Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Central Asia last week to enhance India’s linkages with the region at a time when major powers are competing for influence in the five nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia has made its determination to restore some of its historic influence over its former Soviet empire clear. But it is China that is making a real splash in the region. Though Russia and China are planning to enhance their engagement in Central Asia and have decided to coordinate their policies in the region, Beijing’s economic transformation of the lands west of its restive Xinjiang province has gathered pace in the last decade. This has unseated Russia as the main trade partner of four of the five Central Asian countries that gained independence from Moscow in 1991, as China splurges billions of dollars on roads and pipelines to link up the disjointed region.

Unlike China which shares a border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, India’s transit to the region lies through Pakistan and Afghanistan, limiting its reach. Yet India’s growing interests in Central Asia are well-recognized. There is a growing convergence between American and Indian interests, especially their reluctance to see the region fall under the exclusive influence of Russia or China. India was worried in the 1990s when the Russian influence in Central Asia weakened substantially with a commensurate rise in the Chinese influence. This negatively impacted Indian threat perceptions which stabilized only after the growing US presence in the region since 2001.

India’s ties with the regional countries are growing. India views itself as a stabilizer and security provider in the region and with its growing economic clout, an attractive economic power to its neighbours. India’s interest in securing reliable energy supplies and trade through Central Asia remains substantial. Besides oil and gas, energy-hungry India is eyeing imports of uranium from both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

India has long wanted to play a larger role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and has been seeking support from individual members for quite some time. The organisation has failed to achieve a consensus on India’s role in the grouping. India was admitted as an observer at the 2005 Astana Summit along with Iran and Pakistan. Though the 2010 Tashkent Summit lifted the moratorium on new membership, India’s role in the grouping remains a marginal one. India and Pakistan will now have to wait till next year to get full membership of SCO.

Against the backdrop, Indian strategy has focused on developing strong bilateral partnerships in the region. With Uzbekistan, India has signed a pact on the import of over 2,000 tonnes of uranium, much like the one India has signed with Kazakhstan. The requirements of energy security also postulate a continuing positive relationship with Moscow and friendly ties with all the Central Asian republics. India must create firm ties among the energy exporting states of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, if possible, Turkmenistan.

But so far, India has failed to invest the diplomatic capital that the region demands. The country tried to open an air facility in Ayni, Tajikistan, in 2002 to guard against growing instability in the region though nothing much happened on that front for long. And in 2010, the Tajik government officially made it clear that Russia is the only country likely to use the airbase in the future. This happened despite India spending around $70 million between 2002 and 2010 to renovate the Ayni base and extending the Ayni runway to 3,200m as well as installing state-of-the-art navigational and air defence equipment there. Meanwhile, China managed to win the competition for the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan and the Dauletabad gas field in Turkmenistan. The much-hyped Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline which is supposed to transport gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to India is yet to get off the ground.

With a strategic approach towards Central Asia, China has made significant headways in the region with $10 billion in grants and aid to SCO members and development of regional linkages with its western region. China’s trade with the Central Asian region has crossed the $50 billion mark in 2013 whereas trade between Central Asia and India remains much below potential, struggling to hit $2 billion. India’s lack of direct overland access to the region due to Pakistan’s reluctance in allowing its goods to pass through its territory has constrained Indian trade interests from growing in the Central Asian region. Consequently, trade with the region remains far below potential. India’s much touted International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) aimed at expanding India’s trade and investment links with Central Asia remains a work in progress as well.

It is time New Delhi gave Central Asia the attention it deserves. Or else, China will soon be able to claim the region as another one of its backyards and India will have to struggle to make its ties relevant despite its longstanding cultural links to it.

Harsh Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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