India needs to be more imaginative in framing policy over Central Asia

Things changed dramatically for India on August 15, 2021 in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s capture of power

Three major interactions in less than three months between India and five Central Asian republics should underline New Delhi’s seriousness about unveiling a major “Connect Central Asia” policy. With Afghanistan at the epicentre of its concerns, India is indeed making a serious attempt to regain its lost strategic space after Kabul fell to the Taliban. However, for the policy to take concrete shape, it needs to steer clear of several geopolitical and other obstacles, has to be comprehensive, and must be backed by a larger vision, resources and a long-term commitment.

Things changed dramatically for India on August 15, 2021 in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s capture of power. With the balance of power perceived to be shifting in favour of Pakistan, India lost one of its crucial rationale for its presence in Afghanistan — with the trade and connectivity projects with Central Asia. The neo-liberal agenda in New Delhi’s foreign policy faced a pushback, with the realist thinking of securitising Afghanistan taking precedence.

New Delhi’s dilemma of whether to do business with the Taliban’s Islamic emirate in Afghanistan remains unresolved. At the same time, it realises that for the fulfilment of a large number of strategic, geopolitical and geo-economic objectives in Afghanistan, New Delhi needs to reach out to a coalition of like-minded countries who have an abiding interest in the peace and stability of Kabul and a common outlook for economic development in the region. In this regard, India’s refocus on Central Asia is critical. This policy’s success will, however, be judged by stitching together a coalition of the willing on addressing key security, economic and trade and connectivity issues.

For the last two decades, Afghanistan was seen as a land bridge between India and Central Asia. However, amid the instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s intransigence and New Delhi’s own unimaginative policies, that has remained merely an aspiration. Not only have projects like Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline remained non-starters, India’s bilateral trade with Central Asia was only about $2 billion, mostly coming from energy imports from Kazakhstan. In comparison, the China-Central Asia trade is to the tune of $41 billion. Even the India-Afghanistan trade had to be routed through the circuitous and expensive route via Iran’s Chabahar port and the costly showpiece air corridor.

It now appears that India is trying to bypass Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and connect with Central Asia through Iran. Not surprisingly, barely a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summit with Central Asia, the Union Budget has allocated Rs 100 crores for the Chabahar project. Also not surprisingly, the International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashbagh Agreement were referred to by New Delhi both during the foreign minister-level meeting in December 2021 and the first India-Central Asia summit in January 2022. As a pressure tactic on the Taliban and Pakistan, and propounding of what is being referred to the new “Act Central Asia Policy”, this is an important step. However, the activation of the mechanism is riddled with serious challenges.

It is obvious that the multi-modal INSTC, set up in 2002, to connect India with Europe provides enormous primacy to Iran and Russia, which along with India are its founding members. The Ashbagh Agreement includes both Iran and Pakistan. India is its latest member, having joined it only in 2018. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which are the key Central Asian nations through which the projected trade route from India must pass, are not INTSC members. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not signatories of the Ashbagh Agreement.

Both these agreements, in spite of the dry runs conducted in 2014, have remained mostly non-starters due to the sanctions by the United States and the West on Iran and Russia. Compared to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has progressed at a much faster pace, INSTC projects have suffered from funds crunch, and also the unenthusiastic response and implementation by member states. It will take a visionary leadership, resources, and adept diplomacy by New Delhi to navigate through these multiple challenges.

On the issue of a convergence of outlook regarding the Taliban, not all the Central Asian republics are on the same page as India. With the exception of Tajikistan, all have exchanged high-level diplomatic visits with Kabul. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have reopened their Afghanistan missions. Moreover, India’s aspirations are strongly resisted by an aggressive Chinese policy. All the Central Asian republics are a part of the Belt & Road Intitaive as well as a Quadrilateral Traffic-in-Trade Agreement that includes China. The first India-Central Asia summit was preceded by a similar summit with China. All the republics also have developed closer ties with Pakistan.

New Delhi is playing catch-up in its ties with Central Asia, by underlining its civilisational, cultural, trade and people-to-people connect. In today’s complex and changing world order, such linkages need to be bolstered by resources and long-term commitment. Besides other factors, the Covid-19 pandemic-hit truncated MEA Budget allocation in 2022-23 does not allow much elbow room. Out of the total development assistance fund of Rs 6,292 crores, the Eurasian bloc’s quota is just Rs 140 crores. The Budget places a clear limit on India’s development engagement with the region.

Whether New Delhi has the appetite, resources and long-term vision to take this new policy forward, therefore, remains a key question. Central Asia is critical in its quest for regaining its lost ground in the evolving new Great Game in Afghanistan. As the great power competition and regional power play intensifies in Afghanistan, New Delhi needs a more imaginative policy to address the present disconnect in Central Asia.

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