India’s Central Asia Policy: An Overview of the Challenges and Options

Bawa Singh
Assistant Professor in the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda.


Despite having civilizational relations since antiquity with the Central Asian Republics (CARs), India has a well defined and well-articulated foreign policy towards the region. Consequently, the CARs did not figure prominently in the Indian Foreign Policy. The New Great Game had played a major role to metamorphose India’s engagement with Central Asia. Realizing its omissions, it launched various official frameworks such as “Extended Neighbourhood”, “Immediate and Strategic Neighbourhood” and the “Look North Policy” and the latest ‘Connect Central Asia’ for making its space in the region. Against this background, the primary focus of this paper is to find out the geopolitical dynamics, challenges and opportunities faced by Indian foreign policy.
India and Central Asia have had long traditions of socio-cultural, religious, political and economic connections throughout the recorded history. Historical and civilizational ties between both the regions had enervated following the consolidation of the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century and Czarist suzerainty over the Central Asia, which was continued till the 1990’s. The disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, resulted in the emergence of the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Very shortly, the CARs became the pivot of “New Great Game” in which the United States, Russia, China, and the European Union have been playing a strategic role in the region.
Both the regions had been connected by the geo-cultural and economic bounds. But these ties had not been maintained due to external and internal dynamics of both the regions. During the past two centuries, India and Central Asia had been separated by colonization and later on the great power politics. Trade and cultural ties have been cut off. On the one hand, India’s orientation shifted toward the Western countries during the colonial period. On the contrary, Central Asia had lost its independent identity under the Russian empire. Due to the contrasting interests of the colonial masters, both the regions drifted from each other. Even after the independence, under Nehru’s vision of the world, Central Asia had remained in oblivion. Kavalski (2009: 85) had also supported this viewpoint and in support of his argument, he quoted Jaswant Singh, the former External Affairs Minister of India, who said, “The Central Asian factor was completely absent.” On the other side, Usha (2012) has argued that Central Asia’s leadership since their independence, used to see India through the prism of Moscow. Consequently, both regions could not come closer to each other despite sharing close historical and cultural relations.

Sense of Commonality-Lost Ground

In spite of geographical proximity, rich mineral sources, new great game and strategic interests, scholars like (Kucera 2011; Welle 2015; Kilner 2015; Mohan 2015; Dave 2016) have strongly argued that India has remained disengaged and passive towards Central Asia since the latter’s independent existence, notwithstanding diplomatic ties. It did not make sincere efforts to prioritize to include this region in its foreign policy and consequently lags behind regional external and regional actors in CARs.
Apart from geopolitical dynamics, several other factors might have been responsible for this lackadaisical attitude on the part of India. Carass (2012), has argued that India has not an extended relationship with these countries on account of various factors, and one of them was deteriorating its economy. At that time, India was in not in a position to make the best out of trade and investment opportunities available in these countries on account of its weak economy. India’s “Look East” policy is another factor which has driven India away from these countries. It had concentrated its economic and diplomatic resources on its “Look East”, a policy which focused on the development of extensive and comprehensive relations with Southeast and East Asia.
With the onset of New Great Game in this region, India realized its mistakes in this respect and made efforts to relocate, as such, in the changing geopolitics of the region. As pointed out by the scholars, the consequences of its half-hearted policy vis-a-vis this region obligated India not to repeat the same mistakes in the context of its foreign policy. In such a scenario, giving priority to this region in its foreign policy, Bal (2004: 29), has argued that India had designed various official frameworks such as “Extended Neighbourhood”, “Immediate and Strategic Neighbourhood” and “Look North Policy” and ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

Changing Dynamics of Geopolitics in Central Asia

Local nomads used to rule Central Asia. As per the study of the some scholars like Stanton, Ramsamy, Seybolt, & Elliott (2012: 96), have claimed that supremacy of the nomads came to an end in the sixteenth century as settled people with firearms gained control of this region. The Russian Empire, the Qing Dynasty of China and other powers have expanded into the area and seized the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the nineteenth century. As per the claim of Boyd & Comenetz (2007:67), the Soviet Union established its control over Central Asia after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Even Russia moved towards the east beyond Central Asia. Mongolia existed as a Soviet satellite state, and Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in the late twentieth century and under its control from 1979 to 1989.
Burghart (2007:5-19), accepted that the Russian empire’s expansion into Central Asia had made the British Empire apprehensive particularly in the context of India — the jewel of the British Empire. To stop Russian eastward movement, strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian empire for supremacy in Central Asia had been started during the nineteenth century. This strategic competition was termed the Great Game. The period which ran from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 is regarded as the Great Game. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the less intensive phase of competition between both the powers followed which was known as the the Great Game. The term was coined by Arthur Conolly, an intelligence officer of the British East India Company.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formally dissolved on 26 December 1991. Wines (1992), in one of his reports, noted that the dissolution of the world’s largest communist state is also marked as an end to the Cold War. In the post-Soviet era, Moscow regarded Central Asia as a sort of backyard to improve its economy aligned with Western economic and military-political systems. Scholars like Halback and Heinrich (1994:156-162) and Rumor (199: 90), noted the lackadaisical attitude on part of Russia towards Central Asia, forced the latter one to look for other options and attempted to re-align with other external powers.
Weitz (2006), has argued that Central Asia has become the pivot of geopolitics and the playground of the major powers like USA, China, European Union (EU) and Russia along with regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.It is known as the New Great Game. The New Great Game was a fight for expansion of political and strategic dominance over the region by the two Imperial powers the Russian and British empires (Edwards, 2003).Thus, the external powers are vying with each other to gain supremacy in this region along with other regional powers which are also trying to enhance their influence in the region. The three major powers such as US, European Union (EU) and China have contrasting strategic interests and competing for local allies, energy resources, and military advantage. However, these players converged on combating the terrorism and drug trafficking.
India had been sharing the historical and geo-cultural relations with the region. Notwithstanding, it could not make much space in the geopolitics of the region as far as expanding its geostrategic and geo-economic interests are concerned. Given the changing dynamics of geostrategic and geo-economic environment in the region, India has to give a pivotal place to this region in its foreign policy priorities.

Interests of the Major Powers in Central Asia

Sachdeva (2006), has argued that since the inception in the 1990s, the CARs has become the cynosure of the major and regional powers. Factors like its geostrategic location, rich in energy and natural resources, a bridge between the Europe and Asia and its crucial role in maintaining peace and stability in the region attracted major powers in the region. Burghart (2007) has argued that in the Post 9/11, the CARs has become a valuable supply hub for the Afghanistan war efforts. The CARs can play a critical role for stabilizing and developing the turbulent country. China also need the help of the CARs for controlling the turbulent Xinjiang province. Swanström (2005), argued that for Russia and China, the CARs has been holding importance on account of its strategic and economic environment and also containing the USA influence in this region.
Russia is a one of the major neighbouring countries and had remained the former colonial master of the Central Asia. After the breakup of Russia, Central Asia has assumed an independent identity comprised of five countries. However, as per the study of Denoon (2015), this region did not remain pivotal in Russian foreign policy, as it was preoccupied with its own political and economic problems. Moreover, Russia itself wanted to get aid and assistance from the West, Due to this, Central Asia region was not prioritized in its foreign policy. On the other hand, passive policy of Russia vis-à-vis Central Asia provided an opportunity to the other major powers such as US and China to expand their geopolitical space in the Central Asia. Consequently, the newly independent republics of Central Asia have started establishing diplomatic, political and economic ties with the outside world. Later on realizing this diplomatic omission on its part, Russia has been reorienting its foreign policy vis-à-vis, Central Asia. Marantidou and Ralph (2014), have held that currently Russia being a major player of the New Great Game, considers Central Asia as its backyard.Malashenko (2013), an expert on Central Asia, has argued in one of his papers that Russia is having primary interests in the region included, to stabilize and prevent any outside power to expand influence in the Central Asia. Thus, it restricted the expanding geostrategic and geopolitical power of the other powers particularly the US. After the post-withdrawal of ISAF, Russia opposed the strategic presence of the US in Central Asia.It has started expanding its military and security role out of the geostrategic concerns. Patnaik (2016) has noted that Russian leadership perceived that authoritarian system of the Central Asia is being considered more suitable for its interests and thus maintained and supported that political system. Some scholars like Chaudet & Tsygankov (2010), have argued that dominating the energy transit routes is also one of the major interests of the Russia in the Central Asia region.
The CARs have been playing an important role in the U.S. global strategy for the given of proximity to Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other key regional actors as well as sharing territorial borders with Afghanistan and the Caspian basin. Cohen (2006) claimed that security, energy and promoting democracy are the crucial interests of the USA in the Central Asia region. From the geostrategic point of view, The United States has been fighting ‘War on Terror’ in order to safeguard the West in general and America in particular from the terrorist threats emanating from Islamic fundamentalists. Nikbay & Hancerli (2007), have argued that the United States has also been active in Central Asia, particularly from a security standpoint. The 9/11 attack further enhanced an active involvement of the USA in this area in connection with war on terrorism in Afghanistan. During the Operation Endurance of Freedom (OEF) 2001 to 2014, the United States has been using Central Asian military bases such as the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, etc. for logistical supplies.
Momayezi & Rosenburg (2011) have argued that the US wanted to minimise its overreliance on unstable sources of energy in the Middle East. National security concern of the US is the diversification of energy sources and the Caspian region is a significant alternative source of energy. The People’s Daily (2006), reported in one of its report that in order to marginalize the influence of Russia and China, it further devised strategy of “Greater Central Asia.”
Since the independence of Central Asian States in 1990s, all major powers have been engaged in Central Asia. In order to keep per se in the same race, China has rejuvenated its enervated relations as well as evolved long term policies for this region. As per the study of some scholars (Ash 2002& Swanström 2005), the major interests of China in Central Asia have been the security and energy. Since the 1990s, the main strategic aim of China is to ensure that the Central Asian governments kept a tight vigil on the activities of Uyghur Islamic militants on their soils as well as keep under check the Uyghur minority living in Central Asia, who is helping the separatist Uyghur militants of Xingjiang. Chinese leadership wanted Central Asian nations not only to keep control over the activities of these separatists but also properly maintaining of the borders to ensure that arms and funds for Uyghur separatists are not allowed to reach Xinjiang. The Chinese industry depends upon domestic stability and constant economic growth and incessant energy supply that are coming from Central Asia. Geopolitically and geo-strategically, China wanted to contain the influence of external powers such as US and Russia and currently its geopolitical and geo-economic influence in the region is outmatched.
India’s role in Central Asia is relatively feeble despite sharing geo-cultural relations. However, India has a very wide array of interests in Central Asia covering security, energy, economic opportunities etc. In order to achieve these interest and to improve its profile in the recent past, as argued by Singh (2016), India has launched many frameworks such as “Extended Neighbourhood”, “Immediate and Strategic Neighbourhood” and “Look North Policy.”

Rationale for Central Asia Policy

India has multifaceted interests in the Central Asian region from the geopolitical and geostrategic perspective. These changing geostrategic and geopolitical dynamics in the Central Asia forced the India to relook its foreign policy towards the region. Against this backdrop, the Indian policy makers realized that India could no longer remain as an indifferent onlooker to these dynamics. The power politics of the major powers, expanding geopolitical interests of the regional powers like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and bilateral disputes of India-Pakistan relations were some of the factors that shaping the Indian policy towards the region. The geostrategic concerns like extremism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism etc. have also obligated India to reorient policy towards the region. The turbulence in Afghanistan, China’s strategic assertiveness, some of the other reasons for India to look towards the CARs as argued by Usha (2012). Kavalski (2010), has noted these concerns obligated India to protect its interest not allowing the external powers to change the geopolitical balance in Central Asia and consequently, create grave consequences on the strategic balance in South and West Asia.

