India and Central Asia Foreign Policy: An Overview

Chitra Rajora
dr.chitrarajora@gmail.com


Introduction

India and Central Asian countries have enjoyed fruitful and cordial relations during the existence of the Silk route. Both sides have a very long historic, cultural and economic connection through the silk route which not only connects the people and businesses but also has let the thoughts, culture and beliefs flow freely from one region to the other (Bagchi,1955). Looking at the past relationship between India and the Central Asian region, one such connection is through the religion of Buddhism, having its origin in India, was appreciated by the people in central Asia, and similarly, many Sufi- silsilahs popular in India have their connection with that region. If you look at the bilateral relations of India and Central Asia, remnants of such a relationship still exist in the form of the Turkan Gate, which was built in Delhi in 1650 (Rajora, 2017).

Dr. Chitra Rajora, PhD in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Chitra Rajora studies the History of Central Asia, and Russia, the foreign policy of India and India’s political system.

Even ancient Indian texts speak of changes that were represented by people outside the Himalayas or the Hindu Kush as Uttara-kuru (located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan). Thus, numerous descriptions of the region are found in various Hindu- Buddhist texts, which shows that since the time of the Sakas or the Indo-Scythian tribes, the links between India and Central Asia have remained uninterrupted (Gopal, 2001). The texts also mention the great trade route known as Uttarapath, which connected the Indo-Gangetic plain with the southern edge of the Eurasian continent, through ancient Takshashila and Gandhara (Modern Pakistan and Afghanistan).

In addition, Central Asia was perceived in India with military overtones- as a frequent springboard for invasions of India. Ancient texts and treatises have mentioned relentless threats coming from the northwest of India. The great epic of Mahabharat and the ancient Pali texts vividly described the dynamics of threats posed to India from the region (Firdous, & Dar, 2014). It seems clear that almost every foreigner, including the Greeks, Turks and Mughals, with the exception of the native Mongols, carried out military campaigns into India through the Central Asia steppe. In the Middle Ages, until the Timurid period (XIV century) the region was the epicentre of world power, the dominance and influence, which extended to India and later Babur founded the Mughal Dynasty in India in the XVI century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian Empire reached the northern outskirts of India which led to the ‘Great Game’ with the British Empire (Dash, 2012).

Thakharchistan (Tokharistan) in Central Asia was a state which was dominated by Indian cultural and Buddhist religions. Central Asia scholars used to come to India during the middle-ages. And also, Indian music and cinema have been highly appreciated by the people of the Central Asia region.  India was one of the countries that enjoyed relations with the Soviet central Asian region. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the newly independent nations started to stabilize their nation. Besides, since their independence, the republics have been engaging with the countries in the region and beyond, and India was amongst the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with them (Santhanam & Dwivedi, 2004).

Bilateral Relations: India and Stans

Both India and Central Asia are strongholds of different civilizations. Central Asia has Slavic, Turkish, Arab, and Indian cultures, which is why it is called the Heartland of Eurasia. Central Asia has been a centre of attraction in the world due to its geographical location.  A lively example is that Central Asia has been considered a supplier of energy to world superpowers like; China, the USA, Iran and the UK, where even India hasn’t remained untouched by this. Central Asian countries have been following prudent foreign policy to establish their international legitimacy (Ashok Sajjanhar, 2017).

India has always put forward “Connect Central Asia” and “Extended Neighborhood” strategies from time to time to maintain its strong position in the region. Under this, effective political, economic and humanitarian connectivity has been there between India-Central Asia countries (reciprocity). But a stable terrestrial relationship is yet to be forged. India has always extended its hand to provide grants and loans to Central Asian countries (Gopal, 2001). A notable example of this is the preferred loan of $1 million for infrastructure development which was offered to Uzbekistan. The Central Asian countries see India as an influential actor in Asia and is a rapidly growing economy and a successful investor.  This becomes evident in the new format of the 2019 India-Central Asia Ministerial Dialogue, the first meeting of which was held in Samarkand (ibid.).

India’s 26th January Republic Day Parade, which gives a hint towards the changing direction of India’s foreign policy, was used by it through an invitation to all heads of state from the five Central Asian Republics (CARs). But the pandemic intervened, limiting their engagement to the first-ever India-Central Asia Summit, which took place online on 27 January 2022. All countries agreed on holding the summit once every two years, the next expected in 2024.

