After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of the 5 Central Asian Republics (hereby, CARs) of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both India and China established diplomatic relations with the nations in the Central Asian region, but the latter, due to its geographical proximity and economic strength, has fared much better than the former. With a rise in its neo-colonial practices, China has used economic coercive methods to utilise the resources the CARs have to offer. From laying Belt and Road projects in the region, to providing loans that, upon non-repayment, would lead China to usurp Central Asian resource-bases in return, China’s unchecked influence in the region has led to growing sentiments of opposition among the masses. Historically, the Soviet Union and the post-1991 Russia did have great relations with and a similar undue influence upon the CARs, but now, as Russia’s relations with China have grown closer, it has become more of a backseat power in Central Asia. Moreover, Russia’s fate in the region was sealed for the worse when it faced sanctions from the west on its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its aggressiveness with Ukraine. The Kremlin did attempt to reassert its dominance amidst its increasing unease at Beijing’s massive influence in the region, especially through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – an organisation focusing on counterterrorism and military preparedness in the region. But this overall strategic push has not veiled the western resentment and the diminishing economic strength faced by Russia today. It’s now safe to say that there’s not much Russia can do about hegemonic Chinese ambitions in the region.
India, on the other hand, still endeavours to make the most of its relations with the CARs. The under-utilised potential lies in energy, trade and cultural ties, as well as in India’s performance in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The SCO, of which India became a permanent member in 2017 with support from Russia and the CARs, can be the negotiating table India needs to come together with China and Pakistan and shape the future of the region. Other initiatives that need immediate attention are energy pipelines that are underway – the Turkmenistan– Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline, for instance, connecting Central Asia with India through Pakistan, or a new pipeline endeavour that can provide India a route that doesn’t require it to deal with Pakistan – for example, through the Chabahar port in Iran. Another initiative is the International North-South Transport Corridor, which, although ambitious and a tough competition to China/ BRI-centered trade routes, has progressed unsatisfactorily. While there exists geographical distance, cultural closeness can easily be furthered between India and the CARs through historical ties involving soft-power diplomacy, and much more.
First, we must understand China’s stake in the region, and the responses its involvement has incited. Central Asia is an important resource-centre for China, being naturally rich in oil and gas. China’s alternative sources for energy-producing elements like gas have become increasingly unstable (especially the Middle East, which has been in constant turmoil since the 2011 Arab Spring, and now increasingly due to the ill-effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic). China shares a border with three Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and stability in the Central Asian region therefore, becomes important for China so as to avoid spillovers of instability, violence, and refugees into its Xinjiang Province. The Xinjiang province is infamous for Chinese internment camps targeting Uighur muslims, and for China to protect its borders from illegal crossing, which may lead to a diplomatic blunder, becomes essential. For this, Central Asian nations bordering China agreed to ban Uighur groups in 1997. In return, China has offered to them, over the years, huge investments. For example, in Kazakhstan, Chinese investments and contracts today have crossed the US $50 billion mark, and have exceeded US $2-3 billion in the other four CARs. Chinese BRI projects have integrated Central Asia into the nexus of global trade more comprehensively. For example, the New Eurasian Land-Bridge corridor links China to Europe (Poland and Germany) via Russia and Kazakhstan. Chinese is building border military posts, especially in collaboration with Tajikistan, for personnel training and security. Amidst the Pandemic, Central Asian hydrocarbon exports to Central Asia have lowered, but a boost has been created by China, in that it gave Central Asian commodities limited access to its own markets. These especially opens China for imports of Central Asian foodstuffs and agricultural produce.
In recent times, citizens of the CARs have shown growing resentment towards Chinese presence in the region. They feel that their governments need to look beyond politico-economic considerations to take harsher steps in dealing with Chinese neo-imperialism. The inhumane treatment of Uighur muslims, that has sparked worldwide condemnation, has also been a matter of concern for the Central Asians, as various families of Uighur muslims have Kazakh and Kyrgyz origins – people belonging to a land called East Turkestan. While East Turkestan became part of mainland China after it fell into the hands of Chinese warlords in 1911, the current and emerging East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM for short), an Islamic fundamentalist initiative to radicalise the Uighurs, has raised a new diplomatic and security challenge for China. Central Asians also launched protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan over issues like Chinese companies giving more pay to their own workers than those from the CARs, or China usurping land and resource-blocs when there was non-repayment of loans by the governments. In this light, India has the opportunity to revive its image and interests, establishing friendly political and trade relations with the CARs.
India’s 2012 ‘Connect Central Asia’ and ‘Eurasia’ Policies highlight the significant stake India holds in the region. Two major projects for enhanced connectivity, in this regard, are the TAPI pipeline and the INSTC, both of which have immense potential in terms of tapping Central Asian energy resources, and establishing a freight corridor free of Pakistani and Chinese interventions respectively, but have been taking too long to develop and operationalise. This must be overcome with greater fervour if India is to take its connectivity with the CARs more seriously. Historically, India and Central Asia have engaged in trade and cultural-diasporic exchanges, by virtue of the Silk Road. Shared religious ideals (especially of Islam and Buddhism), a love for folklore and food culture, and an adoration for Bollywood, are striking soft diplomacy tools at India’s hand. The most important aspect of the religious ties would be a revival of the ‘Naqshbandi’, which is an Indo-Islamic way of life that emerged with the interactions of the Mughal empire in India with the Sufi mysticism of Central Asia.
The Afghanistan issue and the recent de-facto takeover of Taliban over the country is a destabilizing matter for the region, and both India and the CARs are stakeholders in the Afghani peace process. While the new US-guided quad, comprising of the United States, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has left India out, India can use the SCO to earn favour and support of the CARs in bringing peaceful resolution to Afghani infighting, considering both the parties have supported power-sharing between the Taliban and the government, and are afraid of the violent repercussions and the refugee crisis that the Taliban takeover is causing.
The India-China rivalry can be the next big thing in Central Asia, when the dust of the Afghani peace process settles – and India must be ready for it. As the world prepares for reforming post-Pandemic supply chains, and in that context, the India-Central Asia relations can either become better, or decline in the presence of alternatives. Hence, the time for India to a hard look into the Central Asia policy mirror is now.