Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming visit to the Central Asian States could prove a smart strategic and diplomatic feat by paving the way to overcome several predicaments that have so far stymied India’s role in the region. Though much time has been lost, reconnecting with the land of Sakas (Kushans) would be a useful national strategic endeavour. India’s stakes go beyond the energy and security aspects.
As Central Asia gets de-Europeanized, there is a major power rivalry afoot. The region is already getting swamped by the Chinese as well as by extremist forces. China has pushed for the interlocking of economic and security interests in Central Asia. It has finally broken a century and half of Russian monopoly in the region. It is China that now controls the flow of goods and services to and from the region.
China’s presence and influence have not invoked any “Great Game” fear. Its presence in the region has not elicited any tangible Russian opposition. Nor has it stirred any containment by the United States and India. Instead, China has come to enjoy an air of respectability in the region. Central Asian Republics are excited about China’s “One Road One Belt” (OBOR) initiative; they hope that it would revive the legendary Silk Route marvel. The West has questioned Russia’s economic agenda in Central Asia, but remains silent on China’s drive. In fact, it sees OBOR as not being “mutually exclusive” to US plans for Central Asia and Afghanistan.
India views the fragility of Central Asia as a source of insecurity. The region is prone to Arab-Spring-type explosions as its politico-economic parameters resemble those in West Asia. Regional leaders have firmly resisted political change, and their regimes are insulated from falling by China and Russia.
Central Asia is the northern frontier of the Islamic world. Behind the current secular settings, a major shift is underway towards Political Islam. While the phenomenon is pronounced in Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, disparity in wealth distribution is instilling public discontent even in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Islam has always remained the dominant factor for the polity in Uzbekistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has links to al Qaeda, is well entrenched. Worst, even the Islamic State is heavily recruiting in Central Asia.
Central Asia is located next to the world’s most unstable region – Af-Pak. The region’s borders with Afghanistan are extremely porous for militants as well as for those engaged in drug trafficking and weapons proliferation. It is only a matter of time before instability in the region becomes worse than the crisis in Syria and Iraq.
Clearly, both extremism and China’s deep penetration of and growing influence in the region do not augur well. Together they could spell the death knell for India’s northern outreach. Of course China’s OBOR journey could face a bumpy drive, but the West has not so far reacted with any alarm to this Chinese move on the Eurasian chessboard.
India has so far lacked a cogent Central Asia policy. Hopefully, Modi would be able to evolve one. After all, he is proving to be historically the most conscious Indian leader after Jawaharlal Nehru.
Russia’s presence was a preferred option for India all along. But its influence in the region is waning. Russia is instead seeking convergence with China in the face of its own worsening standoff with the West.
Uzbekistan is the nerve centre of Central Asia. Zahir-ud-Din Babur came from the Ferghana Valley. Cultural contacts between India and Uzbekistan are deep and they cannot be wished away. Oil-rich Kazakhstan deserves India’s immediate attention. Turkmenistan is relevant for the TAPI pipeline, if at all it works out. Kyrgyzstan has huge hydropower potential and, like Mongolia, it is a democracy. India enjoys historical affinity with Tajikistan. The country is strategically critical for India in the context of the Af-Pak region.
For India to evolve an enduring Central Asia policy, it should foster a regional economic integration approach even if that means cooperating with China. But the main problem it faces when it comes to Central Asia is the lack of direct geographical connectivity. What has compounded this problem is New Delhi’s pursuit during the last two decades of the flawed policy of gaining access to Central Asia through the Persian Gulf. This folly in thinking persists even now. Routing through Iran and Afghanistan or via the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) are important pursuits, but even the best pursued connectivity and pipelines projects like the IPI and TAPI have not seen the light of day. Of course, these options should not be foreclosed, but the delays involved in actualising them go against India’s economic interests.
To reconnect with the Eurasian market, India needs to explore the hard but natural option of seeking a direct land-link through China. This would demand steps for opening up India’s northern borders i.e., reviving the traditional Ladakh-Xinjiang axis as the natural gateway to Eurasia.
The issue here is not about connectivity alone, but about interlocking the economic integration of India’s northern states with that of the Eurasian growth story. The shift in thinking along this direction can no longer be put off. If India remains disconnected from Eurasia, it would only instil greater insecurity and fears of encirclement vis-à-vis China. To overcome India’s geographical isolation from Central Asia and to increase India’s stakes in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Modi should articulate this point in Ufa.
India shared a common history and culture with Eurasia – once bound by the Silk and Spice Trade Routes. Clearly, reconnecting these points would foster better economic relations and improved political ties. Security issues are also getting more and more intertwined. Only Ladakh can become the launching pad for India’s Eurasian outreach. And only sound connectivity can make India’s participation in BRICS and SCO more robust. Such a proposal could also constitute a counterpoise to China’s call upon India to join the Silk Route.
It is time that flights from New Delhi to Urumchi or Kashgar started. India and China’s Xinjiang province have already signed an agreement on civil aviation cooperation. Flights between New Delhi and Urumchi or Kashgar could also be utilised to improve India’s air connectivity with Central Asia, i.e., hops via Almaty, Tashkent or Bishkek. Modi should also press for the re-opening of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar, which was closed in the mid-1950s.
Realizing such a goal would be an ice-breaking moment for Modi and Xi. India should view the SCO and BRICS from a positive perspective of restoring its lost linkages with Eurasia. Of course, for this to gain greater credence, Russia must also be taken on board.
[This piece has been published with institutional consent from Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. It also appeared in IDSA]