Apart from having strong cultural and historical ties, India is also playing an important role by establishing a significant presence in the region, despite the lack of convenient connectivity routes. As a result of this geopolitical reality, there has been a decrease in investment in the energy sector in both countries. India has been investing in two big projects to provide access to gas reserves in the region for better connectivity by INSTC and TAPI Pipeline, thereby building new energy trade routes to India (Rajora, 2017). Another important aspect is India’s role in Central Asian-centered multilateral forums and organizations such as CICA, SCO, and EEU. The region has become an important partner of the European Union (EU) due to the important geographical location of Central Asia at the crossroads of Europe and Asia (Rajora, 2017). The Central Asian regions, particularly Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are rich in energy, most of which is still untapped, and even the European Union is interested (Ministry of External Affairs of India, 2016).

Keeping this global demand in mind further, India is taking care of its national interests by joining the Regional Organizations and by Coordinating with Central Asia using existing synergies through existing forums such as SCO, EEU, and Customs Union, and accelerating multifaceted activities with Central Asia. For this, India has already proposed a comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which aims to integrate Indian markets with the Central Asian region. Thus, the greater importance of Central Asia for India also becomes important because of the challenges before both countries, which are a major concern. Militant Islam has shown its presence in Central Asia and some small terrorist groups exist in this region. Also, Afghanistan’s stability is a major important issue and area of their cooperation (Pradhan, 2011).

India and CARs have a weak link in bilateral relations due to a lack of direct access to the region. Increasing cooperation in areas that do not require a direct land corridor would be mutually beneficial. During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to CARs in 2015, he underlined the potential areas of cooperation such as IT, e-Network, Pharmacy, biotechnology, textiles, silk, leather goods, mining and Exploration; hydropower and Renewable energy sources and facilitating medical tourism and visa system etc.  These areas have been promoting Indian investments in CARs. One such option was reflected in bilateral agreements signed during this visit. Before PM Modi’s initiative, the ‘Connect Central Asia policy’ was formulated in 2012 (Liu, 2012).

The purpose of that policy reiterates the commitments of India’s extensive partnership with the countries of Central Asia; there has been significant progress in the relationship between the two regions. The recent activity was held in FICCI at the launch of the India-Central Asia Council on February 06, 2020. Going through this dialogue, India’s External Ministry said that “within the framework of the India-Central Asia dialogue, the Government has been committed to a vibrant partnership but to realize this industry must play its role” (Economic Times News, 2021). On October 29, 2021, a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of India and Central Asian countries took place, during which the participants discussed issues of regional development. In particular, the topic of conversation was the development of transport corridors and the fight against coronavirus, as well as security issues. As the ministers noted, such a diplomatic platform is “a sought-after and effective mechanism for expanding regional cooperation” (Ministry of External Affairs, India, 2021).

Another milestone, January 27, 2022, the first-ever India-Central Asia summit took place. It was chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The summit was attended by the leaders of all five Central Asian republics – the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Due to the pandemic, the forum will be held in the format of a videoconference (MEA 2022). In this regard, Sadyr Japarov, Kyrgyzstan’s President, said that Kyrgyzstan supports the initiative of the Indian side to hold a dialogue “India – Central Asia” at the level of heads of state in the anniversary year. I believe that this event will contribute to the further development of mutual and fruitful regional cooperation” (Debeta, 2019;145-147). 

Recently, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) was launched with the two Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as its members. Under this initiative, India, with its impressive growth rate, is seen as a potential partner for the strong economic development of Central Asian countries. Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) came into effect in 2015, which includes Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Armenia. The EEU, with 176 million people, aims to build a market with 4 $ trillion GDP because the EEU has a stock of natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, coal, iron and steel. India was invited by Russia to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with EEU countries. The viability of the free trade agreement between India and EEU is being considered. This will give India a well-prepared market and it is expected to be very beneficial for India’s economy (Yogendra Kumar,2015).

The CIS country can be a great market for India’s pharmaceuticals, which will provide a great opportunity for the Indian pharmacy industry through the FTA. The FTA will also facilitate improvement in the connectivity of India with Central Asian and EEU countries, but to promote trade relations with the EEU members, joining the Iran-North-South-Transport Corridor is important (Santhanam & Dwivedi 2004). Many Indian Businessmen doing business in Central Asia countries often say that the non-presence of Indian banks in the republics has been affecting bilateral trade. Alternatively, business leaders from India can establish a bank on the PPP model with governments and private capitals from the region and India. It will greatly boost trade and ease business transactions (Rajora, 2017).

