India had invited the leaders of five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to be the collective Chief Guests at India’s Republic Day parade and celebrations on the 26th of the month, but on January 18, 2022, news broke that the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia were not coming after all. In the wake of the surge in Covid infections, India cancelled the plan and has decided to have a virtual meet instead.
It had been a tactical move on New Delhi’s part to invite the leaders of all five nations to be co-chief guests at the parade as the five ‘Stans’ are considered very crucial to an energy-hungry India. The Central Asian countries between them have huge reserves of oil, natural gas and uranium that India, with its very high energy import dependency, simply cannot ignore.
Over the past 30 years, since the time the ‘Stans’ stopped being Soviet Socialist Republics and became independent nations in their own rights, India has tried to develop strategies to harness their resource potential.
India was one of the first countries to accord recognition to the newly independent ‘Stans’ and the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao visited the region twice, once in 1993 and then again in 1995, and trade and security treaties were signed. But despite three decades having passed, trade between India and the region still hovers around a relatively paltry $2-billion mark where China, whose influence has been growing in the last decade, in comparison, trades goods worth over $100 billion.
Even Russia, which has had dominant historical and political ties going back two centuries, is finding its influence waning in light of China moving in. The entire Central Asian block has tilted away from Russia, whose economy is stagnant, towards China, whose economy is seen as dynamic and booming. Add to this the promise of the benefits of the Belt and Road initiative that Beijing aggressively sold, that by 2018-19 the People’s Republic of China had replaced Russia as the biggest trading partner of the ‘Stans’.
Even in areas of security and military, which had been the exclusive preserve of Russia, China has made inroads into the region. On October 13, 2021, a report in the Tajik news portal Asia-Plus said – The Chinese government will provide 55,000,000 yuan (over $8.5 million) for the construction of a base for the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) of the Organized Crime Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan.
Two years earlier, in February 2019, the Washington Post had reported on secret Chinese military presence for three years inside Tajikistan overlooking the strategic Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan.
Incidentally, India too has its own military presence in Central Asia in the form of an airbase in Tajikistan. India’s only airbase on foreign soil, the Farkhor airbase, was started in 2002 with Russian blessings but never really managed to build on its strategic importance. The base today is reported to house a few IAF helicopters as India is not allowed to maintain fighter planes there. A 2019 analysis in the East Asia Forum detailed how India lost the advantage in the years when the US military presence in Afghanistan could have worked to its advantage in expanding the airbase operations.
The East Asia Forum writes – Despite US regional presence providing a decade-long opportunity for New Delhi to expand its role in Central Asia, India did not project any significant military or economic power in the region. Modi’s visit to Tajikistan during his highly-touted 2015 tour of the five Central Asian republics resulted in no tangible gain. It is quite possible that the visit coincided with the onset of Chinese operations in southern Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor.
When it comes to expanding crucial trade relation, a major problem that India also faces is that of access. The ‘Stans’ are landlocked and the political geography of the region is against India. To the east of the ‘Stans’ sits China, the entire north is Russia and to the south, there are Iran and Afghanistan. With the August 15, 2021, takeover of Afghanistan by the Pakistan-friendly Taliban, the only remaining land entry feasible for Indian trade remains via Iran a route that India had been exploring for long with not much business to show for results.
In 1995, India, Turkmenistan and Iran had signed an MOU to facilitate trade with each other but the full potential was never realised.
In 2002, the India-Russia-Iran International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) agreement came into effect. Aimed at the transit of goods through Iran and the Caspian Sea to Russia and Northern Europe, it also offered connectivity between India and Central Asia through Iran.
And then there is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline which was proposed in the mid-1990s and, despite all the initial hiccups, an agreement to formalise the deal was signed in 2010. But an unstable Afghanistan adding to India and Pakistan’s lack of trust meant that TAPI was still far from reality. The short 200km stretch of pipeline in Turkmenistan has been completed, but with the Taliban back in charge of Afghanistan, the dynamics have further changed as TAPI remains a pipe dream. Work in Afghanistan stopped in 2018 when gunmen killed five workers and kidnapped the sixth.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the self-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on January 13 announced that with Turkmenistan agreeing to pay for all the construction costs of laying the pipeline, work in Afghanistan is expected to begin soon. The Taliban in a tweet also announced that it is forming a 30,000 strong militia to guard the pipeline.
— (@alemara_ar) January 10, 2022
India’s renewed interest in the five Central Asian nations is evident in its multi-level outreach through international meets and events being hosted in New Delhi. Three major multi-laterals were planned for three consecutive months.
The first was in November 2021, when the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval hosted the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan in New Delhi and, besides the NSAs of Iran and Russia, the other five invitees attending were the ‘Stans’. (Pakistan and China who were also invited excused themselves.)
In December 2021, it was the turn of the Indian Foreign Minister to play host at the third Central Asia Dialogue held in New Delhi to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. In attendance were the Foreign Ministers of all the ‘Stans’ who, with India, issued a joint statement on sharing broad regional consensus on Afghanistan. (But ironically, most of them, unlike India, are also in bilateral talks with the Taliban and two of the five ‘Stans’ have already reopened their missions in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.)
In January 2022, it was to be the grand finale in India’s recent ‘Stan’ outreach with all five leaders of the Central Asian nations present in New Delhi as co-Chief Guests at the Republic Day parade. With Covid cancelling that from happening, indications are that there will now be a virtual summit as New Delhi is not in a mood to give up on any opportunity to strengthen ties with the five ‘Stans’ of Central Asia.