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India’s Central Asia Policy: Needs Substance Not Style

Dr. Bawa Singh

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India and Central Asia Republics (CARs), had been enjoying civilizational and geo-cultural relations since the recorded history. In the 21st century, these geo-cultural ties were further cemented when India became one among the first countries to engage diplomatically with the newly independent region.

In the meantime, India has signed a number of agreements and exchanged high level visits. Thus, the Indian foreign policy has been characterized by the cordial relationship which is based on robust political, economic and cultural, technical partnership with the region.

The Central Asia region is holding geostrategic location. The CARs has been sandwiched between the two nuclear powers, China and Russia. It is a major link between Asia and Europe. It has been sharing borders with the turbulent regions and countries like the Middle East Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang province. Several challenges like terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, small arms trafficking etc. are some of the problems where both the regions are at stake. Along with rich energy resources, Central Asia is also comprised of about 75 million people. Thus, from the geostrategic and geo-economic point of view, it is embedded in the Indian calculus.

Since 1990s, the India’s economy is on the higher trajectory and on account of this, it is world’s fastest growing energy market. It is also expected that India would become the second-largest importer of energy by 2035, leading to 18% of the rise in global energy consumption. The major part of its energy demand was met from the Middle East Asia. Coincidently, the Middle East Asia has become the ‘Arc of Turbulent’ with the end of the Cold War. In view of this, India has to diversify its energy sources. The Central Asia contains gigantic resources like Kazakhstan is having the world’s largest offshore oilfield. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are one of the world’s top gas fields.

Indian Policy Towards Central Asia

In order to heighten the political, economic and cultural ties with the Central Asian republics, India has launched several policies and official frameworks such as “Extended Neighbourhood”, “Immediate and Strategic Neighbourhood” and “Look North Policy” and the latest ‘Connect Central Asia’ to redesign its foreign policy vis-à-vis the region. These policies sound very good, but if India is compared vis-à-vis other ‘New Great Game’ powers like the China, the US and Russia, it is at the lowest ebb in terms of trade and investment.

Modifying India’s Central Asia Policy

In the year 2015, the Indian PM Modi visited the all the countries of the region. Several agreements have been with Central Asian countries. Between Kazakhstan and India, the signed agreements included nuclear deal, uranium supply agreement, defense cooperation, coordination on counterterrorism and economic and business cooperation. Between India and Tajikistan, agreements included cultural cooperation for the years 2016-18 and Exchange of Note Verbale (NV) to set up Computer Labs in 37 schools. With Uzbekistan, India has identified areas of cooperation like atomic energy, defense and trade. With Kyrgyzstan, India signed agreement like combating international terrorism and other crimes. And lastly, with Turkmenistan seven agreements have been signed like the terrorism, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking.

PM Modi’s economic diplomacy is mainly focused on energy as India’s energy needs has been growing on account of its rapid economic expansion. Indian total imports of oil and petroleum has increased from 11.68 MTs (1970-71) to 171.73 MTs (2011-12). This import is expected to grow from the current levels of 72% to 83% by 2030. The Indian Express (2015, July 11), reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov for the early implementation of the $ 10 billion TAPI gas pipeline project.

India-Central Asia: Missing Economic Link          

Trade is always taken as major criteria for determing the intensity of the relations 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.

Trade Trends of Central Asia with US, China, Russia and India ($ billions)

Years China Russia US India
2010 24.98 21.43 23.44 0.49
2011 39.60 28.34 30.35 0.68
2012 45.94 31.98 34.00 0.74
2013 50.27 31.41 34.2 1.24

Source: UNCOMTRADE 2015

Challenges for Indian Foreign Policy

The lack of land connectivity between both the sides is the major challenges for Indian economic diplomacy. In order to overcome this challenge, connectivity has remained the main focus of the PM Modi. During his visit, PM Modi said,

“We can create a vast network of physical and digital connectivity that extends from Eurasia’s northern corner to Asia’s southern shores. The International North-South Transportation Corridor is a step in that direction.”

