Home >politics >policy >Narendra Modi’s visit brings Central Asia back in focus

New Delhi: On 13 July, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to have visited all five Central Asian states—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—during a single trip.

The landlocked resource-rich region that shares cultural and historical links with India has received sporadic attention from Indian leaders ever since their emergence as independent states after the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

A combination of factors have been responsible for this: the re-orientation in Indian foreign policy to adjust to the US as the sole superpower, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan that blocked the land route to Central Asia via the country and Pakistan given the vagaries of India-Pakistan ties and later, India’s focus on getting sanctions imposed on it lifted after the 1998 nuclear tests played their part.

In the next decade of the 2000s, the US-led war in Afghanistan and Western sanctions on Iran, which could have provided an alternative route through its ports like Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, for its suspected nuclear programme put paid to India’s efforts.

The ties, however, were kept alive with visits from the region. For example, Uzbek president Islam Karimov visited India in 1991, 1994, 2000, 2005 and 2011.

Modi’s visit

In 2015, geopolitical changes in the world in general and the region in particular are many. Russia has been trying to consolidate its influence in a region seen as its “backyard" given its fractious ties with the West after its annexation of Crimea—part of the former Soviet republic of Ukraine—in 2014.

China has announced its Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, whose focus is developing economic corridors among China, Mongolia, Russia, Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Iran, which was till now engaged in talks with the West to have sanctions related to its suspect nuclear programme lifted, and Oman are looking at an economic and connectivity corridor linking Central Asia. India, on its part, is looking to speed up its economic growth. “Central Asia has much to offer in terms of raw materials and as a market for Indian exports. We see it as part of our extended neighbourhood," said an Indian official who did not want to be named.

No wonder then that enhancing connectivity and energy relations, combating terrorism, cementing defence ties and economic linkages have been recurrent themes of Modi’s stops through Central Asia.

Mindful of the fact that India does not share borders with any of the Central Asian Republics, Modi stressed the themes of connectivity and invoked India’s cultural linkages with Central Asia during each stop including Tajikistan.

“We share deep historical, cultural and civilizational links.Tajikistan is nearest to India among all Central Asian countries. We are separated by a narrow corridor. Our linguistic links are the closest in Central Asia... We discussed measures to tap the rich potential in trade and commerce and to encourage joint ventures and investments," Modi said after meeting Tajik president Emomali Rahmon.

On connectivity, Modi said both countries had agreed to promote the International North South Transport Corridor, a reference to a corridor first agreed between India, Iran and Russia in 2000. Later, 10 more countries signed on to the project that promises to cut the costs involved in transporting goods to Central Asia by 30%. The route connects Mumbai in India to Bandar Abbas port in Iran and from there to another port known as Bandar-e Anzali in northern Iran on the Caspian Sea coast. From there, goods are expected to be transported to Astrakhan in Russia and onwards to Central Asia. India sees this route as shorter than the current one through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

While the Suez Canal route takes 45-60 days, the North-South Corridor will take 25-30 days. From India’s point of view, the North-South Corridor will help India bypass Pakistan and yet reach out to Central Asia.

India is also looking at a second route through Iran’s Chabahar Port that will help it join another transit corridor linking Iran and Oman with several Central Asian republics.

“We agreed to further strengthen our defence cooperation. It is a strong pillar of our strategic partnership," Modi said of ties with Tajikistan. New Delhi has developed the Ayni air base in Tajikistan as well as operated a field medical unit at Farkhor Air Base, where the wounded Afghan Northern Alliance fighters—opposed to the Taliban—were treated between 1996 when the hardline Islamist militants took Kabul and 2001 when they were routed by the US-led alliance.

Referring to the proximity of both Tajikistan and India to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Modi said: “We are both located in the proximity of the main source of terrorism. Combating terrorism and extremism has always been an important and productive area of cooperation. At a time of growing threat of terrorism, we have resolved to intensify our cooperation further."

Combating terrorism, especially with an eye on the increasing influence of the Sunni hardline Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Central Asia, was a theme Modi referred to in his other stops in predominantly muslim Central Asia.

On Sunday in Kyrgyzstan, Modi said both countries had a “shared interest in combating extremism and terrorism that has become a threat without borders". There were pacts to boost cooperation in medicine and information technology.

Underlining the region’s importance for India, Modi said: “We see an important place for Central Asia in India’s future. We can reinforce each other’s economic progress." Both sides agreed that a “FreeTrade Agreement between India and EEU (Eurasian Economic Union) will substantially increase our cooperation". India is also looking at tapping the country’s enormous hydel power potential.

In Turkmenistan on Saturday, Modi pushed for the early realization of a gas pipeline starting from that country and running through Afghanistan and Pakistan onwards to India (TAPI) as well as for connectivity between India and Turkmenistan. “The most significant initiative in our relationship is the TAPI gas pipeline. This could transform regional economic cooperation and bring prosperity along the route... We underlined the need to implement the project quickly," Modi said. The two sides signed seven agreements including one to boost defence cooperation.

In Kazakhstan last week, India and the Kazakh government signed five agreements that included sectors such as defence, railways and uranium supplies. “We are pleased to have a much larger second contract for purchase of uranium with Kazakhstan and expanding our civil nuclear cooperation," Modi said after talks with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“Kazakhstan is our biggest economic partner in the region. We will work together to take economic ties to a new level," he said. The two nations signed an agreement for Kazakhstan’s nuclear company NAC Kazatomprom to deliver 5,000 tonnes of uranium between 2015 and 2019.

During Modi’s Uzbekistan visit, both sides discussed strengthening bilateral economic relations, the possible spillover effects of militant Islam from Afghanistan, ways to improve connectivity with the landlocked Central Asian nation and implementing the contract for supply of uranium from mineral-rich Uzbekistan.

“Central Asia is very important for us and in that context, the prime minister’s visit was deserved. There is an awareness of the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan," said P. Stobdan, an expert with Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “It was a good and very important initiative. But it’s not easy to remain connected with the region and pursue your interests. I hope the prime minister’s visit will help in this objective," he said.

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