic move and engagement on the Central Asia visit will be a defining moment between India and Central Asian relations.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to fill up the vacuum in the Central Asian states by visiting all the five countries in one go. India’s Central Asian policy was facing a complete disenchanted look for last many years. The high level visits from India were not reciprocating from Central Asian states. Modi realised the disconcerting gap and rejuvenated ties with Central Asian countries, looking at each of them separately with their resources and relevance. The five former Soviet Republics are strategically located, bordered by China to the east, Russia to the North, Afghanistan and Iran to the South and Europe to the West. This area is also known and famed as ‘the Roof of the World’. During 13th to 17th century, the region was a key transit point on the famed Silk Road, a web of trade routes crisscrossing Europe and Asia used to transport minerals, spices, silks and carpets.
Central Asia long served as a buffer zone between major empires. For centuries it marked the dividing line between the Turkic and Mongol empires of northern Asia and the Persian Empire of Southern Asia. In the late 1300s the great conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlane, from Samarkand region of modern Uzbekistan, built an empire comprising Central Asia, India, Persia and Parts of Russia. During the 19th century Afghanistan on the southern border of Central Asia was the buffer state in the Russian-British rivalry for regional domination known as “the great game”.
The cultural fabrics between India and Central Asia intertwined from ancient time. It has been strategically and thoughfully highlighted by Modi. During the Kushan period, Central Asia and north-west India including the Indus basin and the Gangetic plain up to central Uttar Pradesh flourished both materially and culturally. It was then that the Great Silk Route connecting China and Far East with Europe and India came into existence becoming famous as the first transcontinental commercial and diplomatic route in the history of mankind. The Sanskrit inscriptions in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts at Kara-teppe near Termez in Southern Uzbekistan are indicative of the free movement of our ancestors, living along the river Ganges to Oxus River in Central Asia in the ancient times. The cultural interaction between India and Central Asia continued in the post-Kushan period. Works of Indian scholars, Aryabhatta on astronomy and mathematics and Charak and Susrut on medicine were known to Central Asian scholars. Many of the Sufi saints came from the Central Asian cities of Bukhara and Samarkahnd. Even today Indian Movies are very popular in this region.
Prime Minister Modi highlighted the three components during his visit, geo-economics, geostrategic and geo-culture. In fact, he put up the geo-culture first in order. It was a thoughtful diplomatic move. Since the geo-economics and geostrategic spaces are covered up by China and many other external forces which are not willing to adjust the Indian interests in Central Asia. Indian foreign policy during the Congress regime failed to tap Central Asian states being a close ally of Erstwhile Soviet Union. Where as China’s move was swift. China’s stature grew higher and scattered in each of the Central Asian states. The trade between China and Central Asia has grown many folds in the last two decades. Russia became the junior part. In 2000, only 4 per cent of Central Asia’s trade was with China and 27 per cent with Russia. By 2015, China’s share has risen to 27 per cent, while Russia’s had slipped to 17 per cent.
The Sanghai Cooperation is also dictated by China. China soothingly promotes the Pakistan’s strategic in-depth maneuvering in Central Asia which is detrimental to the interest of India in Central Asia. China is not willing to provide larger space for India to chart out its own geo-economic route for oil and energy. Like TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) gas pipe line is stuck due to Pakistan’s unwillingness.
Therefore, Modi as a Prime Minister who is stirring foreign policy from the front, trying to elevate India’s place in the world. Economic factors are on priority of his foreign policy. Central Asia visit and different agreements with the five countries could be seen in the same light. Looking at the tilted balance of power in Central Asia, modi signed many agreements with all five to boost up the trade relations between the two countries. With Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, Modi discussed various investment opportunities for India such as in the fields of tourism and culture. Cyber security is one key field where the two countries have decided to build a strong partnership and work together. Another key point of discussion was the implementation of Uranium pact was also signed with Kazakhstan. India will now import 5000 tonnes of the yellow mineral in the next year.
Tajikistan is already a significant military ally since 2002 when it built an air base near the town of Farkhar. India began renovating an airfield at Ayani just outside Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe in 2004. India-Tajikistan agreed to enhance connectivity between International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Tajikistan shares 1,400 km long porous border with Afghanistan has importance for India-counter terrorism in Afghanistan.
The INSTC is a trade route between India, Iran, European nations and Central Asian nations. PM Modi made a significant pitch to the heads of these countries to join the freight corridor. Transportation of cargo shall be smooth and costs greatly reduced with the opening up of this corridor. The Indian Prime Minister also sought support from the Central Asian countries for India joining the Ashgabat Agreement- another strategic cooperation for movement of freight and a transit route between Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Oman and Kazakhstan.
Modi’s visit to Central Asia is bound to flash fresh light in the tunnel and Central Asian countries will have opportunity to align with India. India is far behind to China, Russia, Iran, America and Turkey. Even Pakistan’s diplomatic certitude is a challenge for India. Geographical void becomes a hurdle and buckles India to depend on the third country. The key constraint India faces is the lack of direct access to Central Asia. The unstable situation in Afghanistan and a highly problematic India-Pakistan relation have deprived India from the benefit of relations with Central Asia. Iran which provides alternative access to Central Asia, is an important but unspoken factor in India-Central Asia relations. However, India-Iran relationship for the last decade or so has not progressed well. The INSTC which would pass through Iran, is still underdeveloped and requires huge investment. India has also been slow in realising the potential of the strategic Chabahar Port in Iran. China is planning to initiate One Belt One Road. So far China did not mention the name of India as a partner. Chinese trade with Central Asian countries are much larger. Here is the break-up of Chinese investment between 2005 and 2015: Tajikistan ($1.24 billion), Turkmenistan ($3.88 billion), Uzbekistan ($1.51 billion), Kazakhstan ($23.55 billion) and Kyrgyzstan $3.61 billion). In contrast, India total trade with the region is $1.6 billion.
Reading between the lines of diplomatic maneuvering, experts declared that it is one of the master strokes of Narendra Modi. Terming Modi’s visit to Central Asia a “landmark” event to revitalise our ancient links with the region, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has estimated that trade with the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan can grow manifold from the small base of $1.4 billion currently. Moreover, for the five republics, relations with India would prove to be a balancing factor, with both China and Russia pushing to gain more influence and firmer foothold. Coming years the fabrics of cultural diplomacy will move along with economic ties which will be creating strong pillars of strategic ties with the Central Asian countries. The contours of world politics are once again changing. Russia is feeling heat from China, US is determined to scale down Chinese obtrusive policy in Central Asia. In fact, India receives warmth from US as well as from Russia in building new score in Central Asia. Looking at the chess board of the great game, Modi’s visit has brought back India in the lime light in the Great Game. His strategic move and
engagement will be a defining moment between India and Central Asian relations.
Dr Satish Kumar (The writer is Head International Politics, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi)