India's quest for central Asia

Published January 31st, 2023 - 04:43 GMT
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) arrives at the opening of the budget session of Parliament in New Delhi on January 31, 2023. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP)

India has had a historical and civilizational relationship with Central Asia, and ancient states and kingdoms have been present in some areas of both regions. Modern Central Asia includes the five countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, which became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

India's friendly relations with the Soviet Union facilitated diplomatic relations with the region after 1991. New Delhi was one of the first actors to recognize the independence of the countries of the region. With the opening of Indian embassies in all five capitals of the region, the two-way travel of senior officials, especially Indian ones, has been accelerated in the last decade.

Political and geopolitical goals and approaches

If the 21st century is the age of great and emerging powers such as India and Asia, Central Asia will have a special place as the heart of this continent. In fact, India wants to play a global role in international developments and have a greater foothold in Central Asia.

In the approach of becoming a world power and asking for membership in the Security Council (UN), Central Asia will surely help India to find more strategic depth in the region. India, by moving away from the non-commitment orientation, has then moved towards a strategic partnership and alliance with the US. Therefore, to protect its geopolitical interests, it needs the cooperation of the US and formulas such as C5+1 to create a balance against China in Central Asia.

It also seems that New Delhi, in the policy of multiple commitments and the pursuit of a multipolar world, tries to be sure that its relations with Washington do not prevent cooperation with other actors such as Iran in the Central Asian region or the attention to joint opportunities.

While after the Covid epidemic and the rise of the Taliban, the war in Ukraine has not been favorable for Russia and its role in Central Asia, India does not want to stay away from the reconstruction of alliances among the powers and even a new ‘big game’ in the region.

In order to deal more with the connection between Pakistan and China and not having a land border with the countries of the region, India sees the adjustment of relations with Iran and Russia as a way to help strengthen its position in Central Asia and to contain Pakistan. In addition, advancing the nationalist program of Organization of Turkic States and increasing Turkey's influence in Central Asia, especially with regard to the Turkey-Pakistan axis, Turkey's position and support for Pakistan in Kashmir is detrimental to India's interests.

Also, while the countries of Central Asia are looking for other partners for themselves, India, with the help of think tanks and scientific institutions, has worked on plans and strategies to expand its presence in Central Asia.

In fact, according to Indian values such as ‘non-violence’, New Delhi is trying to move in a more independent and effective way to achieve peace and tranquility in a multi-polar and multilateral world in the region.

Therefore, in the strategic goals and foreign policy of India in Central Asia, more attention is paid to maintaining sovereignty, territorial integrity, socio-political stability, economic security, environmental security, etc. In this regard, holding three joint meetings at the level of foreign ministers, country leaders and secretaries of the Security Council in the last two years shows the improvement of the level of relations and dialogue between India and Central Asia.

Also, the first joint meeting of 5+1, India and Central Asia at the level of the heads of the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and with the presence of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India (January 2022), and proposals such as the establishment of a center as the secretariat of the summit in New Delhi, Biennial Meetings and Joint Parliamentary Assembly demonstrate the effectiveness of India's “Extended Neighborhood’ in the region.

Security and military goals and approaches

Common security interests and concerns with Central Asia, including the threat of terrorism, separatism, fundamentalism, and extremism, strengthen India's security and military presence.

Central Asia, with a Muslim majority, feels the danger of Islamic extremism after the presence of the Taliban in Kabul. India has also faced the danger of radical Islamism, especially in Kashmir. Therefore, India has prioritized the deepening of security cooperation with three countries bordering Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) in order to curb security threats. In this regard, the India-Central Asia meetings emphasized the firm support for a safe and stable Afghanistan, and not using the country’s soil for terrorist actions.

In addition, by pursuing meetings such as the meeting of the secretaries of the Security Council of India and Central Asia in December 2022, India intends to cooperate in Afghanistan, strengthen security cooperation and create a common framework to deal with the challenge of terrorism. 

In another dimension, India's military cooperation and joint military exercises with the countries of this region have increased with the exchange of bilateral meetings, military-technical cooperation, training, joint anti-terrorist exercises, and joint military exercises, etc.

Although India's military presence in Asia is very small, New Delhi is still thinking of expanding its presence in strategic areas such as southern Tajikistan (bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan) and strengthening strategic defense cooperation to deal with the threat of the Taliban and Pakistan.

Economic and technological goals and approaches

India attaches great importance to economic diplomacy in its foreign policy. In the past two decades, apart from India-Central Asia Dialogue, India has pursued better economic connectivity through The Connect Central Asia Policy (CCAP). In the meantime, in 2018, the Ashgabat agreement, the creation of an international transport corridor between Central Asia and the Gulf, was considered more by New Delhi.

But compared to China's superior position in trade with the region (amounting to 100 billion dollars), India's share is only a few billion dollars. Therefore, with regard to the Eurasian Economic Union, the creation of the India-Central Asia Trade Council, the Chabahar Port, the North-South International Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the creation of air corridors, etc., India is expanding its trade with the region. 

India is seeking to become an economic powerhouse in Central Asia, more effectively competing with China's influence in the region.

In national energy security strategy, New Delhi is seeking access to natural gas (especially Turkmenistan), oil, and coal resources in Central Asia. Access to uranium resources from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (the largest producer) is important for India's nuclear energy program. The region also has other important reserves needed by India.

India is facing rapid economic growth and poverty of domestic energy resources. Therefore, by using the resources of Central Asia, it can move in the direction of diversification of energy sources, security, and participation in investment projects in the region.

Also, India is gradually emerging as an actor in infrastructure such as highway construction in Tajikistan and technologies in Central Asia.

In this regard, the emergence of India as a major player in the field of information technology (IT), science, and advanced technologies and more than 38,000 official start-ups (the third largest source of technology start-ups in the world) provides a suitable platform for closer relations between India and Central Asia. In fact, the effort to invest in the region expands the market for Indian products, and the region has a suitable environment for the advanced pharmaceutical industries of India.

India's soft and cultural approach

For thousands of years, India's relations with Central Asia have been a channel for the exchange of culture, thoughts, ideas, religion, and civilization. Even now, New Delhi has tried to increase the attraction of India in the region, usinig Indian cultural products such as Bollywood movies, music, yoga, literature, etc. Also, New Delhi tries to expand cultural relations with the region by organizing cultural events in these countries, India's shared Islamic heritage and multiculturalism with the region, medical tourism, scholarship and a set of soft power assets.

Prospects of India's role in Central Asia

Although, political, geopolitical, economic and cultural challenges have made it more difficult to realize all the goals and strategy of India in Central Asia, New Delhi will continue to try to expand opportunities and options for India's presence and influence in Central Asia by bypassing obstacles such as the lack of a land border with Central Asian countries.

In fact, the countries of Central Asia, due to their geopolitical and geo-economic situation, want to increase their relationship with India and increase the relative role of New Delhi in the region for various reasons. In addition, due to India's various geopolitical interests, needs and the increase of India's global position and gaining more power in the diplomatic, economic, technological, and soft power fields, India's wider presence in Central Asia will be more practical.

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