Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to begin a nine-day tour to five Islamic Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – on Monday. In the middle of his trip, the premier will also attend the BRICS (the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) Summits in the Russian city of Ufa on July 9-10.
The foreign policy experts opine that Modi’s July 6-14 visit to Central Asia is a crucial one, as the outcome of this tour will shape India’s future policies towards China and West Asia. Ahead of his arrival in Ufa, Modi will visit the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and Kazakh capital of Astana. After attending the BRICS and SCO Summits, Modi will visit Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Although the premier will mainly negotiate energy security and mineral resources with the Central Asian leaders, the issue of terrorism will also be focus of his tour. He will apprise the Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Tajik leaders that the completion of Chabahar Port Project in Iran would boost the two-way traffic between India and five Central Asian republics.
Keeping in mind that India is a latecomer to Central Asia with which Beijing has been enjoying a close trade relation for long (as the volume of trade between China and five ‘Stans’ touched USD 46 billion in 2014), Modi’s visit to these countries will be a completely different one compared to his previous foreign visits. The region’s geo-political situation is also unique (as well as complex). Until 1991, these five Central Asian countries were part of the former Soviet Union. In the last decade of 20th century, Russia sought Pakistan’s help in dealing with Central Asia, as Moscow was disturbed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in these republics. However, Russia found China as a serious challenger as Beijing was also trying hard to influence the region. China not only settled boundary issues with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, but also managed to scale up its economic presence in the region at Russia’s expense.
In such a scenario, Modi decided to visit the Central Asian countries to offer the economic benefits of a huge Indian market and to seek gas, minerals and oil. The current security scenario in the region also prompted the Indian leader to select these five countries for his visit. With the Islamic State (IS) jehadists spreading their ‘poisonous’ ideology in Afghanistan via Central Asia, India is planning to secure ‘peace’ along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan borders with the help of the five former Soviet states. Modi plans to rise the issue of terrorism in Tashkent during his first meeting of the tour with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, apart from discussing the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. If the proposed 1,735km-long TAPI gas pipeline project materialises, it will completely change the energy availability scenario in the region. Then, the onus will be on the stakeholders to make the region ‘terror free’ for the sake of regional economic development.
Tajikistan is strategically very important for India as the country shares borders with Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) that India considers as its own territory. Despite spending USD 70 million for setting up a military air base at Ayni in Tajikistan, India has failed to deploy fighter aircraft at the base because of Russian pressure. Since coming to power in May 2014, Modi has shown an urgency to strengthen ties with Tajikistan and its neighbours in an attempt to corner both Pakistan and China.
During his meeting with autocratic Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat, Modi will try to win some development projects for the Indian companies. By helping the country in transforming its economy, China has already received maximum attention from Turkmenistan. So, Turkmenistan will be a tough nut to crack for Modi.
A positive outcome of Modi’s five-nation visit will certainly help India strengthen trade ties with Afghanistan and West Asia (read Iran) in the coming years. However, the Indian premier’s main task there will be to make counter-economic offers in order to corner China (and Pakistan) in their own backyards and also to give the five ‘Stans’ a chance to explore the Indian market. The publication – titled ‘India Central Asia Relations: The Economic Dimension’ and edited by Amiya Chandra – explains how important it is for India to handle its relationship with Central Asia as the successful handling will have a “bearing on the continued emergence of the country as a global player”. In order to overcome obstacles – such as limited land connectivity and the comparatively modest size of the Central Asian markets, India will have to augment its diplomatic efforts within the framework of its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.