There are several other challenges being faced by the Indian foreign policy towards the Central Asia. These challenges include terrorism, small arms, drug trafficking, nuclearization, lack of land connectivity, different political regime, corruption etc. Having several policies and programs on board, the economic ties yet to take place.

Secondly, the major focus of Indian policy is to enhance energy cooperation with the region. India has been a partner of number of energy projects particularly like TAPI and IPI. The TAPI gas pipe line goes back to 1990, despite after a long time, it has not moved till date. Similarly, on account of geopolitical dynamics, IPI has also met the same fate. Despite the Iran government’s urgency of the Chabahar project, it has not been moving the speed, as it is desired by the hosting country. Similarly the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) signed way back in 2002, has not been initiated yet.

At last not the least, it can be concluded that despite have civilizational and geocultural ties, Indian foreign policy has not been remained successful in achieving its geo-economic and geostrategic goals in the region. Despite the economic diplomacy towards the region, the trade and investment are at the lowest ebb. The major projects like TAPI, IPI, Chabahar and INSTC are lingering on without any success till date. There are several areas, where both India and CARs having lot of potential to heighten their cooperation. Market is still untapped on both sides which is needed to be explored. Above and all, the delaying in execution of the projects of energy and connectivity, will outfox it form the ongoing the New Great Game. Thus, it is highly recommended that, India has to translate its policies and programs into reality.

Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching in the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India-151001. bawasingh73[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Kashmir Issue at the UNGA and the Nuclear Discourse

Haris Bilal Malik

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The Kashmir issue has more significance in view of the nuclearization of South Asia as many security experts around the world consider Kashmir a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan. The revocation of the special constitutional status of Kashmir by the BJP government on August 5, 2019, also referred to as Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 and the subsequent lockdown in Kashmir has since considerably increased political and diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. India’s recent moves and actions in Kashmir have once again internationalized the Kashmir dispute. This was evident during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session, where the Kashmir issue remained a crucial agenda item for several countries.

During this year’s session prominent leaders of the world condemned Indian brutalities in Kashmir. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the international community for failing to pay attention to the Kashmir conflict and called for dialogue to end this dispute. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said that Kashmir “has been invaded and occupied” by India despite the UN resolution on the issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also discussed the issue and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute based on the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions. Based on the grave importance of Kashmir as a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the UNGA warned the world community about the dangers of a nuclear war that according to him might break out over Kashmir due to Indian atrocities. The current situation appears to be the most critical time for both the countries and the region as both countries are nuclear-armed.

However, unfortunately, the Indian leaders and media perceived Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning as a nuclear threat and termed it as ‘brinkmanship’. Contrary to this perspective, it is worth mentioning here that the Indian leadership itself is involved in negative nuclear signaling and war hysteria against Pakistan in recent months. For instance, the 2019 Indian General Election campaign of Prime Minister Modi was largely based on negative nuclear signaling comprising of several threats referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Furthermore, as an apparent shift from India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, on August 16, 2019Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while on a visit to the Pokhran nuclear test site paid tribute to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that India might review its NFU policy. He stated that a change in future circumstances would likely define the status of India’s NFU policy. Since then there is no official denial of this assertion from India which indicates that India might abandon its NFU policy.

Moreover, India’s offensive missile development programs and its growing nuclear arsenal which include; hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, enhanced space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance and the induction of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-capable submarines clearly indicate that India’s nuclear weapons modernization is aimed at continuously enhancing its deterrence framework including its second-strike capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is also evident from India’s military preparations under its more recent doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD)which are also based upon more proactive offensive strategies and indirect threats of pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan.

As evident from the above-mentioned developments, it seems likely that India aspires to increasingly project itself as a regional hegemon and a potential superpower. The BJP government under Prime Minister Modi inspired by the Hindutva ideology is taking offensive measures under the notions of ‘a more Muscular or Modern India’ based on strong military preparedness. In such circumstances, Pakistan’s threat perception would likely remain increasingly inclined towards its eastern border. Pakistan due to its economic constraints would also likely face considerable difficulties in competing with India toe to toe with respect to its military modernization plans. Pakistan is already punching well above its weight, and nuclear deterrence would be the only way through which Pakistan can maintain a precise balance of power to preserve its security. This could only be carried out by deterring India with the employment of both minimum credible deterrence and full-spectrum deterrence capabilities. This posture clearly asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression.