Indian Passive to Pro Policy

Indian Central Asia policy has not been well defined and articulated as argued by some scholars despite being highly important from strategic point of view. PM Narasimha Rao, during his visit to Turkmenistan in September 1995 said, for India, Central Asia was an area, “of high priority, where we aim to stay engaged far into the future. We are an independent partner with no selfish motives. We only desire honest and open friendship and to promote stability and cooperation without causing harm to any third country.” Highlighting Central Asia’s significance for India, Joshi (2005: 227), quoted the report of Ministry of Defence, Government of India, “due to its strategic proximity to the Middle East and South Asia, Central Asia has emerged as a distinct geo-political entity stimulating global attention and interest. The region has vast untapped potential of oil and gas and other strategic minerals. Engagement of the CARs is thus an essential component of our security.” These statements demonstrate that India has accorded high strategic importance to the CARs.
Despite according high strategic importance to the region in letter, Central Asia has been ignored by India in spirit. Scholars like Dar & Firdous (2014) and Kavalski (2010) have argued that end of the bipolar world coinciding with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union had left indelible imprints on the Indian foreign policy.Kavalski (2009) argued that dramatic shift in the foundations and framework, India’s Central Asian policy has been entrapped in the dilemmas of conceptual tensions, strategic uncertainty, and geopolitical constraints. Against this backdrop, the Indian foreign policy in the absence of a well-defined and well-articulation had displayed a sense of the ‘incoherence and indistinctiveness towards the region (Dar and Tabasum, 2014). Kavalski (2010) has argued that in spite of “historical belonging” to India’s “strategic neighborhood”, it has “not been giving sufficient attention to Central Asia.” Usha (2012), has noted that India has maintained low profile in Central Asia, in the first decade of independence of Central Asian states. However, in order to end the ambiguities of the foreign policy, India has launched policy frameworks like, an Extended Neighbourhood, Strategic Partnership etc. This policies were further strengthened, when priority to Central Asian region further shifted to “Immediate and Strategic Neighbourhood.” The objective of the Look North policy is to balance the players like Russia, China, the US and the West in the region. Other interests include the end of its post-Cold War ambiguity; the assumption of assertive foreign policy stance, and break with the imperatives of post- Independence (Dar & Firdous 2014).
In order to protect these interests and turn disengagements to re-engagements, India has launched, “Connect Central Asia” policy. It is a multi-faceted approach covering political, security, economic and cultural connections. Under this, India has tried to heighten its areas of cooperation at the two level- multilateral and bilateral. The multilateral engagement focussed to step up multilateral engagement through the existing forums like the SCO, Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and the Custom Union. India has proposed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA) to dovetail its markets with the unifying Eurasian space. At the bilateral level covers like security energy, natural resources, medical field, higher education IT, management, philosophy and languages, tele-education, tele-medicine connectivity, construction sector, land connectivity, banking infrastructure, trade and investment, regular exchanges of scholars, academics, civil society and youth delegations (Ahmad 2012).

Challenges for Indian Foreign Policy

Throughout the history, Central Asia had played an important role for India as a transit route. But in the present scenario, relationship between the two regions could not realize their full potential due to internal and external dynamics. On all frontline political, diplomatic including trade and economic relations between India and CARs mostly remained unsatisfactory. On the onset of the New Great Game, Indian Foreign Policy makers, scholars and analysts realized that this area has not been attracted the attention of Indian foreign policy makers as it supposed to be. After realizing this, India made many efforts to make up these mistakes and give priority to this region in its foreign policy. However, some problems which are still posing major challenges for Indian foreign policy which are discussed below.

