SPECIAL ISSUE II

● THE SECOND INDIA-CENTRAL ASIA DIALOGUE: TOWARDS GREATER COOPERATION

Introduction

The five countries of Central Asia viz Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have but rarely appeared in the headline global news over the last 29 years since they got their independence in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Possibly the success of these countries over this period in developing their identity, maintaining peace and stability and providing a better standard of living to their people is the most plausible reason why so little has been written about them over this period. The global press seldom pays much attention to success stories as its concentration is predominantly directed towards wars, terrorist acts, human suffering, famines etc. around the world. Central Asia has not shown the type of deep fissures in its polity as many other regions in its neighborhood have witnessed. That is the probable cause why it has stayed out of the media spotlight. This notwithstanding, Central Asia is deserving of greater focus and attention, not only by India but also the world.

As far as India is concerned, Central Asia is a part of our extended neighborhood with which we have had strong and vibrant ties through millennia. From the time of the Silk Road in 3rd century BCE, these connections have been strong and vibrant till as late as the early 1990s when the Soviet Union broke asunder. Historically, deep cultural and civilizational roots bind India with Central Asia. In the present day context, India’s stability, trade, economic and physical connectivity, energy security etc. is closely linked to Central Asia.

For the global community, the huge energy reserves including oil, gas, uranium and other minerals and water, which could be the oil of the future, as well as its proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan which are afflicted with instability and terrorism, are aspects of major interest and concern.

India and Central Asia-From 1991 Till Now

India and Central Asia started on a positive, pro-active note when these countries became independent in 1991. The then Prime minister PV Narasimha Rao visited four out of these five countries in early years – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in ’93, and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in ’95. The then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev made India his first country of visit outside the CIS in February, 1992.

From 1995 till 2015, the region witnessed insufficient attention by the leadership of India and vice-versa, possibly because both India and Central Asia were deeply engaged in dealing with their domestic challenges and meeting immediate foreign policy concerns with their major partners.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the five countries in July, 2015 soon after forming a government in New Delhi gave a significant impetus to India’s bilateral ties with the individual countries as well as the region.

India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has provided another forum on which India can engage with four out of these five countries who are members of the SCO. Starting from 2016 when PM Modi attended the SCO summit in Tashkent to the SCO Summits in Astana (now Nursultan city) in 2017, in Qingdao, China in 2018, and last year in Bishkek, PM Modi has interacted with the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in one-to-one meetings. Senior ministers and officials of India have also met their counterparts of these countries on a regular basis on the sidelines of relevant SCO gatherings. For instance, the Defense and Foreign Ministers of India met their counterparts from the four countries during the recent SCO meetings in Moscow in early September, 2020 and held discussions to take bilateral ties forward.

All such meetings have helped an exchange of views and promoted cooperation and understanding between these countries and India.

Significance of these countries has grown because of their huge reserves of energy as well as water glaciers and rivers that they sit on. Their geographical position at the heart of the Eurasian continent has made them ideal for major connectivity projects like the Belt and Road Initiative of China, International North South Transport Corridor and linkages through the Chabahar port project. Their proximity to Afghanistan has also enhanced their role in bringing peace and stability to that terror-infested country.

The demise of the long ruling Islam Karimov in 2016 resulted in change of leadership in Uzbekistan and assumption of the Presidency by the progressive and enlightened Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This has altered the regional calculus of Central Asia. The recent change of government in Kyrgyzstan resulting in the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov on 15th October, 2020 and assumption of charge by Sadyr Japarov as interim President and Prime Minister has introduced considerable uncertainty in the peace and security situation in the region.

To impart a fresh impetus to ties with the Region, India had launched a Track II Central Asia Dialogue in 2012. This was done under the aegis of a Think Tank in Delhi and was designed to provide a platform to academia, business and cultural bodies to take the relationship to the next level. Although regular meetings under this format were held, it failed to energize the non-official or official exchanges between India and Central Asia.

The Ministerial India-Central Asia Dialogue (India-CAD) with participation of Afghanistan

It was hence considered appropriate to initiate a Central Asia Dialogue at Ministerial level to give a significant push to our bilateral relations.

Speaking on the launch of this initiative in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 13th January, 2019, the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj termed India and Central Asia (and Afghanistan which was also included in this meeting) as ‘’natural partners’’ with our people sharing ‘’centuries old ties.’’ Referring to PM Modi’s ‘’landmark visit’’ to the five countries of the region in 2015, the first by an Indian leader, she said that the ‘’visit achieved important results bilaterally with each one of the five Central Asian countries but also set us thinking what we can do more together to substantially enhance economic engagement and development partnership between India and Central Asia.’’ She expressed India’s keen interest to ‘’build a modern and comprehensive partnership on these strong foundations.’’

A unique feature of this initiative is that in addition to the Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian countries, the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan is also invited as a Special Invitee. This is extremely significant as the security and stability of India as well as of Central Asia (three States of Central Asia viz Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan share common borders with Afghanistan) is critically dependent on peace and security in Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan has the potential to act as a land and air bridge between India and Central Asia for promoting commercial and economic cooperation. Participation of Afghanistan in these deliberations has hence become extremely critical and vital.

In the first India-CAD, the then EAM had referred to the useful role played by development cooperation in strengthening our ties with other countries. She ‘’offered to extend this partnership to Central Asia as well, where we can bring our countries closer by taking up concrete projects, inter alia, under our Lines of Credit and Buyers’ Credit, and by sharing our expertise.’’

