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Mainstream, VOL LX No 14, New Delhi, March 26, 2022

Reflections on India’s Connect Central Asia Policy | Gull Mohammad Wani

Friday 25 March 2022

by Prof Gull Mohammad Wani

The world is with deep concern watching the conflict in Ukraine and its impact on the global and regional orders. The connect Central Asia policy of the Indian state has assumed more significance in present circumstances. Modi Government hosted first virtual India-Central Asia Summit on January 27, 2022 (CAR leaders had earlier similar virtual summit with Xi Jinping of China). Significantly the summit meetings shall now be held in an institutionalized format after every two years. India was first to accord recognition to Central Asian republics after breakup of Soviet Union. Notwithstanding this India is marginal to the region. India and CAR’s are separated by hot-spots and natural routes are closed due to India-Pakistan rivalry. Meanwhile great power rivalry and "Sphere of influence" theory have come under new spotlight due to conflict in Ukraine. The strategic priority for policy circles in Delhi is to deepen cooperation with Central Asian region through the natural routes and obtain more strategic space to checkmate greater turbulence in regional and global politics. The victory of Modi government in recent elections should induce some realism in Delhi.

Context

Historically, developments in the North-western frontier area have influenced the security environment of the Indian sub-continent. This geopolitical logic shaped the nature of Mughal empire, the British empire and also the post-colonial security landscape. The security experts still refer to "Pannikar Thesis" to re-emphasize the fact that Kabul valley does impact the Gangetic plains. The international and regional order is not settled . We are moving to a more messy multipolar system which is yet to take a shape. The conflict in Ukraine has further exacerbated it. Vladimir Lenin stated "there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen". In this context India-Central Asia summit holds great significance. As a follow-up to this virtual summit an India-Central Asia Secretariat shall be established in Delhi to support the process. The leaders discussed other proposals viz, connectivity, security and cultural contacts to further cement the relationships. Happily, Kazakhstan is home to around 5000 and Kyrgyzstan 15000 Indian students. But all this may not result in any major push to relationship unless Indian leadership recognizes the full picture of connectivity.

Difficult Road

There are many irritants in the path to develop smooth relationship between India and the CAR’s. First, lack of access to land routes and instability in Afghanistan pose big challenges. Second, there is the issue of moving trade- a minuscule $2 billion contrary to China’s trade with CAR’s having exceeded $41 billion which can double by 2030. Third, routing trade through Chabahar port means more investment and India may not go for that in the face of US sanctions on Iran. Fourth, some analysts suggest the alternative viz, Russia-Iran international North-South Transport Corridor via Bandar Abbas Port but the same is not operational. Finally, the (TAPI) Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline plans have also gone into oblivion. While as India is weighing the way forward to connect with CAR’s time and tide wait for none. China is the biggest development and infrastructure partner of the Republics. Russia is not far behind and Pakistan too is increasing its outreach to the CAR’s offering trade access to the Indian ocean at Gwadar and Karachi. The Central Asian region cannot be the cul-de-sac for successive Indian governments and hence we need to find out the reliable entry points for India to overcome its deficit in CAR’s policy.

Tumultuous Context

The Russian action in Ukraine has created more uncertainty in great power politics. Some analysts hold the view that China may be tempted to exploit the opportunities provided by the western entanglement with Russia. China may not remain the principal villain in the eyes of the western world. Speaking at Primakov National Research Institute of world Economy and International Relations in Moscow in July 2001 Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar said "China’s rise impacts India’s immediate neighbors. Its rise also impacts Russia". Earlier former Indian Naval chief Arun Prakash cogently stated "China having amply demonstrated its penchant for "salami-slicing" territory as well as its disdain for international law leaves India with little room for complacency or for vainly hoping that so called legacy issues will resolve themselves with time. It is therefore vital to deconstruct China’s elaborate Charade and to halt the covert but steady hemorrhaging of Indian territory". This builds-up the case for reviving the immediate neighborhood to step into the extended regional space for attainment of foreign policy objectives. There are three key issues which need close scrutiny:

First, diplomacy and diplomats in our part of the world Inspite of wars and territorial disputes were sophisticated and well- versed in the art of diplomacy. The author of this column has firsthand experience of knowing some of them after their superannuation when they positively invested in peace in the region . Unfortunately the softer side of diplomacy is changing into hardwired format. Diplomatic tools viz, tact, skillful persuasion , adjustment, choice of words etc are backseat. The diplomacy has moved from ’secrecy to brazenness’. In the beginning of this year a rude missive from the Chinese embassy to a member of Indian parliament who had attended a function of the ’Tibetan parliament’ in exile is a case in point. Diplomacy as a tool needs to be respected and restored in the region beset with multiple problems.

Second , the decision to abandon SAARC in favor of Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi- Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BMSTEC), Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal initiative (BBIN) and Indian Ocean Rim Association(IORA) may have provided some comfort to Indian state in isolating Pakistan. But the same hasn’t helped it in Afghanistan or more importantly in connecting to Central Asia. The above alignments have not reaped any tangible benefits to Delhi.

Third, China is taking advantage of Indian myopic policy and is increasing its footprints in CAR’s through Shanghai cooperation organization(SCO). Foreign policy pundits opine that China will vigorously contest the vision of Central Asia and South Asia as part of Delhi’s sphere of influence. The great power status doesn’t come from blue sky. It emanates incrementally by investing in immediate neighborhood. Modi governments neighborhood policy is adhoc and reactive. The prime Minister after emerging stronger from recent state elections needs to revisit his speech to Afghan parliament made in 2015. He said "In the achievements of Maurayan Empire and that of Sher Shah Suri we see connectivity we now aspire to achieve and rebuild. Pakistan he said will become the bridge between South Asia and Central Asia". All this sounds sweet but the other truth is that the Pakistani state has equal responsibility to contribute to this otherwise difficult process.

(Prof Gull Wani is teaching Political Science at Kashmir University)

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