Conclusion

Historical links have been between India and Central Asian countries. These civilizations have been close to each other since the time of the silk route. There has been no problem in their diplomatic relations for the last 30 years. But keeping in mind the rising demand for India’s energy, economic relations with Central Asia countries should be increased and they should be strengthened. India needs to work more actively towards Central Asia in the context of a holistic and long-term approach. Both partners should discuss and establish projects of mutual interest to establish an India- Central Asia forum to expand the relationship from time to time. The Central Asia fund can also be set up to finance various projects. In addition to making the INSTC effective, Chabahar port needs to be developed on a priority basis as well as linking it to other connectivity-related initiatives in the region.

References

Ashok Sajjanhar, (2017), Distinguished Lecture by Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar on India-Central Asia Relations – The Emerging Partnership at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda on 24th May 2017 Available at       Distinguished Lectures Details (mea.gov.in) (Accessed on July 2021).

Bagchi, P C. (1955), India and Central Asia, Calcutta: National Council of Education, Bengal, Jadavpur University. 

Dash, P L (2012), India and Central Asia: two decades of transition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dawn News (2016), India offers $1bn in fresh aid to Afghanistan, September 14, 2016, Available at https://www.dawn.com/news/1283902        (Accessed on 21 May 2017)

Debeta, M (2019), Central Asia Today: Issues and Concern, Published by Academic Excellence, Delhi, India.

DNA News (2016), Chabahar port: India to build 500 km rail line on the southern coast of Iran as part of transit corridor to Afghanistan,  23 May 2016,          DNA, Daily News analysis [Online: Web], accessed on 21 May 2021, http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report-chabahar-port-            india-to-build-500-km-rail-line-on-southern-coast-of-iran-as-part-of-transit-corridor- to-afghanistan-2215791

Firdous, T & Dar, F (2014), The New Silk Road Strategic Revisited, The Journal of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, vol. XXI. 

Gopal, S. (2001), India and Central Asia: cultural, economic and political links, Delhi: Shipra Publications. 

Liu. X (2012), India and Central Asia: A Reader, Ranikhet: Permanent Black; Bangalore: Distributed by Orient Blackswan.

Ministry of External Affairs India (2013), SCO Summit, Bishkek, September 09, 2013, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, at http://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-   article.htm?22172/SCO+Summit+Bishkek+September+13+2013.           (Accessed on 17 June 2021). 

Pradhan, R (2011), Dynamic of India- Central Asia Relations: Energy as Strategic       Factor, in Journal of Central Asia, University of Kashmir: Srinagar, vol 1(20).

Rajora, Chitra (2017),   India-Kazakhstan move towards stronger bilateral ties,           11 May 2017, ICWA, Delhi, Available at भारत – कजाख्स्तानः मजबूत द्विपक्षीय संबंध की ओर बढ़ते हुए कदम – Indian Council of World Affairs (Government   of India) (icwa.in)  (Accessed on 17 December 2018).

Rajora, Chitra (2017),  25 Years of India-Tajikistan Relations: An Overview, 28            August 2017, ICWA, Delhi, Available at भारत – ताजिकिस्तान सम्बन्ध के 25 वर्ष            : एक    अवलोकन – Indian Council of World Affairs (Government of India)            (icwa.in) (Accessed on 18 January 2019).

Rajora, Chitra (2017), India-Turkmenistan Bilateral Relations: Mutual             Cooperation and Challenges., 18 July, ICWA, Delhi,  Available at भारत-           तुर्कमेनिस्तान द्विपक्षीय सम्बन्ध: पारस्परिक सहयोग एवं चुनौतियां – Indian Council of World Affairs (Government of India) (icwa.in)  (Accessed on 13 April            2019).

Rajora, Chitr (2017), India and Uzbekistan Bilateral Relations: A New Initiative,         25 July 2017, ICWA, Delhi Available at भारत और उज़्बेकिस्तान द्विपक्षीय         सम्बन्ध: एक नई            पहल – Indian Council of World Affairs (Government of           India) (icwa.in) (Accessed on 29 January 2019).

Santhanam, K & Dwivedi R. (2004), India and Central Asia: advancing the common interest, New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and      Analyses: Anamaya Publishers. 

Sengupta, A (2011), Perceptions and strategies: India Relation with the Central           Asia Region, in Mapping Central Asia: Indian Perceptions and           Strategies, Laruelle, M & Peyrouse, S. (eds.) England: Ashgate             Publishing Limited. 

 The Economic Times,  2020, Indian Foreign Minister urges industry to take greater interest in Central Asia, 6 February 2020,  Indian Foreign      Minister urges industry to take greater interest in Central Asia – The        Economic Times (indiatimes.com) (Accessed on 15 October 2021).


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