New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday arrived in Tajikistan on the final leg of an eight-day swing through Central Asia and Russia to shore up ties with the resource-rich region where strategic and economic rival China has been increasingly making inroads.

This is the first time since the emergence of the landlocked Central Asian republics as independent states in 1991—after the breakup of the former Soviet Union—that an Indian prime minister is visiting all five of these nations together.

Enhancing connectivity and energy relations, combating terrorism, cementing defence ties and economic linkages have been recurrent themes of Modi’s stops in all five countries starting with Uzbekistan on 6 July, then Kazakhstan, followed by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan and finally ending with Tajikistan on Monday.

“I think the prime minister’s visit to Central Asia has gone off very well. He has highlighted all important issues relating to India’s interests in these countries" said Vivek Katju, former secretary west, in the ministry of external affairs.

Modi’s visit comes as Russia is trying to consolidate its influence in a region seen as its backyard. It also comes after China announced its Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, whose focus is developing economic corridors between China, Mongolia, Russia, Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. China’s trade links with the Central Asian republics has touched $50 billion while India’s is still just over $1billion.

Mindful of the fact that India does not share borders with any of the Central Asian republics, Modi has been stressing the themes of connectivity as well as invoking 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 to by 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%, according to the Indian commerce ministry website. The new countries to sign up to the corridor project include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, Oman, Syria and Bulgaria, the website says.

The route connects Mumbai in India to Bandar Abbas port in Iran and from there to another port known as Bandar 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.

Since 1991, India has been trying to forge greater ties with Central Asia that it sees as market as well as source of energy and raw materials. But the lack of contiguous borders and the reliance of routes either through Pakistan and Afghanistan or Iran have hampered Indian efforts. India’s attempts at securing a land route through Afghanistan came to nought when the Sunni Islamist Taliban took control of large swathes of Afghanistan. This was followed by the US-led war against terror that evicted the Taliban from Kabul but did not succeed in banishing all militants from the country. International sanctions against Iran hampered Indian efforts to build alternative routes through the country to Central Asia.

India is also looking at a second route through Iran’s Chahbahar Port in Iran 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 Tajikstan as well as operated a field medical unit at Farkhor Air Base, where wounded Afghan Northern Alliance fighters—opposed to the Taliban—were treated from 1996, when the hardline Islamist militants took Kabul, to 2001 when they were routed by a 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—specially 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 the 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."

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 “Free Trade Agreement between India and Eurasian Economic Union will substantially increase our cooperation," Modi added.

In Turkmenistan on Saturday, Modi pushed for the early realisation of a gas pipeline starting from Turkmenistan and running through Afghanistan and Pakistan onwards to India (TAPI) as well as for connectivity in 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.

Both sides signed seven agreements including one to boost defence cooperation.

In Kazakhstan last week, India and the Kazakh government signed five agreements that included ones in 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."

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.

Close