Weak Economic Cooperation

Till date, the economic cooperation is at the lowest ebb between both the regions. Trade and investment are very insignificant. Politically, the Central Asian republics are highly fragile and also facing many traditional threats like terrorism, drug trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism etc. Because of these traditional threats, Indian manufacturing and investment companies are not interested to enter the markets of Central Asia. Some of the problems are coming from administrative machinery. Non-availability of hard currency, banking services, lack of conversion facility service and prevailing corruption are the major hindrances for Indian foreign policy to realize their full potential of the bilateral relations. Moreover, this region is a landlocked. Despite many efforts have been made to enhance territorial connectivity but it is very slow and problematic due to mountainous area and geopolitical hindrances. However, with the introduction of the Delhi-Sharjah-Dushanbe flight,air connectivity is being developed.
In case of Foreign Direct Investment, According to Industrial Development Board Report, June 2014, FDI flows of India in whole Central Asia have been negligible and just Kazakhstan has accounted for US$ 29.11million. Economically, India and Central Asia relations are at very low ebb which is further substantiated by the below mentioned data Table-1.
The level of economic relation is always taken as major criteria for determining the intensity of trade between the two countries or the region. The trade between India and CARs during the last four years has been remained at the lowest ebb. On the contrary, the trade of the CARs vis-a-vis China, Russia and US have exponentially grown, which is stood at $50.27 billion, $31.24 billion & $33.42 billion respectively in the year of 2013 (UNCOMTRADE, 2013). Whereas on the other hand, India’s total trade in the same period is stood at US$ 1.24 billion which is comparatively smaller in size. This clearly indicates that economically, India is missing in the region.

Security Concerns

Both the regions are close to each other and sharing border with Pakistan and Afghanistan which are epicentre of terrorism and religious extremism.The security concerns like terrorism, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, organized crime, separatism and ethnic conflicts etc have been the major problems. Cross-border and state sponsored terrorism, emanating out of some neighbouring states have become a major strategic concern for both the regions as terrorism is a potent source of destabilisation, both regionally and internationally. India has a vital interest in the security and political stability of this region.India feels that if terrorists’ activities are not checked then eventually, they will pose a serious threats to regional security.Cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan a potent destabilizing factor in India, Russia and CARs.
Another challenge for India foreign policy which needs the attention of the policy makers is geopolitics of the region. This is an area of immense importance to Europe, US, China, and Iran. These powers wanted to contain the influence of each other in this region. The US wanted to contain the influence of Russia and Iran. Similarly China is also expanding its foothold in the CARs. It is making huge investment in Central Asian oilfields to fulfil its future energy demands. European Union wants to extend its influence by means of military expansion eastwards and through the Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme. On account of this, region has become a chessboard for such major powers and this fighting among major powers in the region pose immense challenges for Indian foreign policy.

Nuclear Threat

The CARs is strategically located between two nuclear superpowers, Russia and China. Two nuclear-armed neighbours Pakistan and India are also sharing borders with this region. Central Asia previously served as a raw materials base for the Soviet weapons program. Kazakhstan is holding large reserves of highly enriched uranium, while Kyrgyzstan has substantial amounts of nuclear waste. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are holding sizeable uranium reserves and has huge potential for its enrichment. On the other hand, absence of special-detection equipment atborder and customs checkpoints, rampant corruption and reluctant political will, have the potential to render the region highly vulnerable for smuggling fissile material. In this scenario, there is potential danger of proliferation of lethal weapons technology and material into the hands hostile states to India. Non-state actors like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and groups like the IMU could also exploit this situation in their favour. This poses a security challenges for both the regions.

Drug Trafficking

Drugs trafficking in Central Asia poses a major threat to the stability of both the regions. Drugs are penetrating into the region along two main channels, the golden triangle and the golden crescent.The poor management of border and unbridled corruption, coupled with soaring opium production in neighboring Afghanistan pose major challenges for India foreign policy. Since much of the money generated through drug trafficking is used to support the activities of extremist Islamist terror networks that possess the ability to play havoc not only in India but could prove ruinous for US, Russia and China. Thus India should engage in multilateral cooperation.

