Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a whirlwind tour to Central Asia on the way to attending the BRICS and SCO summits in Russia in the second week of July. Though the visit cannot be termed as a game changer, Prime Minister Modi was able to convey the Central Asian leaders that India has revived its interest in Central Asia and has made sincere moves.
India has till now lacked a cogent Central Asia policy. However, the Prime Ministerial visit to the five States (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) has shown India’s resolve to strengthen economic and strategic relations with the region. After the conclusion of the visit, the political leadership and the officials needs to follow up with the lofty joint declarations made during the five Central Asian Republics with an action plan.
Though, Central Asia has been in the thought process of Indian leaders ever since Jawahar Lal Nehru traveled to Central Asian Republics in mid fifties, then under the Soviet Union. Even after they gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties, India failed to make swift moves, as connectivity issues prevented Indian leadership from taking actual movements on the ground. Though Central Asia is the extended neighborhood for India, the doors for India has been closed because of unstable political situation in the region and the areas adjoin Tajikistan, near the parts of Jammu Kashmir under Pakistan occupation.
In the present geo-political circumstances Iran has emerged as a key for entry to the region for India, with which India has been engaging since last one decade for enabling easy access to the region. Distance has remained a crippling factor in India Central Asia relations.
Too near, yet too far. This explains the lack of connectivity between India and Central Asia. Central Asia almost touches Indian border, though from the Pakistan occupied Kashmir side so India cannot cross over. Pakistan is not willing to allow India transit facility through its land route to Afghanistan, hence India has been mulling sea and land connectivity via Chahbahar (Iran), Afghanistan and Tajikistan. India has already constructed the 220 km long Jaranj Deleram road form the borders of Afghanistan and Iran up till Delaram nearTajikistan border. India has also proposed North South Corridor via Bandar Abbas port of Iran to Russia and then Europe. These were proposed over a decade ago, but there has been no progress on the ground.
Though Central Asian States accorded very warm welcome to Mr Modi in their capitals, the skeptics in those countries also commented that the Indian Prime Minister just dropped in while visiting the neighboring areas. If the Indian Prime Minister would have made a stand alone visit to the these Central Asian States, they would have understood the seriousness on the part of India. Nevertheless, the visit of Indian Prime Minister, which last happened in 201, limited to Kazakhstan, was widely appreciated by the analysts in both the region. Central Asian republics have an emotional attachment with India due to ancient links and in the modern days the Indian films made India much popular in the hearts and minds of the ordinary people. However, India has not been able to encash India’s popularity in the region.
India understood the significance of the Central Asian region in the late nineties when India along with Russia and Iran together propped up the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who were able to march to Kabul after 9/11 as US cruise missiles bombarded the Taliban locations and forced the Talibanese to take shelter in Pakistan. Those Talibanese have gained a new lease of life after the withdrawal of the US led NATO troops from the country. In the late nineties India operated a medical facility in the Tajik-Afghan border town of Ayni, where India is now developing an air base, though no air assets are reported to have been deployed till now. Two years ago the then Indian defence minister A K Antony had landed at Ayni air base, where he was received by the Tajik defence minister. Indian Air Force is reported to have developed the air base for any future Indian use, in case India needs to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.
In his last leg of tour to the Central Asian region , PM Modi signed a joint statement with the Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, which made special mention of the ongoing defence cooperation between the two sides who expressed satisfaction at the ongoing defence cooperation, which remains one of the main pillars of partnership between the two countries, India reiterated commitment to supporting the development of Tajikistan’s defence capabilities to enhance stability and security. The Tajik President welcomed India’s assistance in capacity building of the Tajik defence forces.
Earlier in Kyrgyzstan the two sides said the defence ties reflect high level of mutual trust between them. The two sides welcomed the exchange of visits at the Defence Minister level and the major initiatives that have been taken as well as their ongoing program of cooperation, as both sides signed fresh agreement on cooperation in the defence sector. The two sides have been organizing joint exercises between the special forces of the two countries called Khanjar. The second round of exercise was held in Kyrgyzstan in March, this year after a gap of four years which will now be held on annual basis.
Combating extremism and terrorism with all the Central Asian countries through deeper defence cooperation was the principal theme of discussion with all the five Central Asian States. So with Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev also, Prime Minister Modi signed a defence cooperation treaty with an aim to deepen defence cooperation in matters relating to defence, security, military education and training, conduct of joint military exercises, exchange of experience and information of military instructors and observers etc.
While in Turkmenistan, Prime Minister Modi signed a joint statement with President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow which also devoted a special para on defence and security cooperation, which said that the two leaders noted the nature and rapid spread of international terrorism in the recent years poses one of the most serious global threats today. The two leaders resolved to deepen ongoing cooperation in countering various security threats. They also agreed to step up efforts against cross-border threats such as terrorism. A separate defence cooperation agreement was signed during the visit which would provide a framework for intensifying bilateral defence and security cooperation through exchanges of high and mid level visits, training and dialogue between the ministries of defence, which would impart new momentum to the bilateral partnership in the defence sector.
During his visit to Astana, the most important agreement besides defence cooperation signed with Kazakhstan was on supply of 5000 tons of Uranium to Indian in next five years, which is in continuation of an earlier agreement in which India already have taken 2100 tons of Uranium, This is a very important agreement given the fact that it is an important critical input into India’s energy requirements and energy security. An agreement on defence cooperation will lead to more engagement in peace training, exercises and exploration of possible engagement in production and coproduction in the defence sector. In fact this was the new element in defence cooperation among all the five Central Asian states. So, defence and security arrangements found special place during the deliberations.
With Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov a proposal for setting up a Joint Working Group was accepted. The two countries already have a joint working group on counter terrorism and a decision was taken to reinvigorate this. India had earlier signed an agreement for supply of Uranium with Uzbekistan and there was a discussion on steps needed to implement the contract for its supply.
Anti-terrorism cooperation through deeper defence engagement with Central Asia have special significance because of the easy vulnerability of the five States to such extremist elements. A Central Asia engulfed in extremism fire would fuel India’s security concerns. It is worth noting that Central Asia is the biggest supplier of human resources, almost 4000, for the newly emerged terror group in West Asia the Islamic State which also is trying to spread its wings in Indian Jammu and Kashmir.