India and Central Asia shares ancient and cultural bonds over centuries. History shows that many invaders came to India through Central Asia. This, along with Indian kings establishing empires up to the 800 km Hindu Kush Mountain Range, worked as high-value links between India and Central Asia through the mediums of culture, religion, language, trade and commerce. In the ancient and medieval period, mutual cultural enrichment between India and Central Asia remained strong. The ancient ‘Silk Route’ established strong geo-economic and geo-cultural relations between the two regions.
Excavations in Harappa provide proof of caravans from Central Asia to the Indus Basin. Globally sea trade emerged the cheaper option, but Central Asia was mostly land-locked, with only western side resting on the Caspian Sea. In modern times, the land route was disrupted because of ‘dog in the manger’ attitude of Pakistan. That is why emergence of the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) and India’s investments in Chabahar port of Iran, both linking India with Central Asia and beyond.
Central Asian Republics (CARs), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – became independent post fall of the Soviet Union. The region being rich in mineral resources like uranium ore, hydrocarbon deposits and vast hydropower potential became a pivot for intra and intercontinental trade and economic linkages. India’s major concerns with the CARs include energy security, trade, investment, infrastructure development, counter-terrorism etc.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five CAR countries in 2015, first by any Indian PM. The First India-Central Asia Dialogue (foreign secretary level) with the participation of Afghanistan was held in Uzbekistan in January 2019. The dialogue aimed to intensify mutual engagement, taking up concrete projects, inter alia, under Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing expertise. India proposed a ‘India-Central Asia Development Group’ with representation from all participating countries in this G2G group; all requested to come up with concrete proposals.
India emphasized no business development, no investment is possible in a country suffering terrorism, therefore, the need to jointly fight the scourge of terrorism. India will host the next India-Central Asia Dialogue with the participation of Afghanistan in 2020.
The Heads of States of Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO) recently met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on June 13-14. The eight SCO members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners. Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have reportedly also applied to join the organization. Addressing the SCO summit, Prime Minister Modi raised the issue of terrorism, saying nations which provide encouragement; support and financial help to terrorists need to be held responsible. He called for a global conference to deal with the challenge posed by terrorism.
Modi also proposed the template ‘HEALTH’ gor cooperation among SCO members; denoting H – healthcare, E – economic cooperation, A – alternative energy, L – literature, T – terrorism-free society, and H – humanitarian cooperation. Reinforcing Modi’s views, the Bishkek Declaration issued on June 14 said terrorism and terrorist ideology were among the issued which required special attention because they were cross-border in nature. It condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, stressing that acts of terrorism cannot be justified. It also said that that interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism as well as using terrorists, extremists and radical groups to achieve one’s own mercenary ends is unacceptable.
Concurrent to the SCO Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an official visit to the Kyrgyz Republic on June 13-14, 2019. He held talks with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov on bilateral relations, international and regional issues of mutual interest, and reached common understanding. Both sides signed 15 agreements, to include: strategic partnership; trade and economic roadmap for period 2019-2024; bilateral investment treaty; cooperation on security; double taxation avoidance; cooperation in field of health; cooperation between Indian NSG and Kyrgyz counterpart; cooperation between India’s National Defence Academy and Kyrgyz counterpart; cooperation between India’s High Altitude Warfare School and Kyrgyz counterpart; cooperation between Exim Bank of India and Kyrgyz counterpart; cooperation on ICT; cooperation in the field of Legal Metrology; cooperation between India’s Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) and Kyrgyz counterpart, and; between India’s YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry and Kyrgyz counterpart.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Sooronbay Jeenbekov appreciated the significant progress in cooperation between the two countries in various fields, since establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, and the Joint Declaration on the Principles and Areas of Cooperation between the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of India of 18 March, 1992, which laid down a strong foundation for the development of bilateral relations between the two countries. Both agreed to raise bilateral relations to the level of Strategic Partnership.
Jeenbekov said the Kyrgyz-Indian Business Forum is a significant event in the development of trade and economic relations between Kyrgyzstan and India, adding, “We believe that the priority Kyrgyz-Indian business forum and textile exhibition are confident steps to develop cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and India”. Jeenbekov said India (like Kyrgyzstan) is focusing on horticulture, animal husbandry and creating favorable conditions for export of agricultural products. He proposed joint efforts to implement projects in the field of agriculture and expansion of cooperation in fields of mining and tourism. Indian Prime Minister, in turn, added that the India will allocate $ 200 million loan for the implementation of joint projects.
India’s strategic partnerships with CARs including with the Kyrgyz Republic are important, mutually beneficial and for ushering in peace and prosperity for the region and the world. Thousands of Indian students have been studying medicine in CAR countries, according to one source some 10,000 in the Kyrgyz Republic alone. India-Kyrgyz Republic commercial relations amounted to US$24.98 million in 2016-2017; India’s exports to Kyrgyzstan were US$22.66 million and Kyrgyz exports to India were US$2.32 million.
As part of the global ‘Great Game’, there appears to be a concerted effort to destabilize Central Asia, one indication being the concentration of Islamic State and affiliates on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The possibility of conflict in Iran would adversely affect the INSTC and Chabahar operations by India. Above all, Pakistan appears to be only making cosmetic efforts to clamp down of terrorism, its military-terrorists nexus having reached a point possibly of no return.
Notwithstanding, all this, India must continue strengthening its strategic partnerships with Central Asia. Since long, CAR have wanted a UN force on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to check terrorism flowing out of Pakistan. While that will remain utopian, India-CAR cooperation, and for that matter global cooperation is vital to fight terror.