Articles and Commentaries |
May 13, 2019

India’s ‘Engage West’ Policy: A Bold Initiative


The National Democratic Alliance government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has registered many successes in diverse areas since it assumed power in May, 2014. Possibly one of the most significant spheres is foreign policy. While India’s expanding relations with the United States and Japan as also its tensions with China and Pakistan have found extensive mention in popular media as well as in discussions by scholars, practitioners and think tanks, adequate space has not been devoted to India’s outreach to and momentous accomplishments in strengthening its partnerships to its West with Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia. Countries in these regions are extremely important for India not only for its security and stability but also for its energy security, trade, investment as well as the welfare of its 9-million strong diaspora in the region.

Central Asia:

India has several millennia old historical, cultural and civilisational links with Central Asia. Brisk trade of goods, ideas and thoughts took place from India (and China) to Central Asia and beyond over the Silk Road from 3rd century BCE to 15th century CE. Buddhism travelled to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Western China from India through the Silk Road. The region was part of Emperor Ashoka’s kingdom in 3rd century BCE. Alexander of Macedonia, Kushans, Babar, Mughals and Sufism are evidence of vigorous links between India and the region over the ages. India and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) enjoyed vibrant economic and cultural ties when the latter were a part of the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Notwithstanding the strategic and economic significance of Central Asia, the region was not accorded adequate importance by India’s political leadership for much of the period since the countries gained independence in 1991. The then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao recognised the strategic importance of the region and visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1993 and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995. After 1995, for a period of 20 years till 2015, only 4 Prime Ministerial visits from India to the region took place viz, by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Kazakhstan in 2002 (in continuation of his participation in the regional Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia) and Tajikistan in 2003, and by Dr Manmohan Singh to Uzbekistan in 2006 and to Kazakhstan in 2011 on way back from the BRICS Summit in China.

This evident neglect was corrected by Prime Minister Modi soon after assuming power. He took the initiative to visit all the five countries of the region in July, 2015, two of them (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) before going to Ufa in Russia for the BRICS/SCO Summit, and three of them (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) on the way back. This provided a strong impetus to bilateral ties. Since then, PM Modi has travelled twice more to the region, once in 2016 to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and again in 2017 to Astana, Kazakhstan to participate in the annual Summits of member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Indian PM will travel again to the region to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, 2019 to attend the next SCO Summit. On the side-lines of all these Summits as also of the SCO Summit in Qingdao, China in June, 2018, PM Modi met leaders of the four Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) which are members of SCO.

The then President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan and President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan visited India in December, 2016. The new President of Uzbekistan ShavkatMirziyoyev who has launched several far-reaching and visionary initiatives in domestic, economic and foreign policies of his country visited India twice within a span of four months. His first visit was a bilateral State visit in Oct, 2018 and the second came in January, 2019 for the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. All these visits and interactions have led to a dynamic upsurge in bilateral interactions and cooperation in political, economic, defence and cultural spheres.

India became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2017. In addition to the lack of direct geographic contiguity and connectivity, one of the important causes for India’s failure to take full advantage of its historical and civilizational linkages with this region has been the inadequate interactions and meetings between the leaders of India and CARs. India’s membership of SCO has sought to address this lacuna in a substantial manner. It is well understood that in Central Asian countries, most decisions of significant importance and value, both political and economic, are taken by Presidents of the countries and not at a Ministerial level. The regular and frequent meetings at the highest political level can be expected to provide a fillip to India’s ties with these countries and the region in the coming years. In addition to meetings at the highest level, several meetings at Ministerial and official levels have also taken place. These have led to discussions on expanding understanding and cooperation in diverse areas.

Although India enjoyed direct access to the region over millennia through the current day Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is not able have a direct connect with Central Asia today because Pakistan does not permit people, goods and traffic to travel from India to this region using its territory. To circumvent this obstacle, India pro-actively focused on developing connectivity routes to Central Asia and Afghanistan via the Chabahar project and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Although these projects had been planned many years ago, they were taken in hand seriously only over the last 5 years. A trilateral Agreement was signed by PM Modi with Presidents of Iran and Afghanistan during his visit to Iran in May, 2016. Within 18 months, the first phase of renovation and upgradation of Chabahar port from 2.5 million tonnes to 8.5 million tonnes was completed and inaugurated by the Iranian President in December, 2017. Further work on expansion of Chabahar and connecting it by a rail link to Zahedan and then onwards to Malik/Zaranj on the Iran-Afghanistan border is under way. Uzbekistan has expressed interest in linking with this connectivity initiative by joining a railway link from Termez to Herat. India also acceded to the Ashgabat Agreement in February 2018. This will help in smooth and streamlined flow of goods between Central Asia and India. India joined the Convention on International Transport of Goods Under Cover of TIR Carnets (TIR Convention) in August, 2018, under which the first consignment arrived without any obstacles from Afghanistan via Chabahar in March, 2019. This will help India and Central Asia to enhance their economic cooperation.

