PM’s Visit to Central Asia: Envisioning India’s Pro-Active Policy Approach towards the Region

~ By Meena Singh Roy

In last one year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully accomplished India’s active foreign policy approach towards its neighbourhood, particularly in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Equally significant have been his visits to United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, China and Mongolia, reflecting India’s activism in re-energizing relations with these countries. However, India’s extended neighbourhood, which is a vital region of importance for the country, is likely to get the much needed impetus during the upcoming week-long visit of Prime Minister Modi to five Central Asian Republics (CARs) starting from July 6, 2015. He will participate in the BRICS and SCO Summit in the Russian city of Ufa from July 9-10 and visit Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before the Summit and later to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Prime Minister’s visit is likely to focus on energy cooperation, connectivity, regional security issues and enhancing India’s image by formulating a geostrategic development partnership with CARs.

The new geo-political changes in the region; emergence of new extremist groups like Islamic State and their wider implications for the region; increasing violence in Afghanistan and growing concern about return of extremist forces in Afghanistan; increasing influence and presence of China in Eurasia, changing regional power balance and emergence of new conflict zones in West Asia demand that New Delhi formulate innovative ways to engage Central and West Asian countries to address and manage this new situation. Given its strategic interests in the region and the need for greater economic and energy cooperation between South,Central and West Asian region, India needs to re-activate its policy towards its extended neighbourhood.

 It is in this context that the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to Central Asia needs to be viewed. Both from Indian and Central Asian perspective, this visit will go a long way in advancing and cementing India’s relations with the CARs. After late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit in early 90s which became a major turning point in India-Central Asia relations, the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi will be a significant one, as he will be the second Indian Prime Minister to visit all five countries, after former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s June 1955 ground breaking tour of this region. In addition, this would be an important step in projecting India’s serious effort to cement its ties with all five Central Asian partners.

From the Central Asian perspective, the visit of the Indian Prime Minister will be much awaited and desired one. Absence of visits by the Indian Prime Minister to this region has created heartburns when compared with the frequent visits of the Chinese President to this region.  Therefore, the decision of PM Modi to visit all CARs provides a unique opportunity not only to ensure New Delhi’s renewed interest in the region but also to convey a vital message that India wishes to move from its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy to ‘Act Central Asia’ policy which has been the mantra of the present Modi government. The visit could not have come at a better time.

The Central Asian region holds great significance for India, both in strategic and geo-economic sense. The region holds major hydrocarbon and gas reserves, which are much needed by India. In the last two decades, the Central Asian region has witnessed an unprecedented integration into global economic and political mainstream.The region has successfully expanded its influence in the global energy scene. Its geographical positioning makes it a land-bridge between Asia and Europe. In addition, despite global financial crisis, the economic outlook remains favorable for the Central Asian countries. In this new geo-political situation, the CARs are building bilateral strategic partnerships and cooperative arrangements at regional and global levels to address the emerging security and economic challenges. While countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are building partnership based on their own politico-economic strength, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are working closely with Russia while exploring their options of cooperating with other major players as well. China has emerged as the key player in the region with offers of billions of dollars in loan to CARs to build energy and transport infrastructure. Russia, an important partner of CARs has also been working in close cooperation with China to enhance energy cooperation in light of its troubled relations with the West. In addition, one also witnesses increasing cooperation between Russia and Pakistan including close security and defence cooperation. In the backdrop of these new alignments and re-alignments in the region, and in the context of Central Asian countries wanting India to play a pro-active role, New Delhi has to not only act fast but also sustain this momentum of enhanced engagement to ensure and protect its interests.

Since, the visit by Indian PM has been a much awaited and anticipated one;there are many expectations from not only the regional countries but also from the observers of Central Asia in India. Perhaps, to meet the expectations from the region would be the biggest challenge for the PM. His primary task would be to build new relationships, and to protect and enhance India’s economic and commercial interests. So far, India has been successful in building political ties but has struggled to enhance economic and commercial ties. Its economic ties are the most unsatisfactory part of its overall good political relations with all CARs. India’s Trade with the region amounts to some us $1.6 billion as compared to China’s $50 billion.Its geographical connectivity with the region is still a major challenge.

 India because of its positive and benign image, its scientific and technological advancement, its strength in services and health sector and finally its economic potential enjoys a unique position to re-energise its current relations with the CARs. PM needs to take full advantage of India’s positive image, its historical and cultural ties to re-build stronger developmental partnership with the region. The key elements of India’s strategy towards this region could include:

  • Developing a long-term innovative strategy to enhance engagement with the region, particularly in energy, transportation sector. Need to give further push to International North-South transport Corridor (INSTC).
  • Embracing regionalism, besides bilateralism as a toolof its engagement with the Eurasian region. This would mean greater cooperation with China, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia in the regional context.
  • Concentrating and supporting the Central Asian led regional groupings.
  • Exploring prospects of cooperation between the CARs and the SAARC would go long way in augmenting cooperation between South and Central Asia.
  • Capacity building in Central Asia to become the key area of India’s Central Asia policy.
  • Encouraging big business houses’ involvement in Central Asian market.
  • Announcing more fellowships for the Central Asian students and establishing additional Indian study centers in CARs and Central Asian study centers in India.
  • Committing certain amount say $10 to 15 billion in next five years, to promote India-CARs engagement.

A successful visit of the PM will carve a new path for India to re-build strong and meaningful relations with the CARs.

Dr Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow and Coordinator, West Asia Centre at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). The views expressed are her own.

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