How Modi's Central Asia visit will be a game changer for India

Parul Chandra
Parul ChandraJul 04, 2015 | 15:08

How Modi's Central Asia visit will be a game changer for India

In the nearly quarter of a century since the five Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan came into existence, India has enjoyed warm and close ties with them. But New Delhi will be hoping to impart a fresh impetus to bilateral relations with each of these nations when Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertakes a hectic diplomatic swirl through them between July 6-8 and then July 10-13.


The upcoming visit, being described by some as a "game changer", comes amid the growing realisation among India's foreign policy mandarins that the government needs to engage more closely and deeply with these nations located in our extended neighbourhood. The upcoming outreach to these countries also fits in well with India's "Connect Central Asia" policy launched in 2012.

The reasons for India's "critical and strategic" diplomatic outreach to these five countries - all former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union - are manifold. A significant reason for India's move to engage more closely with the Central Asian region is geostrategic. The need to boost India's energy security in the backdrop of abundance of natural resources like hydrocarbons and uranium in the region and the growing threat of extremist outfits like the ISIS too has prompted India to seek deeper engagement with the five "Stans" (countries).

"We are facing new security challenges in the region like the ISIS… We have groups that pose a threat to all of us in Central Asia," said Tajik ambassador to India, Mirzosharif Jalolov, at a recent conference in New Delhi. In speaking thus, the Tajik envoy was only enunciating the fears of the Central Asian countries as they deal with growing extremism with some of their own joining the ISIS.


Indeed, cooperation in counterterrorism is expected to be high on the agenda during the PM's visit especially with the ISIS spreading its tentacles into the AfPak region. Both India and the Central Asian countries are equally concerned about what this will mean for Afghanistan's stability after the ongoing drawdown of international security forces from there.

During Modi's visit, New Delhi will also be addressing the issue of connectivity - it remains a major barrier to boosting trade with the five "Stans" - by making a concerted push for larger membership of the "North South Transport Corridor". The proposed "corridor" aims to reduce the cargo transportation time and transactions cost among India, Central Asia and Russia.

The governments of these five countries too acknowledge the importance of this corridor that's expected to give a fillip to their bilateral trade with India that totalled a mere 1.6 billion US dollars as per the latest estimates, with lack of connectivity proving a major stumbling block.

Last but perhaps not the least, China's growing inroads into these countries has India concerned, propelling it to seek deeper engagement with the "Stans". China, in fact, has been increasing its presence in the Central Asian nations by constructing expansive pipelines as well as road and railway networks across the region, with an eye firmly on the rich mineral resources of these countries. Besides, China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative that envisages connectivity via rail, road and sea too has New Delhi worried with the "belt" taking within its swathe Central Asia too.


With India playing catch-up yet again with China, former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan Ashok Sajjanhar said, "Despite the historical, civilisational and cultural linkages, India has not been able to take advantage of this connection." One reason, he says, has been the lack of road connectivity with these five Central Asian countries, all of whom are landlocked.

China, on the other hand, shares a nearly 700km-long border with Kazakhstan and shorter borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Beijing, in fact, appears to have stolen a march over New Delhi with President Xi Jinping paying a state visit to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in September 2013.

India's record in terms of visits at the highest level to these five countries has been rather dismal. The last prime ministerial visits to Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan were way back in September 1995 by then PM, PV Narasimha Rao.

Manmohan Singh, in turn, was the last Indian PM to visit Uzbekistan in April 2006. An Indian PM set foot on Tajikistan soil over a decade ago with AB Vajpayee going there in 2003. President Pratibha Patil then visited in September 2009.

Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian nation that has seen a relatively recent visit by an Indian PM with Manmohan Singh going there in April 2011. A country spread over 2.9 million sqkm, which is nearly 90 per cent of India's area, Kazakhstan's population of 17 million is less than that of Delhi.

A major oil producer, Kazakhstan is seen as an important partner in helping meet India's growing energy needs. India's ONGC Videsh Ltd already has a 25 per cent stake in the Satpayev oil block . India has also been importing uranium ore, with Kazakhstan being a leading producer of this mineral in the world.

India's also looking to meet its energy requirements through the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project that's been proceeding at a tardy pace. New Delhi plans to discuss during the PM's Turkmenistan-leg of the tour to see how this project can be speeded up.

The Modi visit will also serve to highlight the historical and cultural linkages India has with these nations. India's first Mughal emperor Babur came from Uzbekistan and Zebunissa, the poet-daughter of another Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, is still loved for her poetry in Tajikistan.

Even Sufi poet and scholar Amir Khusro had ancestors who came from a region known in ancient times as Transoxiana - the name used for that portion of Central Asia corresponding approximately with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and southwest Kazakhstan. Even Delhi's famous Turkman Gate built in the 17th century derives its name from Turkmenistan.

Will historical links and geostrategic compulsions combine to ink a fresh chapter in India's ties with the five "Stans"? India, for one, will certainly be hoping they do.

Last updated: July 04, 2015 | 15:08
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