India is an energy deficient country. This region is extremely well endowed with energy, mineral and natural resources. Both India and Central Asia are a perfect match for each other. The challenge is to transport the energy resources from these land-locked states to India. The region offers significant trade, investment and economic opportunities to Indian businesses. Indian private sector needs to take aggressive and determined measures in prospecting and exploiting economic potential in these countries through joint ventures, export of services, bidding for World Bank, ADB and other multilaterally funded infrastructure projects etc.

India has been importing uranium from Kazakhstan since the bilateral civilian nuclear deal was signed during visit of Kazkah President Nursultan Nazarbayev to India as Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day in January, 2009. Recently this Agreement was further extended to import another 3,000 tonnes of uranium ore by India. Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest reserves of uranium ore and is the world’s largest producer of this mineral. During the visit of Uzbek President to India in October last year, it was agreed to import 3,000 tonnes of uranium from Uzbekistan also.

Work on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline has been speeded up over the last five years. Work in Turkmenistan on laying the pipeline appears to have been completed while that in Afghanistan commenced more than a year ago. The likely date for completion of the project is 2020 but could slip by a few months.

In a significant development, Kazakh troops were deployed in November, 2018 under Indian command as UN peacekeepers in Lebanon. It is for the first time in Indian history – whether in UN missions or otherwise – that an Indian Army unit has been broken down by replacing one of its own companies with a foreign company.

Central Asian Region has always constituted the extended neighbourhood of India. India’s outreach to this region since PM Modi assumed power has seen a significant upswing in political, strategic, economic, commercial, defence, counter-terrorism, cultural spheres and enhanced people-to-people contacts.


India and Afghanistan have a strong relationship based on cultural and civilizational links. The relationship is not limited to only the governments in New Delhi and Kabul but has its foundations in historical contacts and exchanges between the people. Transfer of power in New Delhi and Kabul in 2014 took place within a few months of each other. After a protracted political process, President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah assumed power in September, 2014. The first visit by Abdullah Abdullah to India took place in March, 2015 followed soon thereafter by Ashraf Ghani in April, 2015, a full seven months after assuming the Presidency. Before coming to India, Ghani had already travelled to Pakistan, USA, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and some other countries. Ghani’s decision soon after assuming power to suspend the request for supply of arms was initially viewed as a setback for Indo-Afghan strategic ties. Besides, his decision to visit China and Pakistan ahead of India was also viewed as a snub to Delhi.

Since his election Ghani tried to improve relations with Pakistan, which in turn could pave the way for peace talks with the Taliban. His first visit after becoming President was to Pakistan in November, 2014. However, after many terror attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan, and failed Taliban peace talks, Ghani grew increasingly cold to Pakistan and called it the “center of the Taliban.”

Notwithstanding the late and uncertain start to bilateral ties after assumption of power by Ghani, relations have warmed and improved significantly over the last 4 years. Two long-pending projects viz the Parliament building and the Salma dam (Afghanistan-India Friendship dam) were completed at rapid speed and handed over to the Afghan authorities, the first in December, 2015 and the second in June, 2016. By getting these two prestigious and iconic projects completed expeditiously after coming to power, PM Modi sent out a strong message that India will meet its commitments and deliver on its promises on time. In August 2016, PM Modi also jointly inaugurated through video conferencing the restored Stor Palace in Kabul with President Ghani.

India-Afghanistan partnership has always been characterized by high level exchanges. Over the last four years, the frequency and regularity of such visits witnessed a sharp increase. Bilateral trade crossed the US $ 1 billion mark. The two sides successfully organised the India-Afghanistan trade and investment show in Mumbai in September, 2018 and strengthened connectivity, including through Chabahar port and Air-Freight Corridor. Under the New Development Partnership, both sides are implementing   116   High   Impact Community Development Projects in 34 provinces of Afghanistan. These important investments are in areas of education, health, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydropower, sports and administrative infrastructure. On-going programmes for education, capacity building, skills and human resource development of Afghanistan, one of the largest such programmes in the world, was extended for a further period of five years from 2017 to 2022. India offered 500 scholarships for children of martyrs of Afghan Security Forces and gifted four Mi-25 Attack helicopters to the Afghan Air Force. India agreed to implement some important new projects such as the ShahtootDamand drinking water project for Kabul that would also facilitate irrigation, water supply for Charikar City, road connectivity to Band-e-Amir in Bamyan Province that would promote tourism, low cost housing for returning Afghan refugees in Nangarhar Province to promote their resettlement, a gypsum board manufacturing plant in Kabul to promote value added local industry and for import substitution, and a polyclinic in Mazar-e-Sharif.