China Challenge

Involvement of China in Central Asia is both as a big challenge and opportunity for India. The potential rivalry between both India and China becomes more visible in Afghanistan than in Central Asia, because China is well ahead of India in the second, while India is more present in the first. Laruelle (2012) while giving an interview claimed that China could be an ally, a rival, and a model for India in its strategy of involvement in Central Asia. According to her, China can be considered as an ally, because India pragmatically recognizes that China can contribute to the stability of Central Asia and that its inclusion in Asia-Pacific economic dynamics guarantees prosperity. On the other hand, it is an arch rival because India continues to see China as a country of major uncertainty regarding its political, domestic, and international trajectories.

TAPI and IPI- Not Moving

Central Asia is a energy-rich region and India is energy deficient country. Thus, India’s quest for energy could be met easily from the region through the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI). With the assistance and coordination of the Asian development Bank (ADB), the three players of this pipeline Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan had signed an agreement to transport Turkmen gas to the Pakistan via Afghanistan. Realizing the significance of this project and its quest for energy, India also joined the TAPI in 2008. Turkmenistan is a major source of gas reserve and proven reserves are estimated about 8 trillion cubic meters. This pipeline will connect Daulatabad gas field in Turkmenistan and passing through the Herat, Helmand and Kandhar in Afghanistan and Quetta and Multan in Pakistan and come to India. About 33 billion cubic gas per year will be transported.
Since its inception, TAPI project has not been materializing on account of geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics. Foster (2010) has argued one of his papers that, the strong support on part of United States is very important for materializing this project. Nevertheless, India’s quest for energy from Central Asia has been facing several geopolitical challenges. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) and Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipelines have not been materialized. The geopolitical maneuvering of some of the external powers such as US and China, changing geostrategic environment and bilateral relation between India and Pakistan, in fact, are major roadblocks for the realizing this project. However, to pursue its interests and Connecting Eurasia, several initiatives have been adopted by Indian policy makers

