The ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy (CCAP) was first unveiled by Minister of State for External Affairs, E. Ahmed, in a key note address at the 1st meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue, a Track II initiative, organized on 12-13 June 2012 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to fast-track India’s relations with the Central Asian Republics (CAR) – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The policy calls for setting up universities, hospitals, information technology (IT) centers, an e-network in telemedicine connecting India to the CARs, joint commercial ventures, improving air connectivity to boost trade and tourism, joint scientific research and strategic partnerships in defense and security affairs. During SM Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan on 02-03 July 2012, the former Foreign Minister expounded the unfolding policy under the rubric of ‘commerce, connectivity, consular and community’.

Compulsion drives policy. To fuel India’s growth and serve domestic needs, there is an imperative for expanding economic opportunities abroad. Indo-CAR bilateral trade stood at a paltry $500 million last year, which is way below the full potential. Trade will take a quantum jump only if transportation bottlenecks can be safely overcome, which means bracing for security threats to safeguard India’s interests. Strategic experts are of the opinion that India’s “arc of instability” begins from the Ferghana Valley-the wellspring of ethno-sectarian ferment that encompasses the highly populous core of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Allied pullout from Afghanistan in 2014 could pose a grave security threatto India not only in its neighborhood but also at its doorstep, if foreign militants were to end up in Kashmir. Then there is the growing Chinese footprint in the CAR. According to Parag Khanna, “China has built roads, railways and pipelines across the CAR. Siberian timber, Mongolian iron ore, Kazakh oil, Turkmen gas and Afghan copper are delivered to China through an East-bound network. Oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Kazakhstan, gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and other planned roads and railways across Russia down to the Pakistani port of Gwadar are all part of China’s efforts to turn the region into a transit hub between the East and West. In China, the CARs have an investor that is willing to bankroll large-scale infrastructure projects and implemented in record time. ”

The resource-rich CAR, called the underbelly of Eurasia, lies on the Old Silk Road connecting China and South Asia to West Asia and Europe. The diplomatic push for a coherent Central Asia strategy became more forceful in the wake of China’s deepening engagement with Afghanistan, the thaw in Russo-Pak ties, Russia’s promotion of the Eurasian Project and the erratic US-Pak ties. Pakistan is averse to opening up overland transit for Indian freight. The North South Transport Corridor (NSTC), which India has reactivated, bypasses India’s dependence on Pakistan to link up with Central Asia. The Iranian port of Chahbahar will serve as India’s gateway to Afghanistan through the Zaranj – Delaram Roadway (ZDR) in Nimroz Province, built with India’s assistance. The ZDR is connected to the Garland Highway which links up with Central Asia. An alternate sea-land route which India could use to gain access to the CARs and Russia is through the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali on the Caspian coast. Once the corridor becomes fully operational, ferrying Russian minerals, energy supplies and agricultural produce from the Indian-owned farmlands in Volgograd will become swifter and relatively hassle-free in line with Delhi’s goal to expand its strategic reach northwards. India seeks the support of the CARs in its bid for a permanent membership of the UNSC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India can reciprocate by offering them access to the warm water ports in the Indian Ocean. The SCO is an important platform for India to gain deeper access to Central Asia and become a part in the Chinese Silk Road.

Tajikistan is the “lynchpin” of India’s CCAP because of its strategic location. Its borders are with Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and it is located in close proximity to Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Delhi and Dushanbe have shared concerns on terrorism and drug trafficking. The Rasht Valley hostilities of 2010 and the recent clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan have heightened fears of insurgency spilling over to Tajikistan from Afghanistan. There is an ongoing co-operation in the defense and security sector with India providing training to Tajik forces to cope with such threats. India maintains its only foreign military base in Farkhor near Ayni, where the Indian Army is likely to restart medical services at the base hospital where Ahmed Shah Massoud – the Lion of Panjshir – was once treated. Tajikistan has vast potential to generate hydroelectricity which is of great interest to Indian industry. India is helping Dushanbe in developing the Varzob I hydropower station. India may also benefit from the Russia-backed CASA 2000 power project. Agriculture, tourism, education, research and skills development are the other thrust areas in the blossoming bilateral relationship. Indo-Tajik trade which stood at $32.5 million in 2009-10, is set to leapfrog once the NSTC is in place.

India attaches great importance to Kazakhstan for 4 main reasons: its strategic location, its untapped energy and mineral wealth, its secular values and the vast tracts of land available for large-scale commercial farming. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Astana in 2011 helped India to finally gain access to the North Caspian Sea region, a known repository of oil and gas and Kazakh uranium. OVL (the overseas arm of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation)was allowed to pick up a 25% stake in the Kazmunaigaz-run offshore Satpayev oil block. During the Prime Ministerial visit, a joint action plan was signed in areas like nuclear energy, IT, cyber security, pharmaceuticals, healthcare,agriculture, cultural exchanges, mining and fertilizers. Kazakhstan hosts the Baikanour cosmodrome but lacks an independent space program. Kazakhstan looks at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to catapult it into the league of space faring nations.

Hamid Ansari’s visit to Turkmenistan in 2008 opened up new vistas for Indo-Turkmen engagement. India’s appetite for energy supplies and Turkmenistan’s quest for diversification of its energy exports locked the two sides in a strategic embrace. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which will begin from the Doveletabad gasfield and end in Fazilka on the Punjab border, is touted as the backbone of the emerging relationship. Turkmenistan, being a Caspian Sea littoral state, has a special appeal to Indian capital. Ashgabat has sought Indian investments in pharmaceutical, mining, textile, telecom and IT sectors to put more flesh on existing ties.

India and Uzbekistan share historic and cultural ties. Buddhism reached China through Uzbekistan while Sufism came to India mainly from Uzbekistan. Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, marched to Delhi from Samarkand. The Shastri Centre for Indian Culture has been hailed for fostering cultural relations. The planned road from the Uzbek city of Termez to Herat in Afghanistan, which will be linked by railways to Chahbahar, will cut the distance between India and Uzbekistan by 1,500 kilometers. Loads of cotton, wool, silks, metals and fertilizers can then reach India in just a few days. Tashkent has allowed Indian participation in the development of its energy sector, particularly the Karakal gas reserves. Joint military exercises between the 2 armed forces have been steadily growing over the last few years. The Pul-e-Khumri transmission line, built by India to bring electricity to Kabul from Baghlan and the power provided by Uzbekistan, stands out as a symbol of growing mutual co-operation.

The Tian Shan covers over 80% of Kyrgyz territory, which overlooks the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang Province of China, which was part of the Old Silk Route, dotted with towns like Kashgar and Hotan where there is a massive surge in infrastructural development through the Karakoram Highway to Gwadar. Reports of PLA cadres embedded in the construction squads in the Karakoram sector near Ladakh, have raised hackles in Delhi. India looks set to play a bigger role in developing Kyrgyzstan’s mining, agriculture, IT, hydropower and pharmaceutical sectors besides boosting cultural and educational ties. The Defense Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) Mountain Biomedical Research Center is an ambitious joint project with Kyrgyzstan. India has evinced interest in jointly managing the poorly run Kumtor gold mine. The 2 armed forces have conducted military exercises, jungle warfare training and counter-terrorism drills. The Indian army is also willing to train Kyrgyz forces in UN peacekeeping missions.

Posted on 08 Aug 2015