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Why Central Asia needs to rediscover India

India hosts the first-ever summit with Central Asian Republics in virtual mode on January 27 (Photo: MEA)

The first ever India Central Asia virtual summit took place on January 27. What was to have been an in-person summit — the leaders of the five Central Asian countries were to have been the chief guests at India's 73 republic day celebrations yesterday—was cancelled apparently due to Covid 19 resurgence.

However, what is more plausible is that the recent uprisings in Kazakhstan put a spanner in India's plans. Not only did it shake the Kazakh political elites but it also spooked neighbouring countries with the scale of the protests and the large-scale violence. But even a virtual summit is important and significant. 

It not only accelerates India's Connect Central Asia policy, mooted first in 2012, but builds upon the India-Central Asia Dialogue initiated in 2019, and the recent regional security meeting of national security advisors of India, the five Central Asian Republics (CARS) – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, along with those of Iran and Russia.

Uzbek analysts D. Kurbanov and Sh. Khoshimova have called it a milestone, coming as the summit did, to mark 30 years of independence of the CARS. The summit is set to be institutionalised, and the next is slated to be held in 2024. Big plans are afoot and Central Asia is clearly the flavour of the season. But while much of the focus has been on the significance of the region for India, equally India is also important for the region.

The recent upheaval in Kazakhstan is a good place to start. They have proved, however unfortunately, that society is slowly but surely democratising and the voice of the people matters. This is true for much of the rest of the region where a young population and the internet is slowly dismantling isolation and information barriers. Here India’s daring experiment with democracy has much to offer to the CARS. A reflection of this is found in the joint statement adopted at the summit yesterday where it said that "The Leaders valued the cooperation between the Parliaments of India and the Central Asian countries as an important forum of interaction between the legislatures of these countries….". 

At the same time, India does not follow any prescriptive foreign policy and respect for sovereignty and strict non-interference in internal matters of another country remain its cornerstone. 

Second, Indian investments- both public and private—are coveted in the region. The main player Russia does not have the resources; China is the major economic player. As Atul Aneja in his article posits "..India’s engagement—from culture, economy, energy and military—deepens, it will serve as an antidote to the region's critical reliance on China, and the temptation to embrace Turkey…". 

India has opened a one billion USD credit line for the region and $448 million for Uzbekistan and the India Central Asia Business Council is working towards increasing trade and investment. While modest, they do help in eliminating the problem of the Chinese ‘debt trap’. For instance, China accounts for 45.3% of Kyrgyzstan's external debt, while the recent establishment of a Chinese military base is widely believed to be an outcome of Tajikistan’s enormous debt to China. Loans from China account for 16%-17% of GDP of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; meanwhile, the external debt of all the CARS has been increasing. As a result, China is increasingly playing a bigger role either in the economy or in the defence and security of these countries.  

On the other hand, Turkey's push into the region while being low on investments has other implications.  For one, it can be construed as yet another encroachment by NATO; on the other Turkey has for some time been pushing a dangerous pan-Turkism and divisive political Islam, abhorrent for the CARS. Many of them like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan have battled political Islam, Islamist insurgencies on their territories; now they are battling the ISIS challenge – the group has actively recruited from the region and covets its resources and funnel them into their anachronistic project of raising a Caliphate there. 

Third, India offers a huge market for Central Asian products, including in the energy sector. India is projected to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030, with its domestic  market increasing to $3 trillion in 2030, by which time it is also slated to become the world’s third largest energy consumer.

Fourth, the greatest challenge for the CARS to realise their economic potential is connectivity. In this regard India’s investment in connectivity projects like the Chabahar port development or the International North South Transport Corridor, or the Railway project from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan stand to benefit the regional countries immensely.

Along with all this, India has no irredentist claims on any of the CARS, unlike China which has had territorial disputes with a number of them.

Fifth, the joint statement talks about defence cooperation constituting an important pillar between India and concerned Central Asian countries, and mooted joint counter-terrorism exercises between India and interested Central Asian countries. India has battled insurgency in a terrain similar to the CARS. Indian experience and success in battling insurgencies offers valuable lessons for them.  

Sixth, many CARS want Indian knowhow and expertise in IT for the digital transformation of their economies, education, and governance. Several Central Asian universities are keen to forge meaningful collaborations with numerous institutions of higher learning in India,  like the   Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), etc. A number of universities like Sharda and Amity have opened campuses in the region (Uzbekistan).

Seventh, India's health-care sector is greatly sought after in the region as India offers state of the art facilities at low cost. Though the Covid19 pandemic has slowed the growth,  India ranks amongst the world’s top three medical tourism destinations with many of such tourists coming from the CARS. With Covid this demand is only set to grow. 

Finally, India's soft power continues to have tremendous appeal and exert influence,  possibly like in no other region of the world. Cooperation in technology in filmmaking, music, textiles, etc., will be useful to the region. India also remains a place of pilgrimage for many from Central Asia.  This includes not only the Sufi shrines in Delhi and Ajmer, but also the ashrams of Satya Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.  All these will help to further consolidate the bedrock of the multifaceted relations between India and the region’s people-to- people ties.

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