SPECIAL: India-Central Asia Relations

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The third meeting of the two-day India-Central Asia Dialogue between the foreign ministers of India and Central Asian countries– Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan– will take off on in New Delhi today…writes Ashok Sajjanhar

It is noteworthy that the five Central Asian foreign ministers are travelling to New Delhi at the invitation of Dr S Jaishankar, their Indian counterpart notwithstanding the uncertainty that has gripped the whole world on account of Omicron, the new variant of the coronavirus.

This shows the high importance that these countries accord to their relations with India. The fact that the visit of the five Central Asian foreign ministers is taking place on the heels of the visit by the National Security Advisers/Secretaries, National Security Councils of these countries to Delhi for the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue demonstrates the vitality of the India-Central Asia partnership.

SPECIAL: India-Central Asia Relations

It is notable that India’s ties with Central Asia have taken a decisive upward swing since the assumption of office by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. He became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit all the five Central Asian States in July, 2015, a little more than a year after assuming office of the head of government of India. Prior to his visit, the region had witnessed only four Prime Ministerial visits from India over the previous 20 years!

For India, Central Asia is a part of its extended neighbourhood with which India has enjoyed historical, cultural and civilizational ties spanning several millennia. India’s outreach to Central Asia is significant because the region is vital to India’s security, to meet its growing energy needs including through supply of uranium, as an expanding market for trade and investment, for cooperation in culture, defence, tourism and people- to- people links.

The first India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in the historical city and cultural capital of Uzbekistan, Samarkand in January, 2019. This was designed to bring dynamism and energy to the relationship which had languished for much of the period after these countries became independent in 1991. It is commendable that notwithstanding the havoc wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the second Dialogue in the series took place in October, 2020 through the virtual conference format. It is laudable that the third in the series of Dialogues is being held this year and has not been allowed to drift into the next year. The first in-person meet after more than two years will provide a valuable opportunity to the foreign ministers to take stock of progress in the decisions taken during the last two meetings and identify new areas of cooperation.

PM Narendra Modi and Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon

During the Second Dialogue, India had offered a “USD 1 billion Line of Credit for priority developmental projects in fields such as connectivity, energy, IT, healthcare, education, agriculture etc.” All these are niche areas in which India has proven expertise and capabilities. Central Asian countries “welcomed India’s offer to provide grant assistance for implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) for furthering socio-economic development in the countries of the region.” In the first Dialogue in 2019, India had referred to the useful role played by development cooperation in strengthening our ties with other countries. India “offered to extend this partnership to Central Asia as well, where we can bring our countries closer by taking up concrete projects, inter alia, under our Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing our expertise.” Trade, investment, connectivity and development cooperation are likely to be the most important themes of deliberation among the ministers in the third Dialogue.

The only difference between the format of the third Dialogue with the first two, in addition to being the first to be held in India, is that there will be no representative from Afghanistan in this meeting. The then Afghan foreign minister had participated in discussions in the first two Dialogues in Samarkand (2019) and in the virtual format (2020). This is in keeping with India’s decision last month to not invite any representative from Afghanistan for the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue as we have not recognized the Taliban caretaker administration.

The last few months have witnessed a profound transformation in the regional security architecture. The Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15 but even after four months, no country in the region or outside has accorded diplomatic recognition to this dispensation. However, several countries, including from Central Asia, are carrying on economic and official engagements with the Taliban caretaker administration. Barring Tajikistan, all the Central Asian states are maintaining their embassies in Kabul and also conducting commercial cooperation with the Taliban set-up. The foreign ministers can be expected to identify steps that the Taliban would need to take before it could formally engage with the international community.

These could include putting in place an inclusive government, ensuring that rights of minorities, women, children and girls are safeguarded, not allowing the territory to be used for terrorist operations, stopping the export of drugs, human trafficking etc. The ministers could also affirm their commitment to provide humanitarian food relief and essential medical supplies for the people of Afghanistan and call upon the neighbours to provide free, unhindered and unimpeded access to such supplies.

The biggest obstacle in deepening partnership between India and Central Asia is the absence of common contiguous borders. With Pakistan refusing to provide access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through its territory, India has sought to overcome this impediment by developing connectivity through the Chabahar port in Iran as well as the International North-South Transport Corridor to Central Asia and Russia. India’s accession to the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018 further reinforces this endeavour.

As evidence of expanding cooperation, a contingent of Kazakh soldiers has been deployed under command of an Indian army battalion in Lebanon in UN peace-keeping operations. India has helped to train Kazakh soldiers to equip them for common operational responsibilities.

To attract investments, an Uzbek-Indian Free Pharmaceutical Zone is being developed in Uzbekistan. Apart from providing infrastructure facilities like roads, electricity and water, tax incentives will be offered to the Indian companies.

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Negotiations are progressing between India and Kazakhstan to develop a space satellite for Kazakhstan. Space is a major sector of collaboration between India and Central Asia, particularly with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Immense possibilities exist to deepen cooperation between India and Central Asia in trade and investment, defence and security, energy, Information and Communications Technology, pharmaceuticals, capacity building, agriculture, innovation, education, culture, tourism, space, mining, joint ventures, people to people connect among others. Private business ties ups, small and medium enterprises and start-ups will need to actively discharge their responsibilities.

India has huge goodwill in this region. It does not suffer on account of any historical baggage. It is rewarding to witness that the Indian government is being pro-active in reaching out to the leadership and people of Central Asia and engaging in programmes and activities to realize the full potential of bilateral and regional partnership. The India-Central Asia Dialogue is an excellent platform to achieve this objective.