Hence, at the present India’s forceful annexation of occupied Kashmir and the resultant nuclear discourse at the UNGA has further intensified Pakistan-India tensions. Under present circumstances, the situation could easily trigger another politico-military escalation between India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi has bet his political reputation on his move to annex the region and his political career is on the line. The same way Pakistan’s politico-military establishment is equally unlikely back down from its stance on Kashmir. It would be difficult for both countries to come down from the escalation ladder because politico-military reputations would be at stake at both ends. Consequently, Pakistan might be forced to take action before India’s modernization plans get ahead and might respond even sooner.

The nuclear discourse in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech against the backdrop of the Kashmir crisis at such a high forum like UNGA would likely keep the issue internationalized. The situation demands the UN fulfill its responsibility of ensuring peace and to prevent billions of people from the dangers of a nuclear war. However, Indian blame game, aggressive behavior and offensive nuclear signaling against Pakistan all present a clear warning of nuclear war. It would greatly limit the prospects for international mediation especially by the United Nations whose resolutions on Kashmir clearly provide a right of self-determination to decide Kashmir’s future.  

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1.2 trillion rupees on the move: Modi’s greatest piece of purchase yet

Sisir Devkota

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Last week, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) was taken aback by more than a surprise. Just when it was dealing with the uncomfortable series of events that led to the transfer of surplus 1.2 trillion rupees into the government of India; social media erupted. It quickly realized that losing the battle regarding the transfer would only add fuel to the hoax of closing down nine commercial banks. RBI enjoys considerable amount of autonomy and independence in the largest democracy, and still, it had to kneel down to Modi’s alleged quick fix.

The RBI would have to vouch for the government in times of need, it is primarily what is expected of the institution; but there was a great deal of discomfort in how the government justified it. A committee set up under the ex-governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, cited how central banks would not need so much of surplus to carry out their affairs. Effectively, it was an order, not a request, which became the underlying discomfort behind RBI’s hesitancy in adhering to the views of capital transfer committee. Not that anyone expected the central lender to protest longer, it did however, request Mr Jalan to reconsider the decision at the face of various consequences. To say the least, it was embarrassing for a premier financial institution to be put under the public eye. The social media hoax was another ridicule of the sickly RBI. In the tales of grand conquests, the victorious army steals the wealth from the losing party. Similarly, the BJP led government in India are redefining all forms of state tools in favour of their interests.

Stolen wealth is most often than not used to correct economic blunders. Just like in the tales of grand conquests, the decision to transfer national wealth from the reserve bank is nothing new. It is nevertheless baffling, that the money transfer is looping in the same direction. While the BJP government in India were imposing a comprehensive GST (Goods and Service Tax) policy, they would not have anticipated complaints from large industries over decreased consumer consumption. For a party that is now known to redefine the legitimacy of governance, falling prey to NBFC’s (Non-bank Financial Companies) incompetence or bankruptcy is a visible defeat. Unlike many other soaring economies, there are large group of subsidiary lenders operating in India. On hindsight, economic policies are barely creating tunnels through which the capital is getting recycled in the same loop. Revenues are not generating further revenues. It is merely closing down on its self-inflicted gap.

The Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) almost played with fire. Uncharacteristically, it proposed a framework to work together with the RBI in order to claim outstanding defaults from high value clients. The RBI was never going to agree with a defaming offer as such but the incident did fuel the argument of capital shuffling. It only makes the bluff look more real. A strategic plan to counter all measures that would have blocked the transfer of trillions. As Mr Jalan sheepishly implied how the importance of central bank and what is does is only limited to the public perception, RBI fought a fix in between larger or rather dangerous political agendas. Consolidating requests from SEBI to only fall into the whims of the government shows the lack lustre personality of the central funding institution. For the time being, Narendra Modi has his way, a theft of national treasure-like his opposition colleague Rajiv Gandhi expressed in the media. However, there will also be a far-fetched evaluation of Modi’s actions. A move of 1.2 trillion rupees in the same pot. Not by any means, a cunning cover up.

