Context:

1st India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and was co-chaired by the Minister of External Affairs of India

Summit outcomes

  • The ministerial level summit saw the participation of External Affairs Ministers of Afghanistan, Kyrgyz Republic,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
  • India also invited Central Asia Republics (CAR) to participate in the Chabahar Port project jointly undertakenby India and Iran to move Indian goods to landlocked Afghanistan.
  • India also proposed the creation of a Regional Development Group for better coordination on economic andpolicy issues.
  • India also proposed a dialogue on air corridors with the countries of landlocked Central Asia. India already hasopened air corridors for the transport of goods and perishables between India and several Afghan cities mainlyto circumvent Pakistan that controls the overland trade.

Importance of Central Asia to India

  • Strategic Location: Geographically, thelocation of these countries makes them abridge between different regions of Asiaand between Europe and Asia. With theChabahar Agreement with Iran in place,new trade routes have been openedbetween India & Central Asia, bypassingPakistan.
    • India’s only foreign military airbase is inFarkhor (Tajikistan), which is operatedby IAF and Tajik Air Force. CARs shareborders with China, Afghanistan, Russiaand Iran. Tajikistan is located inproximity to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
  • Energy security: The countries of Central Asia are endowed withsignificant hydrocarbon and mineral resources and are close toIndia geographically. For example:
  • Kazakhstan is the largest producer of Uranium and has hugegas and oil reserves as well.
  • Uzbekistan is an important regional producer of gold alongwith Kyrgyzstan.
  • Tajikistan has vast hydropower potential besides oil deposits, and Turkmenistan has the fourth largestgas reserves of the world.
  • Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — are also in the Caspian littoral, thereby promising to open the door toother energy-rich Caspian states.
  • Security: The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will have severe regional security implications. CARsface serious threat from illegal drug trade emanating from ‘Golden Crescent’ of opium production (Iran-PakAfghan) and are also victims of illegal arms trade. Instability in Central Asia can spill over to PoK.
    • Further, religious extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism continue to pose challenges to Central Asiansocieties as well as regional stability.
  • Trade and Investment potential: The economic development of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan,Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, has sparked a construction boom and development of sectors like IT,pharmaceuticals and tourism. India has expertise in these sectors and deeper cooperation will give a freshimpetus to trade relations with these countries. There is also a great demand for Indian pharmaceuticalproducts in the region.

Challenges to India

  • Land locked region: It is land locked, which has hampered India’s relation with central Asia. Poor connectivityhas also contributed to the below-par trade between India and Central Asia.
    • Further India does not share physical borders with any of the Central Asian states. This is a hugebottleneck in promoting and expanding economic, commercial, energy, tourist links etc with them. Theold Silk Route was one option, but the security situation in Xinjiang, unresolved border conflicts with Chinaand prolonged negotiations have compelled India to explore alternative routes to reach CARs.
    • The unstable situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance in the region has deprivedIndia from the benefit of relations with Central Asia.
  • Chinese presence: Central Asia is part of Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. Moreover, the threatfostered by Islamic radicalization spilling over to Uighurs in Xinjiang province has led to China getting wellentrenched in Central Asian security affairs, thereby impinging on India’s interests indirectly.
  • Radicalism and Extremism: Central Asia finds itself exposed and vulnerable to influences like Al Qaeda, IslamicState, Taliban, IUM, Hizb-ut-Tahrir etc.
  • Further region itself has its own domestic challenges such as ‘‘youth bulge’’ combined with limited economicopportunities; serious and worsening corruption; Drug trafficking; Managing succession in autocratic stateswithout strong government or party institutions etc.

India’s policies and efforts in Central Asia

  • Connect Central Asia Policy: Launched in 2012 it includes:
    • Strong political relations through the exchange of high-level visits and multilateral engagements
    • Strategic and security cooperation through military training, regular intelligence sharing, counterterrorism coordination and close consultations on Afghanistan.
    • Long term partnership in energy and natural resources.
    • Helping to provide a viable banking infrastructure in the region.
    • Increase presence of Indian firms in CARs in construction and power sector.
    • Improve connectivity through INSTC, air services, people to people and cultural exchanges.
  • Shanghai Cooperation Organization: With full membership of SCO, there will be more frequent summit levelcontacts between the top leaderships of India & CARs.
  • International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC): India is a founding member of the International NorthSouth Transport Corridor (INSTC), a project to link India and Iran via the sea route and then through Iran tothe Caspian Sea onwards to Central Asia.
  • Development of Chabahar port in Iran: It will allow access to landlocked Afghanistan and energy-rich CentralAsia through the Jawaharlal Nehru and Kandla ports on India’s west coast.
  • Ashgabat Agreement: India has acceded to the Ashgabat Agreement, an international transport and transitcorridor facilitating transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.
  • Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI): It is the proposed natural gas pipeline that runs from Galkynysh field (Turkmenistan) – Herat – Kandahar – Multan – Fazilika (Pak-India Border). Not only it will provide a reliable source of natural gas at competitive prices, but it will play a strategically crucial role for thepeace and security of the region.
  • Eurasian Economic Union (EEU): India is negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement withthe Eurasian Economic Union, which include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
  • Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme is also an effective instrument under whichyoung professionals of these countries undergo training and human capacity development.

Conclusion

  • Both the regions have not made the optimum utilization of the available opportunities in diverse sectors.Strengthening of relations between India and Central Asia is to mutual benefit of all countries involved.
  • Good relations with India will also provide an assured market to these countries for their energy, rawmaterials, oil and gas, uranium, minerals, hydro-electric power etc.
  • The current political, strategic and economic scenario, both regionally and internationally, presents immensechallenges but also potential for India and Central Asia to qualitatively enhance their engagement.
  • Stronger relations between them will contribute to increased security and prosperity of these countries andthe world. The existing India-Central Asia Dialogue should be upgraded qualitatively so that constantcommunication with important stakeholders in the region is maintained.
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