Geopolitics

Looking at Central Asia – India’s Extended Neighbourhood
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 04 Mar , 2017

Central Asian Region (CAR) is considered to be the part of India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’. Central Asia of today consists of five nations namely; Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All these five nations became independent after the collapse of USSR in 1991.

India looks at Central Asian region as a provider of its needs for natural resources. For that to happen, India needs to have strong political ties with these nations.

The key elements which outline India’s Central Asia policy today, constitutes Political, Economic and Strategic Cooperation. Political cooperation involves building strong political ties through high-level engagements and interaction between leaders at bilateral and multilateral levels. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to all five Central Asian countries last year in July 2015, can be seen as a part of this political cooperation.

The cooperation becomes even more vital when one looks into India’s need for oil and energy. India looks at Central Asian region as a provider of its needs for natural resources. For that to happen, India needs to have strong political ties with these nations. India wants to make up for its low prioritization of this region following the collapse of erstwhile USSR, which these Central Asian nations were a part of.

The political cooperation involves government to government interaction primarily at bilateral level and secondly at multilateral level but the important thing to remember is that the engagement at former level enhances the cooperation at multilateral level. Once the political cooperation is established, it opens a big door for economic tie ups between the governments as well as the private sector.

The point which is noteworthy is that political engagements can provide a solid base for developing good economic relations. The economic cooperation as mentioned in the outline of Connect Central Asia Policy talks about developing long term partnerships in energy sector. Other sectors like construction and agriculture have been also featured under the big umbrella of economic cooperation.

Today, India imports its large chunk of energy and oil from the Middle East and due to continuous instabilities every now and then in Middle East, the prices of oil and other energy resources also fluctuates simultaneously.

India being one of the largest agrarian economies is looking forward to cooperate in production of profitable crops with value addition in the crop quality. This would be beneficial for Central Asian region. Some international relations experts say that “compulsion drives policy” and this phrase looks perfectly apt for India’s involvement with the region. Indian companies now are in search for new markets where they can expand their business, market experts are of opinion that Central Asia has a huge untapped potential.

Diplomats of various central Asian countries have many times mentioned that the reason behind low investments of Indian companies when compared to other far off regions of the world is that people in India have certain preconceived notions about the region and the perception of the region is that its backward, which according to them is far from reality. In fact, the kind of progress the region has seen in terms of infrastructure, human capital and economic development in general is way better than South Asian nations including India.

India has also taken note of Central Asia’s growth especially in its energy sector. Today, India imports its large chunk of energy and oil from the Middle East and due to continuous instabilities every now and then in Middle East, the prices of oil and other energy resources also fluctuates simultaneously. Till now, India doesn’t have an alternative for its energy needs. This is because the other oil fields are quite far off where India has bought some oil fields but it’s nearly impossible to transport that oil to India due to its extremely high transportation costs.

As a result, India has to rely on its Middle-Eastern partners and therefore India doesn’t get an upper hand in negotiating the oil prices. Since, oil and energy supplier countries know this constraint faced by India, they are always at a better position than India which gives them an unfair strategic advantage. ‘Strategic’ because in today’s world, economy is the driver of politics, security and strategy. India stands on a losing ground today and therefore it became imperative for India to reconnect to Central Asia which is geographically located closely to India.

While Central Asia continues to be of great strategic significance to India, its engagement with the region has been moderate as compared to Russia, China, and the US.

India’s foreign policy has developed in a historical context, the colonial legacy played an important role in shaping it. The key elements of Indian foreign policy developed over the course of decades but India didn’t have a foreign policy directly towards Central Asia simply because Central Asian countries were a part of erstwhile USSR till 1991. So, the need of the hour was to build a foreign policy focussing on that region starting from the scratch. But this need couldn’t be fulfilled at the right time.

India at the time of collapse of USSR was itself going through its biggest economic transformation as a result of the economic reforms introduced in the year 1991.As per India’s strategic expert C Raja Mohan, “India’s struggle to reform its economy, reconstruct relations with major powers after the Cold War and reconstitute ties with neighbours meant Central Asia was never high on Delhi’s foreign policy agenda”[1].

Discussing the issue, Dr. Meena Singh Roy from IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis), opines that “After 1991, India has constantly worked towards building strong political ties with all central Asian countries. However, economic and trade linkages with the region have been the most unsatisfactory part of its overall fruitful political relations. While Central Asia continues to be of great strategic significance to India, its engagement with the region has been moderate as compared to Russia, China, and the US. It is not a major but an important player in the region. Existing power politics in South and Central Asia and the lack of a direct land route to the region limit India’s ability to play a major role”[2].

India’s interests in Central Asia have become multi-dimensional; it would be much more profitable to India increase cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours rather than other way round. This is because the all the great powers are already involved with the region and are having very high stakes in the region.

India has already committed the mistake of keeping itself away from the region by not prioritizing it in the last two decades after the collapse of USSR in 1991.

Each one is eyeing the regional resources and wants to exploit for their own self or ‘Selfish’ interests. This critique has been put forward by almost every Central Asian scholar and academicians from outside. Some even say that even USSR used the Central Asian region as its colony and exploited the regional resources for its own good. Though, many Indian academicians and politicians have maintained their position that India has never exploited any country for its own interests at the expense of others.

India needs to both refine and redefine its policies with respect to the region because the geo-politics of this resource rich region is changing very fast. Keeping aloof from the region would prove very costly to India’s ambition of gaining a high seat among the great powers of the international system. India has already committed the mistake of keeping itself away from the region by not prioritizing it in the last two decades after the collapse of USSR in 1991.

India’s Connect Central Asia Policy has a forward looking orientation which means it looks for a better future for India-Central Asia relations and at the same time promoting India’s Geo-strategic as well as Geo-Economic interests in the region.

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[1]RajaMohan, C. THE INDIAN EXPRESS WEBSITE. PM MODI IN CENTRAL ASIA. [Online] Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/a-passage-to-inner-asia/

[2]Roy, Meena Singh. India’s Connect Central Asia Policy. [Online] Available at: http://www.associationdiplomats.org/publications/ifaj/Vol8/8.3/8.3-ARTICLE-1.pdf

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Martand Jha

Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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