Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, during the third meeting of India-Central Asia Dialogue in New Delhi in December 2021
The Central Asian region comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has been largely peaceful and stable since the countries attained independence on the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been a game-changer for these countries. In addition to the other challenges of shortages of food, fuel, fertilizers, supply chain disruption, rising debt and inflation that the whole world is facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Central Asian countries find themselves in an even more precarious situation because of their very close partnership and security relations with the Soviet Union, of which they were an integral part till 1991, and later, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with Russia, and, on account of their robust and expanding economic and commercial partnership with China.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been viewed as the security provider of the Central Asia region.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in a significant decline in the influence and sway of Russia inter alia in Central Asia.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict seeks to significantly transform the relative equation between Russia and China in Central Asia. This had started becoming evident even since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The ensuing sanctions by the West resulted in pushing Russia increasingly into the embrace of China with Russia emerging as a subordinate partner to China. This has become even more pronounced after Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ against Ukraine from 24th February, 2022.
The Central Asian nations are getting increasingly uneasy and uncomfortable with Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
China has been rapidly expanding its footprint in Central Asia over the last many years, not only in the trade and economic fields but also in political, military and security affairs. This has been evident in the myriad oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia to China over the last two decades as well as the establishment of a military/police post in recent years in Tajikistan. The Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013 in Kazakhstan has provided a further impetus to the rapidly expanding China-Central Asia partnership.
The diminishing stature of Russia in the Region has animated China to significantly enhance its influence in the region. This was evident from the recent announcement of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link which had been lying dormant for the last many years inter alia on account of Russia’s objections. Also, several far-reaching agreements to further expand economic and commercial partnerships were signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September, 2022. It launched the first China + Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting in July, 2020 and is taking it forward very pro-actively. Snatching a leaf out of India’s book, China hosted its first Summit with leaders of Central Asia virtually on 25th January, 2022, just two days before the India-Central Asia Summit.
The first in-person Summit between Central Asia and China on 18th-19th May, 2023 has given a further fillip and led to the institutionalization of the partnership. The summit resulted in a staggering 54 agreements, 19 new cooperation mechanisms and platforms, and nine multilateral documents, including the Xi’an declaration. This is a strong testimony to China’s growing influence in the region. According to UN statistics, the volume of trade in goods between China and the five countries of the region rose from $460 million three decades ago to more than $70 billion in 2022 – a 150-fold increase -and its investments there totalled $15 billion. To stimulate cooperation and Central Asian development, China announced that it will provide the Central Asian nations with a total of 26 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) of financing support and grants. China has sought deeper links with the region in its quest for greater food and energy security.
Sensing the vacuum in Central Asia because of declining Russian influence, many other countries are actively reaching out to strengthen their presence in the region. Some of the important ones are Turkiye which shares historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and civilizational ties with all of them, except with Tajikistan; Iran which is likely to become the newest member of SCO at the New Delhi Summit in July, 2023; USA; EU, and others.
The rapidly changing dynamics of Central Asia’s regional and global political, strategic and economic architecture provide a bright opportunity for India to diversify and deepen its partnership with these countries. The Central Asian countries constitute a part of India’s extended neighbourhood. India has millennia-old historical and civilizational relations with these countries. India has not been able to leverage its age-old connections with this region because of the absence of geographic contiguity and lack of connectivity with these countries. India has significantly accelerated its engagement with the region over the last nine years starting with the historic visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all five countries in July, 2015. Recent months and years have witnessed a significant uptick in the intensity of bilateral ties.
Prime Minister Modi organized a Central Asia+India Summit in virtual format on 27th January, 2022. It was agreed that such Summits would be organized every two years.
There is considerable identity of views and position on most regional and global issues between India and Central Asia. Some of these include peace and stability in Afghanistan; rapidly promoting Connectivity (INSTC and Chabahar); counter-terrorism; climate change; trade and investment, security and defence etc. India can share its expertise in the areas of IT, digital payment infrastructure, health, education, startups, space industry, textiles, leather and footwear industry, gems & jewellery, tourism, pharmaceuticals, counter-terrorism, anti-radicalization and much more with the Central Asian countries. Once suitable connectivity is established, the region could meet India’s energy security needs in oil, gas, hydropower etc. in addition to uranium which India is already importing from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There is empathy, warmth and trust between the people of India and Central Asia. There is no fear, distrust or threat perceived from India as is the case with some other neighbours in the Region.
What Should India Do?
Some recommendations are given below:
1 In the midst of the growing geo-political turbulence, Central Asia is looking for partners other than Russia and China to engage with. India eminently fits the bill as there is no threat perception that Central Asia feels from enhanced partnership with it. India will, however, need to significantly augment its collaboration with the region in all areas viz. political, official, security, business, scientific, technological, health, education, cultural, Think Tanks and others, both at the bilateral as well as at the regional level.
2 After the virtual India-Central Asia Summit held on 27th January last year, the first in-person India+Central Asia Summit should be held at the earliest next year. Adequate preparations would need to be made so that a strong impetus to bilateral and regional ties is provided.
3 It was decided to institutionalize the relations between India and Central Asia at the virtual Summit last year. This needs to be energized. Subsequent Summits could be held alternately in India and one of the countries of Central Asia. After the 2024 Summit in India, the next Summit could be scheduled either in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan in 2026.
4 It was decided at the Virtual Summit in 2022 that regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Trade Ministers, Culture Ministers and Secretaries of the Security Council should be held to prepare the groundwork for the Summit meetings. An India-Central Asia Secretariat in New Delhi was also to be set up to support the new mechanism. It appears that so far only the meeting between the Secretaries of the Security Council has been held in December, 2022. Other meetings should also be held expeditiously before the in-person Summit early next year.
5 Several other decisions were taken at the Summit last year i.e. creation of an ‘India-Central Asia Parliamentary Forum’; implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) for socio-economic development in Central Asian countries, based on grant assistance by India; utilization of US$ 1 bn Line of Credit announced by India in 2020 for infrastructure development projects in Central Asian countries, and more. Action on all these decisions would need to be expedited.
6 India needs to identify further opportunities in areas spanning political, security, strategic and business to academic, culture, tourism, youth, women development, sports and people-to-people connect to strengthen ties with Central Asia.
7 Although all countries of Central Asia need to be given due attention, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan merit special focus, Uzbekistan because it has emerged as the most proactive among the Central Asian states in its desire to increase partnership with India, and Kazakhstan because it is the largest country in geographical area, endowed with significant mineral resources, and is the largest economy of the region.
8 It would be useful for India to collaborate with other like-minded countries like USA, Japan, Europe and others to strengthen and deepen engagement with Central Asia. This would be to mutual benefit and advantage of Central Asian countries as well as the partner nations.
9 To take full advantage of the emerging opportunities for partnership in Central Asia, India should appoint a Special Envoy for the Region who can reach out to the concerned authorities in the region at the appropriate level, and also get decision making expedited in India.
Taking action on the above has the potential to provide an early, significant fillip to the strategic and vital ties between India and Central Asia.
(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and President, Institute of Global Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)