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Walking the tight rope: India’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Middle East

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India’s diplomatic corps have been resolutely articulating India’s stances and furthering its interests in the international fora where multiple challenges emanating from historical and contemporary contexts are being faced. One important factor which India’s astute foreign policy makers have faced is the complicated and crucial engagement with the Middle East. There are multiple facets to India’s engagement in the contemporary context that add to this complexity. One, India’s old adversary and neighbor Pakistan has upped the ante in its diplomatic blitzkrieg especially within the Muslim world. Second India’s has varied strategic interests in the warring Middle East factions. Third, the economic interdependencies and the crisis in the international trade in the Trump era has further complicated India’s position as an economic actor in the region. While there are various constituent elements of India’s Middle East outreach, the contemporaneous concerns relate more to its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey.

India and Saudi Arabia have historically engaged in deep and multi-dimensional political, economic, cultural, defence and strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia has long been an important Indian trade partner; the Kingdom remains a vital source of energy for India, which imports almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia. Enhanced security cooperation has added a new dimension in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. Recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi was conferred with the highest civilian award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia even as the top leadership continues to send signals of deep comradarie and solidarity.

With the ascent of the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, various layers in this important diplomatic relationship have surfaced. This has happened in a particularly peculiar geopolitical and geostrategic context where both countries have faced tough challenges to their internal stability and international position. While Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still emerging from the consequences of the massive attack in its oil fields as well as the widespread criticism of humanitarian crisis in Yemen at the international fora, India is grappling with international criticism and discourse about the situation in Kashmir in context of dilution of its political autonomy as well as prolonged information and communication blackout.KSA has had a mediating role in the Indo-Pak tussle since Pulwama and how this hyphenation has led to competitive photo-ops of diplomatic support. Even as KSA has stood by Indian leadership’s vital interests. However, the Pakistani leadership has been relentless in its attempts to appeal to the leader of the Islamic world for vital economic and diplomatic support, especially in context of the Kashmir situation. Even as Saudi Arabia has managed this delicate equation with deftness, it has given in to Pakistan’s economic demands while making a symbolic gesture of closeness by offering the private jet to Pakistani Prime Minister for his visit to the West.  It doesn’t help that the Indian economy is going through a rough phase. However, the audacious announcement to invest $100 Billion in the fledgling Indian economy is a bold testament of the veritable and vibrant economic partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh. It is pertinent to note that in the contemporaneous challenges that the countries face, Iran as well as Pakistan emerge as key actors that affect the bilateral engagement in a pronounced manner.

Iran is India’s historic ally and third largest supplier of crude oil. However, the India-Iran relationship transcends oil. India, with an investment of $500 million, aims to develop Iran’s Chabahar port as a transit hub for Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Additionally, India is developing two gas fields, namely Farzad-B gas field located in Tehran and the South Pars field located between Iran and Qatar. These projects clearly highlight India’s long-term engagement with Iran. However, India’s muted response to US pressure has been causing slight tension in the bilateral relationship. Even though the top-level bilateral meeting between Indian premier Modi and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani was successful to diffuse tensions to an extent. The crisis in Yemen, oil trade and even India’s action in Kashmir continue to affect the relationship.

In this context, the challenges emanating from Turkey are also a sign of worry. Even as Turkey has remained an old ally of Pakistan and a supporter of the ‘Kashmiri’ cause, its open support for a rather lonely Pakistan should cause some worry in India’s strategic circles. This is because India has fine diplomatic relations with Turkey and has considerable economic and trade interests.

However, oil being an important consumer and agricultural good in India’s economy, it is important to secure its interests to have access to reliable and affordable Iranian crude oil. The trade negotiations and engagements with the US haven’t had any headway even as the threat of sanctions for buying oil from Iran continues. India could emerge as a trouble-solver in this context especially since this KSA-Iran conflict in oil supply context has global implications. PM Modi’s personal chemistry with the US leadership could be useful in this context.

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