The inauguration of the Dedicated Air Cargo Corridor in June 2017 between Kabul-Delhi and Kandahar-Delhi has provided a fresh impetus to bilateral trade. In December 2017, Kabul-Mumbai Air Cargo Corridor was also inaugurated. The Air Corridor has ensured free movement of freight despite the barriers put in place due to the denial of transit by Pakistan. It has been decided to further strengthen the corridor and expand it to other cities in India. Several thousand tonnes of cargo has already been transported in the Air Corridor since its inauguration.

India has supported the people and Government of Afghanistan in their efforts to build a united, sovereign, democratic, peaceful, stable, prosperous and inclusive nation. India supports all efforts for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan which are inclusive and Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. India has advocated the need for a sustained and long-term commitment to Afghanistan by the international community. India has been opposed to involvement of Taliban in the peace process till it renounces violence and accepts the Constitution of Afghanistan. In recent months, for a variety of reasons, most of the international players active in the region have come around to the view that Taliban will need to be a part of the final resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. Although this is against the stated position of both India and Afghanistan, both countries participated through presence of non-official representatives in the meeting organised by Russia in Moscow in November, 2018 in which for the first time Taliban representatives also participated. India is actively engaged with a number of countries on bilateral, regional and plurilateral basis as well as in different formats to find an acceptable solution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Although the coming months pose a formidable challenge, India has reiterated that it is committed to work with like-minded countries to arrive at a solution for a safe, secure, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

West Asia:

India’s vigorous and dynamic relations with West Asian countries represent one of the brightest achievements of India’s foreign policy over the last five years. India today would be one of the very few, if not possibly the only country, which has excellent relations with all countries of the region. India enjoys strong relations with Saudi Arabia as it does with Israel. India has robust relations with United Arab Emirates as it has with Iran. With other countries in the region like Qatar, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Turkey etc India maintains warm ties.

This region is vitally important for India’s safety, stability, energy security and economic well-being. This region is home to about 9 million Indians who travelled to that region for better job opportunities in the wake of the oil boom in the 1970s.  70% of India’s imported oil needs and 90% of gas requirements come from West Asia. This dependence will only increase as the Indian economy continues to grow at 8 per cent or more. Indian diaspora in West Asia remits about 55% of the total inward remittances to the tune of about US$ 45 billion into the country. This inward flow of funds is extremely important for India to balance its current account deficit. Safety and security of the Indian people is extremely important for the Indian government. Hence stability in the region is of great interest to India. The region represents a significant market for Indian goods and also a source of large investments into India for India’s infrastructure and economic development.

Since the BJP-led government came to power in 2014, the Arab governments were somewhat wary that because of the well-known personal rapport between PM Modi and Israeli PM Netanyahu, India might adopt a pro-Israeli policy at the expense of traditional relations with them. Also, the Palestinian cause could suffer. These misgivings were soon dispelled. Starting with his first visit to the region to UAE in August, 2015, PM Modi travelled to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as to Iran over the next one year. Many leaders from the region also visited India. Crown Prince of UAE was the Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day in 2016. Far reaching collaboration in security, defence, counter-terrorism & intelligence were the major outcomes of these visits. Joint Statement with UAE was noteworthy as it prohibited Pakistan to use UAE territory for anti-India activities which had hitherto been the case. In addition, several accused Indian origin terrorists were extradited to India. Moreover, several billions of dollars of strategic investments in India have been agreed to by these countries.

Reaffirming importance of this region and particularly of UAE, PM Modi visited UAE the second time in 2018 after his visit to Palestine. Several MoUs were signed in railways, energy sector, financial services and manpower. But for the first time a MoU between an Indian consortium (OVL, BPRL & IOCL) and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) was signed that allows the acquisition of 10% participating interest amounting to US$600 million in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakum concession for 40 years.

The crowning pinnacle of India’s relations with UAE and the Islamic world in general came in early March, 2019 when India was invited as the Guest of Honour to the 46th Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. This was done in the face of threat from Pakistani Foreign Minister that he would boycott the Meeting if invitation to the Indian EAM was not withdrawn. The Foreign Minister of UAE refused to get blackmailed as a result of which Pakistan FM did not attend the meeting. Statement by UAE foreign minister that ‘’the friendly country of India’’ had been invited ‘’as guest of honour in view if its great global, political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component’’ clearly demonstrates the huge distance that India’s relations have travelled not only with UAE but with all countries in the region.

