India-Central Asia Summit – January 27 to Boost Ties

By Sri Krishna

Foreign Affairs

New Delhi: The upcoming virtual summit being hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 27 with Presidents of five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, assumes significance in the wake of the Taliban take over in Afghanistan and the prevailing border tension in the North with China as several of these nations and rich in mineral resources share common borders with both nations.

With all of them being landlocked nations, any adverse developments in Afghanistan and increased economic ties with China could well impact these nations politically and economically.

The Presidents of these nations were the guests at the Republic Day celebrations on January 26, but their visit had to be cancelled due to rising Covid-19 cases in India.

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As the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that  “first meeting of the India-Central Asia Summit, with the participation” of the five Presidents — Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and Kyrgyz Republic’s Sadyr Japarov — in a virtual format, will be the first engagement of its kind between India and the Central Asian countries at the level of leaders.”

The Central Asian Republics with its abundant reserves of hydrocarbon fuels and minerals have emerged as vitally important region. This has led to China eyeing them as key suppliers for its domestic energy needs as also its transportation route. Keeping this mind, it does become imperative for India to develop relations with these countries considering the energy needs of this country. These nations have proven oil reserves estimated at 40 billion barrels and natural  gas reserves in excess of 500 trillion cubic feet, with Turkmenistan accounting for 350 trillion cubic feet.

China has been focusing on boosting ties with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) to help it reduce its dependence on West Asia for its energy needs. Central Asia is also richly endowed with uranium deposits. Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest reserves, after Australia, of this precious mineral. In recent years it has emerged as the largest producer of uranium ore. Uzbekistan also has significant deposits of uranium. Central Asia is, hence, vital for China’s energy security.

China’s rapid advances into Central Asia through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linked investment projects has led to this region emerging as a new vanguard for global trade and connectivity.

In the wake of the tremendous potential of the region, this meeting assumes immense importance. The meeting is significant given that three of these five nations — Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — share boundaries with Afghanistan, where the takeover by the Taliban in August last year has left India concerned.

Additionally, three of the five nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan — also share land boundaries with China, with which India is involved in an over 21-month long standoff in eastern Ladakh.

As the statement by the External Affairs Ministry said this first India-Central Asia Summit “is a reflection of India’s growing engagement with the Central Asian countries,” which are a part of India’s “Extended Neighbourhood”.

It said Modi “paid a historic visit to all Central Asian countries in 2015” and since then, there have been “exchanges at high levels at bilateral and multilateral forums”.

The inception of the India-Central Asia Dialogue at Foreign Ministers’ level, the third meeting of which was held in New Delhi from December 18 to 20 recently, “has provided an impetus to India-Central Asia relations”.

The participation of the Secretaries of National Security Councils of Central Asian countries in the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan held in New Delhi on November 10, 2021 outlined a common regional approach on Afghanistan, the MEA said.

Since Prime Minister Modi’s  historic visit to all Central Asian countries in 2015, there have been exchanges at high-levels at bilateral and multilateral fora.

The Summit is symbolic of the importance attached by the leaders of India and the Central Asian countries to a comprehensive and enduring India-Central Asia partnership.

Central Asian states need financial investments for technological and infrastructure build-up of their energy sectors. China, holding over US$ 4 trillion foreign exchange reserves in addition to having the technological expertise, has emerged as a significant source of foreign direct investment.

Considering the pace with which China’s relations with the Central Asian nations have been growing, this Summit would provide the much needed boost to India to counter this and increase bilateral cooperation.

Uzbekistan, whose President is attending the Summit,  has a land link with Afghanistan which is the Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge, built in 1982 across the Amu-Darya River. A railway track runs down the middle of the bridge.

It has been more than a month since the international community was confronted with the fact that the Taliban had seized control over almost all of Afghanistan. Some countries are still cautious or vague about their positions on the Taliban-led government. But Uzbekistan, which shares a 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has shown it is ready to talk and do business with the Taliban.

Some view Uzbekistan’s willingness to engage with the Taliban as simply pragmatic. After all, there are security issues to consider. There are citizens of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan who are members of various extremist groups, some allied with the Taliban, some not. The Uzbek government would prefer these people never return to Uzbekistan. The Taliban has given its guarantee that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan territory to plot attacks on neighbouring countries.

But the same security concerns exist for Tajikistan, and the Tajik government has not shown any inclination to talk with the Taliban.

In Central Asia, it would appear that the Kremlin has come to acknowledge China’s economic supremacy, but has tried to secure its own relevance and hold over the region. While China could be the leading economic force, Russia will continue to shape the region through its political, security and military ties, such as through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

A 2020 study by Central Asia Barometer suggests that Central Asians are increasingly becoming uncomfortable with Chinese presence in the region. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where tensions over Chinese investors have been building for some time, only seven and nine per cent of populations respectively, expressed “strong support” for Chinese energy and infrastructure projects in their countries.

In Uzbekistan, which – unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—does not directly border China, locals have a somewhat more enthusiastic outlook towards Chinese investments, but even there, scepticism has been growing. While 65 percent of Uzbeks expressed “strong support” for Chinese investment in 2019, only 48 percent did in 2020.

However, what is of importance is that there are reports that people of Central Asia are not overly concerned about the broader strategic and security challenges posed by growing Chinese presence in these countries. Instead, they are keen to navigate their way through the challenges of daily existence and partake of the economic boom that they witness. China’s natural borders with Central Asia imply that it will always have a dominant interest and influence over this region.

Surely, to counter this, it is indeed imperative for India to focus on strengthening ties with these countries in terms of economic relations and further enhance ties on all fronts.