The Second India-CAD

The second meeting of the India-CAD was held virtually on 28th October, 2020. The Joint Declaration issued at the end of the deliberations highly assessed the establishment of this ‘’platform for strengthening cooperation between India and the Central Asian countries in political, security, economic and commercial, development partnership, humanitarian and cultural spheres as well as exchanging views on regional and international issues of mutual interest and enhancing cooperation.’’

To take forward the declaration on development partnership made at the first India-CAD, India offered a ‘’USD 1 billion Line of Credit for priority developmental projects in fields such as connectivity, energy, IT, healthcare, education, agriculture etc.’’ All these are niche areas in which India has proven expertise and capabilities. Central Asian countries ‘’welcomed India’s offer to provide grant assistance for implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) for furthering socio-economic development in the countries of the region.’’

In order to ‘’further expand trade and economic cooperation including promoting direct ties between the businesses of India and the Central Asian countries, the India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) was set up in New Delhi on 6 February 2020,’’ comprising the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, New Delhi and Chambers of Commerce and Industry from the five Central Asian countries. The second meeting of this Council took place in parallel with the India-CAD on 28th October itself.

Discussions took place on increasing the trade and economic potential of the member countries through improvement of their road infrastructure and transport facilities. India informed the participating countries about its actions to modernize and upgrade the facilities at Chabahar port to improve connectivity between India and Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Participating Ministers ‘’strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations’’ and reaffirmed their determination ‘’to combat this menace by destroying terrorist safe-havens, networks, infrastructure and funding channels. They also underlined the need for every country to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks against other countries.’’ Reiteration of this position which mirrors the Indian stand on the issue is a matter of considerable satisfaction.

Of equal satisfaction to India would be the reference to Afghanistan in the Statement which affirms that the Ministers ‘’called for the settlement of the Afghan conflict on the principle of Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process. The Ministers expressed their interest in strengthening cooperation for the development and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, including through the implementation of infrastructure, energy, transit and transport projects. They also emphasized preserving the socio-economic development and political gains made by Afghanistan in the last 19 years. The Ministers extended support for a united, sovereign and democratic Republic of Afghanistan.’’ This position is a total reiteration of India’s stand on this crucial subject.

The Ministers also discussed the importance and potential of strengthening ties through the medium of humanitarian, cultural, educational and tourism cooperation between India and the Central Asian countries, and Afghanistan.

Conclusion

It is encouraging to note that there is total convergence of views and positions between all the participating countries on vital and critical issues like counter-terrorism, peace and security in Afghanistan, connectivity, development partnership etc. These aspects can be used as the basis for taking relations between India and Afghanistan and Central Asia to new heights.

Central Asia has emerged as a very significant region for India. It is essential that India accords adequate importance and priority to strengthening relations with all these countries as well as Afghanistan.

Discussions on promoting peace and security in Afghanistan has become even more important today as the timeline of withdrawal of US troops from the region draws nearer. It is imperative for the regional countries to step up to the plate to ensure that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorists don’t rule the roost, that peace and stability is established, and that the gains of the last 19 years in building a democracy, promoting freedom and human rights, and preserving the rights of women and girl child are not frittered away as a result of the peace and reconciliation Talks.

Russia and China are the biggest players in Central Asia. Without showing it overtly, Russia has been getting wary of the increasing footprint of China in the region not only in the trade and economic field bit also in the security and defense arena. So far the two countries have been collaborating to keep USA and other western powers at bay and out of this region. But now with America showing concrete signs of withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia will definitely like to ensure that its influence and leadership, which is being challenged by China, does not suffer and is maintained. China’s ties with Central Asian countries have come under some stress in the recent past. These relate to protests in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan on account of the treatment meted out to ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz people in Xinjiang where over a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in concentration camps. China has laid claim on large parts of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan on historical grounds. There is increasing disaffection among the people in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and other states regarding the growing clout and economic influence of China in the region. A Chinese web-site had recently claimed that Kazakhstan wanted to be a part of China. Moreover, the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan had claimed a few months ago that there was an extremely potent virus, deadlier than the coronavirus, which had appeared in some cities of Kazakhstan. This was strongly repudiated by the Kazakh government. All these instances and more have made these countries wary of getting very close to China.

India has only good will in this region. It does not carry any baggage. It needs to be pro-active in reaching out to the leaderships and people of these countries and engage in programmes and activities including political, security, defense, capacity building, economic, commercial, cultural, educational, tourism and people to people exchanges to realize the full potential of the bilateral and regional partnership. The India-Central Asia Dialogue with the participation of Afghanistan is an excellent platform to achieve this objective.
 


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(The views expressed are personal)
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About the Author

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar

Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of Global Studies and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar belongs to the Indian Foreign Service and has acquitted his responsibilities in the diplomatic service for 34 years. He was Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia and has worked in senior diplomatic positions in Indian Embassies/Missions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok and also at Headquarters in India. He negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and in negotiations for India-EU, India-ASEAN and India-Thailand Free Trade Agreements.

He contributed significantly to strengthening strategic ties and promoting cultural cooperation between India and USA, EU, Russia and other countries.Ambassador Sajjanhar worked as head of National Foundation for Communal Harmony to promote amity and understanding between different religions, faiths and beliefs. Ambassador Sajjanhar has been decorated by Governments of Kazakhstan and Latvia with their National Awards and by Universal Peace Federation with Title of ''Ambassador of Peace.'' Currently Ambassador Sajjanhar is President of Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi. He writes, travels and speaks extensively on issues relating to international relations, foreign policy and themes of contemporary relevance and significance. He appears widely on TV panel discussions. Ambassador Sajjanhar is interested in reading, music and travelling. His wife Madhu is an economist and an educationist. They have a son and a daughter both of who are accomplished singers. Their son passed out of Yale University and their daughter is pursuing her PhD at University of Minnesota.