The first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel was undertaken by PM Modi in April, 2017. This was followed by a week-long visit to India by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in January, 2018. Both these visits provided a huge impetus to bilateral ties. Soon after coming to power, PM Modi met his Israeli counterpart on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September, 2014. Israel has emerged as a major and reliable security, intelligence and counter-terrorism partner for India. In defence, it is the third largest supplier after Russia and USA. Reputed for its arid agricultural technologies, it has become a close partner in India’s food security initiative. S&T and Cyber Space as well as intelligence cooperation have become new frontiers of cooperation.

On the issue of Palestine, India has maintained its principled stand but has de-hyphenated the relationship from that with Israel. Before visiting Israel, PM Modi received President Mahmoud Abbas in India and assured him of India’s consistent political and economic support. India stuck to its ethical position by voting against the US move at UNGA to shift its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Also, PM Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Palestine-Ramallah in February, 2018. In fact, the Palestinian leadership which has discarded US as an honest broker of peace hopes that India perhaps could play a more proactive role in the Middle East.

PM Modi went to Ramallah via Amman, Jordan where he had extensive discussions on counter terrorism, deradicalization and economic and security collaboration as well as on issue of Jerusalem and Palestine. King Abdullah II of Jordan who was on a visit to Pakistan and UAE, cut short his visit and returned earlier to meet PM Modi.

Within weeks, King Abdullah II paid a highly significant State visit to India, after a gap of 12 years when over a dozen agreements and MoUs were signed including on defence cooperation that has hitherto been elusive due to Jordan’s close relations with Pakistan. Jordan has emerged as a key collaborator in India’s food security initiative. Being rich in shale deposits, it could become a reliable partner in India’s energy security scenario.

Visit by Iranian President to India in February, 2018 was significant for the message it conveyed that India conducts its foreign policy independently and based on its national interests. In addition, notwithstanding the threat of US sanctions, India has continued to import significant quantities of oil from Iran to meet its energy needs, as also to develop Chabahar to promote connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. During the visit of President Rouhani, nine MoUs across a wide spectrum were signed. One of the most important was to create a mechanism for Rupee-Rial trade through Asian Clearing mechanism that would overcome the risk of being hit by sanctions on import of oil from Iran.

PM Modi also paid a visit to Oman in February, 2018. Oman has maintained good relations with Iran and other GCC countries and can act as a reliable interlocutor in intra-regional affairs and conflicts. India and Oman relations have been very close and historic. Apart from deeper trade and economic engagement Oman has been a significant defence and anti-piracy partner for India. During the visit eight agreements were signed in military, health, tourism, judicial cooperation, and space sectors. India will be able to use the Duqm port for its military logistical requirements. This fits well in its SAGARMALA initiative and maritime security. This was further supplemented by the Agreement India signed with France during President Macron’s visit to India allowing India to use its naval bases and facilities in the region.

This proactive outreach has yielded significant results not only in the fields of security, counterterrorism, defense and de-radicalisation, but also in the area of trade and investment. Joint military and naval exercises were held with UAE for the first time. Defence, intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation have started acquiring greater salience. UAE has agreed to raise its investments in India, including through the establishment of UAE-India Infrastructure Investment Fund, to reach a target of US$ 75 billion to support India’s plans for rapid expansion of next generation infrastructure, especially in railways, ports, roads, airports and industrial corridors and parks. UAE has also agreed to participate in the development of strategic petroleum reserves, upstream and downstream petroleum sectors, and collaboration in third countries.

During PM Modi’s visit in 2015, UAE agreed to allot land to build a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. This will further enrich cultural and people-to-people ties. The dynamism in India’s relations with West Asia can be ascertained from the fact that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Palestine have conferred their highest awards on PM Modi for his contribution to strengthening relations between them and India.

West Asia has been facing profound turbulence and instability. India on account of its enhanced credibility could be asked to play a greater role be it in the Middle East Peace Process and Palestine or Syria. India will however need to approach this issue with great care and circumspection. Over the last 5 years, India has followed a sophisticated policy of nurturing bilateral ties with all the countries in the region without getting entangled in their ideological or sectarian fault lines. This is the key reason for success of India’s foreign policy in the region.


India has covered enormous distance over the last 5 years under PM Modi’s stewardship in rejuvenating bilateral and regional relations with West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. India today stands on the threshold of providing a massive impetus to partnerships with these regions in the coming years.

(Shri Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, and has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok.)

    (This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)



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