India’s Outreach to Central Asia Amid Geopolitical Flux

The flux caused by the Russia-Ukraine war has not only created fissures in the world but is also reshaping the global order. While the apparent divisions have been between the countries that are supporting and opposing Russia, China is attempting to benefit from this situation to consolidate its own expansionist tendencies. 

Central Asia is one such region where the geopolitical shifts are rapidly presenting an opportunity to China to further strengthen its engagements. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has considered Central Asia as its backyard. However, Russia’s own diminishing economic capabilities over the years coupled with China’s assertive expansion has resulted in reducing Russia’s role in the former Soviet Republics. The Russia-Ukraine war has further weakened Russia’s position among the Central Asian countries. 

China’s actions affect not only Russia but also India which has been engaging with Central Asian countries closely for the past few years. It is pertinent to analyse India’s engagements with Central Asia, China’s outreach to the region and the way ahead for India.  

India’s accelerated engagements with Central Asia

Despite establishing diplomatic ties with the Central Asian countries in 1992, India’s engagements with the region for most part of the last three decades have remained limited. Only since 2012, India’s approach towards Central Asia has become focused with the launch of Connect Central Asia policy. This policy was formulated to strengthen engagements in the areas like political, economic, energy, connectivity, strategic, technology and people-to-people contact.  In the past few years India has accelerated its outreach to Central Asia. India has been successful in establishing institutional mechanisms to engage with the region. 

In 2019, India initiated the India-Central Asia Dialogue, a ministerial-level dialogue between the external affairs minister of India and the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The first edition of this dialogue was held in 2019 while the latest and third edition was held in 2021. 

India’s engagements with Central Asia received a boost when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the first India-Central Asia Summit in January 2022 in which the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan participated. 

Apart from these initiatives, India engages with the Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as well. 

Geography has been the major impediment in India’s outreach to Central Asia. Infeasibility of land-route connectivity due to India’s disputes with Pakistan has been a limiting factor in the development of the India-Central Asia relations. This limitation has led India to explore alternate routes which has resulted in India’s participation in three connectivity projects – the Chabahar Port, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement. These connectivity initiatives, particularly the Chabahar Port, have evoked interest from the landlocked Central Asian countries to gain access to sea. 

The first meeting of the India-Central Asia Joint Working Group on Chabahar Port was held in Mumbai, India on April 12-13. The participants of this meeting were India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Iran and United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) were the special invitees. This meeting emphasized on the development of the Shahid Behesti Terminal of the Chabahar Port and providing wheat assistance to Afghanistan.

Along with connectivity, regional security is also an important area of convergence between India and the Central Asian countries. Countering radicalization and terrorism is imperative for the connectivity as well as economic engagements. The unstable security situation caused by the Taliban-takeover of Afghanistan is a concern for both India and Central Asia. The two sides have since been engaging regularly over the issue of security. In the past few months India and Central Asia have held two meetings over the situation in Afghanistan. In December 2022, New Delhi hosted the first meeting of the National Security Advisers of India and the Central Asian countries. In March this year the first meeting of India-Central Asia Joint Working Group on Afghanistan was held in New Delhi. 

Despite geographical constraints and a hostile neighbourhood, India has invested substantial diplomatic efforts in strengthening its ties with Central Asia. However, India faces a steep competition in the region from China. 

China’s outreach to Central Asia

The past two decades have witnessed China expanding its footprint in Central Asia substantially. Between 2005 and 2022, China has invested a total of around $25 billion in the five Central Asian countries. China is Central Asia’s largest trading partner. The trade between China and Central Asia for the year 2022 was more than $32 billion which indicated a growth of 31.9% over the previous year. China established a C+C5 mechanism to engage with Central Asia at ministerial level. Now China has upgraded the C+C5 with the summit of Heads of State of China and the five Central Asian countries scheduled for May. 

Central Asia has also been an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping launched this project from Kazakhstan in 2013. Since then there are talks for connectivity projects linking Central Asia to Lianyungang sea port in China’s Jiangsu province. Another connectivity project the China-Central Asia-West Asia-Economic Corridor would connect Central Asia to Europe. 

However, China’s ride in Central Asia has not been smooth. In the past few years, the public anger against China has been on the rise in Central Asian countries. There have been more than 150 protests in recent years against China’s debt diplomacy and land encroachment. Chinese investments in energy, oil and gas sectors have invited resistance while there is also resentment against the Private Security Companies deployed to guard Chinese investments. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have witnessed majority of these protests against China. China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province has generated anger among the ethnic Turkic kin across the borders in Central Asia, in particular Kazakhstan

The way ahead for India

China does not have any geographical constraints in its outreach to Central Asia. However, the Chinese presence and the debt-diplomacy are facing resistance from the people of the Central Asian countries if not from the political dispensations. India, despite enjoying a positive image among the Central Asians, faces constraints by way of geography and security concerns in the region. 

India has continued with its engagements even in the face of the geopolitical challenges. However India’s outreach faces challenge from China as its influence is on the rise not just in Central Asia but also in Iran and Afghanistan. Besides, India’s economic engagements with Central Asian countries remain much lesser than that of China. India’s combined trade with Central Asia is around $2 billion

Since connectivity remains a weak link and Iran is the pivotal factor in India’s outreach to Central Asia, there could be further challenges. Growing conflict between Iran and the Western countries and India’s increasing engagements with the Western countries could lead to a dilemma situation for India. It could cause India to weigh its options. Since China is India’s major adversary, India could prioritize relations with the western countries more. Although this may not totally lead to India distancing from Central Asia, the present geopolitical flux certainly presents a situation of a tight-rope walk for India.

[Prime Minister’s Office (India), via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

The author is a Political Analyst and Researcher based in Vadodara, India.

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