Options of Indian Foreign Policy

Seeing the trends and patterns of the economic cooperation, it can be safely conclude that both the regions have not made the optimum utilization of these available opportunities in diverse sectors. In order to explore more opportunities available in this region, India has redesigned its foreign policy. After the introduction of LPG, the Indian economy is on high trajectory. To maintain this pace, it needs incessant supply of energy whereas Central Asia is rich in energy and natural sources and need markets. Thus, the interests of both the regions are complementary to each other. Some of the scholars are convinced that energy is a vital component of national security of Indian foreign policy. Indian dependence on imported oil is considered to surge from the current levels of 72 per cent to 91.6 per cent by 2020. India’s most of the energy requirement is being met by the Middle East Asia. But this region has become explosive on account of intervention of external powers and internal sectarian clashes. Diversifying alternative sources of energy, lessening overreliance on the volatile Middle East region and assured and uninterrupted supply of energy have become a vital concern for India.
Both the regions have economic complementarities in terms of resources, manpower, markets and huge economic, scientific and technological potential. These diverse resources can be pooled for a broader regional cooperation to realize the potential of both the regions. Both the regions can enhance economic cooperation. Trade and investment between the two regions are very minimal as compared to other regions. Thus, huge potential is existing for trade and investment between these two regions. In order to maximize mutual benefits through bilateral trade cooperation, India has to work hard to materialize Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to increase its exports to Central Asia. The Government of India is making an effort to create the right kind of atmosphere for companies to enter into its market. Central Asia is with a large consumer market comprising of about 70 million, hungry for a range of goods and services which has huge potential for Indian companies to be tapped. Indian goods and service sectors can exploit this market of central Asian republic.
Land connectivity is the major inhibition between both the regions. In order to overcome this problem, India has also been striving to improve the surface connectivity. Land route options through Iran and Turkmenistan are also being explored. There are already existing rail and road lines in Turkmenistan and Iran, except for a few short stretches. Three party agreements on international transit of goods between Turkmenistan, India and Iran signed in February 22, 1997 at Tehran. This would enable the movement of goods from Indian ports to Bandar Abbas in Iran and then on to the Central Asian region by road and rail. In order to improve trade both the countries -India and Russia are developing a new transit route through Iran. New Delhi, Moscow and Teheran signed an agreement in St. Petersburg on September 12, 2000 for sending Indian cargo to Russia through a “North South Corridor”. According to this agreement, Indian goods can be sent from Mumbai or Okha to the Iranian hub of Bandar Abbas via the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. From here, consignment can be dispatched to the Iranian port of Anzali and onward to the Caspian Sea. The revival of such routes, combining land and sea, has the potential to reduce transport costs and travel time substantially; meaning India could rediscover its historic role of transit facilitation for central Asia. This will have very positive impact on Indo-Central Asia economic relations. Another transit route which has been widely discussed is an agreement with China for the use of its road to Kyrgyzstan though the Xinjiang province. India could use this road by constructing a link road in Ladakh joining the Tibet-Xinjiang road. Ladakh is already linked by road with Himachal Pradesh.
While celebrating the twenty years of friendship and cooperation between India and Central Asian Republics in July 10, 2012, a Roundtable on “India’s Engagement with Central Asia: Exploring Future Directions” was organized by the Institute of Defence and Strategic analyses (IDSA) at New Delhi. During this Round Table, Dr. Arvind Gupta Director General of the IDSA has argued that opportunities and challenges are existing side by side. He pointed out that immense opportunities existed in avenues which include relaxation of visa regimes, cooperative security framework for regional stability and greater emphasis on people to people and cultural contacts. Both sides can enhance multilateral engagements through Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and improving the current low levels of economic ties.
Irina Orolbaeva, (Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan) to India, has highly appreciated India’s desire to strengthen ties with Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia through the new ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’. She stressed on the need to revive cultural, humanitarian, educational and scientific exchanges (especially amongst the youth of the two countries). Both the countries shared many commonalities especially in culture and Indian government can explore the possibility of setting up an India Cultural Center in Bishkek which will be beneficial for deepening the ties.
Financial ties could be strengthened by promoting investment and cooperation in sectors such as education, mining, agriculture, pharma, leather, cotton, tourism, textiles & garments, metallurgy, automotive, chemicals, and food-processing sectors in Central Asia. Apart from trade, the Central Asian countries’ policy of value addition provides huge potential for India. India’s technical and managerial skills also have complementarities in the region in the fields of hydrocarbons, mining, mineral processing, construction and industrial production. Kyrgyzstan is keen on bringing Indian technology and expertise. India’s contribution towards the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) projects is highly appreciated in Central Asia which will have benefits for the entire region.
India is also lacking in the generation of hydro-electric power but whereas some countries of the Central Asia like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are holding immense potential for the generation of hydro-electric power. Particularly, Tajikistan has huge untapped hydro-electric potential, each sq. km. of the territory has up to 2 million kwh of hydel resources and thus holding very high potential for hydel power generation. In the summer season, Central Asia used to have surplus production, whereas India reels under chronic shortage of power.Thus, developing the region’s hydel power potential is an investment area which India could seriously consider.
Techno-economic potential of both the regions could be accessed in cooperative, mutually beneficial partnerships. Central Asia’s desire for diversifying hydro-power and energy export routes would correspond with India’s quest for diversifying imports. India will be keen to invest in setting up downstream production facilities, instead of exporting raw materials out of the region through expensive pipelines. Infrastructure building and construction activities have long term possibilities in cooperation for India. After their independence, infrastructure building spree in these countries is taking place. It is a good opportunity for Indian companies specialized in infrastructure and construction. This sector is the key to the Central Asian market.
India pharmaceutical industry is very stronger. It is another area which offers huge potential for cooperation. Health/medical sector has huge potential for India where it could extend cooperation by setting up civil hospitals/clinics in Central Asia. India’s higher education system is comparatively good and cheaper ones. It delivers education at a fraction of the fees charged by Western universities. Central Asian student could make best use of this opportunity. In India, the private sector has contributed immensely to promotion in higher education, healthcare and schooling. Central Asian governments are also according high priority to education and health. This provides opportunities for Indian companies to take initiatives there in these areas. India has proposed to set up a Central Asian University in Bishkek that could come up as a centre of excellence to impart world class education in areas like IT, management, philosophy and languages.
As Central Asia is facing many challenges in food security and on the other hand, India has achieved self-sufficiency in food security through green revolution. In such scenario, immense opportunities lie in agricultural cooperation between India and the Central Asian region existed where economies are strongly dependent on agriculture and dairy farming. Commercial farming is another important area where India and CARs can cooperate. India’s experience in boosting food and milk production and modernizing agro-techniques under the green and white revolution can prove panacea for Central Asia, particularly in the context of the recent steep rise in food prices globally and may be of interest to the region. India’s success in production of food and milk could be replicated in Central Asia by learning from Indian experience in this respect.

