Significance of India's engagement with Central Asia and associated challenges

Contact Counsellor

Significance of India's engagement with Central Asia and associated challenges

  • The inaugural India-Central Asia Summit, the India-Central Asia Dialogue, and the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan collectively indicate a renewed enthusiasm in New Delhi to engage the Central Asian region.
  • The region appears to have gained a great deal of significance in India’s strategic thinking over the years
  • While the gains from an engagement of Central Asia may be minimal, the challenges associated with it could be costly in the longer run.

Areas of cooperation

  • India’s trade volume with central Asia is US$ 2 billion
  • Kazind: It is annual bilateral joint exercise between India-Kazakhstan
  • Its focus is to counter insurgency and terrorism in an urban and rural environment.
  • India's only overseas air base lies in Farkhor, Tajikistan.
  • People to people contact is the defining feature of India’s Connect Central Asia Policy.
  • Higher education: Many students from Central Asia come to India for higher studies as India provides the same at marginal cost compared to European and American universities.
  • Research: Many Indian students also visit Central Asia for research purposes.
  • Indian cultural products have been extremely popular in the region since the time of the USSR.
  • People in Central Asia listen to Hindi music and watch Bollywood movies.
  • Organisational cooperation:India and central Asian countries cooperating through Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO)

Indian efforts to enhance engagement with Central Asia

  • India-Central Asia Dialogue: it is a ministerial-level dialogue b/w India and Central Asian countries
  • Its aim is to provide a platform for strengthening coop. in political, security, economic and commercial, development partnership, humanitarian and cultural spheres,
  • Line of Credit: US$ 1 billion LOC is extended by India for priority development projects in Central Asia in connectivity, energy, IT, healthcare, education, agriculture etc.
  • Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods: India acceded to it under cover of TIR Carnets in 2017
  • Ashgabat Agreement: India also joined it which includes Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 2018.
  • High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP): India provides Grant assistance for furthering socio-economic development.
  • India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC): launched in February 2020 and comprises FICCI and chambers of commerce from 5 central Asian countries.
  • It was established to accelerate efforts to promote business linkages, facilitate greater understanding of business regulations and incentivise mutual investments.
  • Hosting of Central Asian media delegation in India in April 2019.
  • Training of Central Asian diplomats at Sushma Swaraj Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi in July 2019.

Benefits of engagement with CAR

  • Power dynamics: The decline of American presence and power in the broader region (due primarily to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) has led to a reassertion by China and Russia seeking to fill the power vacuum
  • Unrest in Afghanistan: U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has landed India in a major dilemma and it has very limited space to engage Taliban 2.0 .India’s engagement of Central Asia would also help it to consolidate its post-American Afghan policy
  • Geopolitical significance of Tajikistan: due to its location bordering Afghanistan as well as its close geographical proximity to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir
  • Iran factor: India’s best route at reaching the CARs is by using a hybrid model via sea to Chabahar and then by road/rail through Iran (and Afghanistan) to the CARs. If there is a deal on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it would bring Tehran back into the Western fold and away from China (and Russia), which will be favourable to India.

Associated Challenges

  • Lack of accessibility: India does not share physical borders with any of the Central Asian states.
  • Domestic challenges faced by region: religious extremism, authoritarian regimes, terrorism, ongoing conflicts etc makes it difficult in furthering India’s economic interests.
  • Connectivity issue: Central Asia, not a part of India’s immediate neighbourhood, issue of connectivity between 2 regions becomes of paramount importance.
  • Landlock nature: Due to the landlocked nature of Central Asian states, no direct sea route between India and the region and that too has a huge impact on regional connectivity.

Way forward

  • India should leverage historical, cultural and civilizational bonds and form traditionally close people-to-people contacts to build its Central Asia partnership.
  • The shared interest between India and Central Asia in containing the forces of destabilisation emanating out of Afghanistan is encouraging the two sides to institutionalise political coordination and deepen security cooperation.
  • Both sides should now work to turn the proclaimed political will into concrete outcomes on connectivity and security.