India’s Gambit in the Central Asian Abyss

Central AsiaThe importance of Central Asia tends to be under-estimated by most Western observers, particularly in the major print media and on TV. It was only the Western business world that understood the region’s significance promptly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Central Asian Republics (CARs) claimed their independence from Moscow. Since then, the region has increasingly dazzled players from near and far, once they’ve grasped its worth as a crucial source of energy — both oil and gas as well as hydroelectric power, and as a strategic asset — political and economic.

Among these we may count India. While establishing diplomatic contacts with the CARs in the 1990s, India was rather slow to pursue expanded relations more energetically — whether in the economic, political or military spheres. Several factors may account for this:

  1. In the early 1990s, India had just embarked on a policy of economic reforms, and it was in no position to exploit trade and investment opportunities with these new republics, especially inasmuch as they themselves lacked the wherewithal to cast their economic nets abroad;
  2. Until the last few years, India had concentrated its economic and diplomatic resources on its “Look East” policy which focused on the development of wide-ranging relations with Southeast and East Asia;
  3. Transportation facilities which could allow trade and other exchanges were sharply restricted by formidable political and geographical barriers — the latter being largely the Himalayan Mountain Range. But it was the partition of India in 1947 and ensuing hostilities with Pakistan that immeasurably complicated access to Central Asia. The loss of Northern Kashmir to Pakistan, following initial hostilities between the two new states, and principally the creation of Pakistan itself, added considerable distance — physical and political — between India and Central Asia.

Over the last two to three years, India has been unrelenting in its efforts to correct this oversight — especially as economic growth has facilitated these endeavors. Starting in 2009, high-level visits by top Indian and CAR leaders to each other’s respective capitals culminated in India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. Inaugurated in June 2012 at the first India-Central Asia Dialogue in Kyrgyzstan, the policy was fleshed out by India’s Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, during his visit to Tajikistan on July 2-3, 2012. This served to add weight to India’s commitment to “engagement with Central Asian Countries, both individually and collectively” for the purpose of securing “core national interests” — political, cultural, strategic and economic.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Attaining those objectives would clearly be difficult, if not impossible, given the very tangible physical and political barrier to Central Asia epitomized by Pakistan. There was one way out of this dilemma: reliance on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as a bridge to Central Asia. But that, in turn, could be assured only if Afghanistan could function as it had in antiquity, when it was the central location of a highway system linking East and West. The famed Silk Road had enabled the transport of goods and people over nearly 7,000 miles, from the Han Chinese, through ancient Bactria — now part of Afghanistan, to the vast Roman Empire. This ancient system of transport was also viewed as a symbol of “collective security and global peace” throughout these huge expanses. No less today than it was in olden times, commerce remains an anchor of peace and stability. Hence, the New Silk Route initiative, introduced at the United Nations in September 2011 by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, envisaged the creation of modern highway and railroad networks as well as energy pipelines. Washington saw this as part of the transition program following the reduction of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan through 2014, when the nation’s security would be turned over to the Afghan government.

In the post-2014 milieu, India is on the same page as the U.S., as evidenced by India’s investment of $2 billion to build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure, and the hosting of an investment summit on Afghanistan aimed at improving its economy and military security. This is also attested to by Foreign Minister Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan (a neighbor of Afghanistan) when both agreed that the region’s stability depended on a stable Afghanistan. Words were reinforced by strategic ties between the two countries, such as a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, and cooperation in strategic and security programs, including the free military training of Tajik cadets and officers in Indian training institutes, as well as joint research and consultation on Afghanistan — all within the framework of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

The key word here is “connect”: connectivity between India and Central Asia — both physical and electronic — is extremely poor. This has restricted trade and other economic exchanges, as well as diplomatic and political ties. Hence, India has been negotiating on initiating direct flights to each Central Asian country. One of the more creative initiatives on India’s part has been a plan to link the 5 CARs to each other and to India electronically, along the lines of the Pan-African e-network developed by India for the African Union nations. It is a plan that has been gifted to Central Asia.

For India, the most valuable resource available in the region is energy — whether oil, gas or hydroelectric power. Tajikistan is only one Central Asian state with which economic cooperation can benefit energy-hungry India: it is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia. Yet it has exploited only 3-5% of its potential. India is a latecomer (after Russia, Iran and China) in providing investment in this sector.

However, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are much richer sources of energy. One of the more promising (though still incomplete) projects is the natural gas pipeline (TAPI) which would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India. A hugely rich oil and gas resource is the Caspian Sea, and the fortunate littoral states which can claim ownership of their offshore energy fields include Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as the Caucasus state of Azerbaijan on the west, and finally Russia on the northwest and Iran on the south. While not a littoral state, Uzbekistan deserves mention as Central Asia’s largest natural gas producer.

Without doubt, Indian companies (whether state-owned or private) are deeply interested in oil and gas exploration in Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea region and in Uzbekistan, as well as a hydropower project in Tajikistan. But they are also interested in Afghanistan’s iron ore resources and in the development of copper and gold deposits in the country.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that Indian players have encountered and will continue to face sharp competition from the Russians and Chinese who have a head-start in the region, as do Western energy players who saw the wealth of opportunities open up there right after 1991.

This brief introduction to Central Asia and India’s interest in the strategic, political and economic opportunities offered by the region’s resources and its strategic location provides only a minimal glance at this important but inadequately understood arena of geopolitics. In such a brief narrative, one can only hint at the complexity and rich diversity of the region’s resources and the manifold opportunities provided not only to the regional players but even more, to external players — both in the neighborhood and beyond.

Mary C. Carras, professor emerita, Rutgers University, is an analyst of Indo-American relations. Her writings include a political biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a study of Indian political factions.