India’s Strategy

In order to fit Central Asia in its foreign policy, India should adopt a convincible strategy by which the Central Asian countries could become as an integral part of its foreign policy. Establishment of economic, scientific, technological and defence supplies cooperation with these countries must be enhanced and expedited. These multifaceted relations between India and Central Asia should be supported by substantive programmes and projects such as educational, cultural, scientific and technological cooperation. In order to protect its interests in Central Asia, India has to actively associate with new economic cooperation and regional security arrangements.
In order to make best out of these available opportunities, India should launch a special official programme to tap all the sectors in addition to official frameworks such as Look North and Connect Central Asia policy. India’s ‘Look North’ policy is viewed as analogous to the western neo-liberal promotion of democracy, secularism, and the free market in Central Asia. On the other hand, India would like to align with the Western realists who focussed on security. They believed that that peace and stability are unlikely to happen in fragmented and weak authoritarian states.
‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy is a very comprehensive policy which will include political, security, economic and cultural cooperation. Strategic partnerships will remain main underpinning of the strategic and security cooperation, military training, joint research, counter-terrorism coordination and close consultations on Afghanistan will be focussed upon. India will make efforts to step up multilateral engagement with Central Asian partners using the synergy of joint efforts through existing forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and the Custom Union. A long term partnership in energy and natural resources is to be expedited under this policy. India will extend its help to the central Asian countries for the setting up civil hospitals/clinics and Central Asian University in Bishkek that could come up as a centre of excellence to impart world class education in areas like Information Technology, management, philosophy and languages. It will also help CARs in setting up a Central Asian e-network with its hub in India, to deliver, tele-education and tele-medicine connectivity, linking all the five Central Asian States. Land connectivity is one of the major problems which inhibit the economic activities between both the regions. In order to counter these problems, India has reactivated the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). In the preceding pages we will what are the changing dynamics geopolitics of the region and how it has created challenges for Indian foreign policy.


Despite sharing historical and civilizational relations, Central Asian region has not been figured prominently in Indian foreign policy. After realizing its diplomatic impassiveness towards the region, India prioritized this region in its foreign policy under various policy frameworks. However, evolving geopolitics in the region will remain the major concern of India that will have direct or indirect impacts on Indian interests. Till now, economic relations between both the regions remained at a very low level. Mutual investment is very negligible. Tourism sector is unexploited. Political, diplomatic and defence relations were not matured enough to match the ancient ones. Security and stability of Afghanistan is one more area where both the region could synchronize their efforts in order to lessen the influence of the external powers as well as their stability and security. After realizing its impassiveness vis-a-vis this region, many official frameworks such as ‘Extended Neighbourhood’, ‘Look North Policy’ and ‘Central Asia Connect Policy’ have been launched. Notwithstanding these policies, problems of Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis this region are not seeing solution at the near end. Complementarities are available for deepening the bilateral relations despite some constraints affecting this one. In order to reinvigorate the relations and convert these challenges into opportunities for its foreign policy, India has to implement its designed framework wholeheartedly.

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