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India’s Central Asia Policy: Needs Substance Not Style

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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

South Asia

Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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South Asia

The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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South Asia

Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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