The Strategic Importance of Central Asia and India’s influence in the Region
Long-standing historical, cultural, political, and economic ties between India and Central Asia have evolved into a solid, experienced, and transformative connection over time. In light of the COVID-19 epidemic and the shifting global order, India’s proximity to and growing convergence on concerns with the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan has led to increased collaboration on these issues. The two sides have simultaneously intensified their discussions and cooperation on issues like trade and connectivity, economic development, energy security, regional concerns of shared interest, and the shared geopolitical worries of both sides regarding new challenges in Afghanistan.
Trade significantly impacts India’s relationships and influence in the Central Asian Region. India’s trade with Central Asian countries helps to foster economic ties and strengthens political and cultural relations. India’s imports from the area, such as oil, gas, and minerals, provide the country with access to critical resources. In contrast, its exports, such as textiles and agricultural products, give the region market access.
Geostrategic Importance of the Central Asian Region
Central Asia is strategically important due to the location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, making it a critical link between the two continents. The Region also has significant energy reserves, including oil, natural gas, and coal, making it a substantial energy supplier to Europe and Asia. Central Asia is also home to several major transportation and communication networks, including the historic Silk Road, connecting the Region to the rest of the world and making it a hub for trade and commerce. The Region’s proximity to several regional and global powers, such as Russia, China, and India, further highlights its strategic importance.
Central Asia is strategically located in the middle of both Asia and Eurasia. It connects Asia and Europe as a bridge between Eastern and Western nations. Central Asia’s importance is acknowledged due to its geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic position. The Central Asian states have historically been a centre of trade, rivalry, and warfare due to geography. It now serves as a bridge connecting North and South and East and West. In addition to its strategic location, the Central Asian Region is also seen by outsiders as the new global geopolitical and economic battleground. Over 2000 years of conflict have been etched into its history as the past great empires struggled to control the Silk Route, the vital trade route between Europe and Asia.
India’s Policy for growing its potential in the Central Asian Region
India’s trade with Central Asia also has the potential to help balance China’s growing economic influence in the Region. India has been actively pursuing a policy of economic engagement with Central Asian countries and working to increase investment, trade and energy ties with these countries. Several factors, including energy security, access to raw materials, and regional economic integration, have driven India’s engagement with the Region. India has made efforts to increase trade and investment flows with the Central Asian countries, which includes establishing trade agreements and participating in regional economic forums. Regional politics, competition with other major powers such as China, and regional security have also influenced the trade relationship. By engaging in trade with Central Asia, India can tap into the Region’s resources, enhance its economic footprint, and contribute to regional stability and prosperity. Drug trafficking, fundamentalism, and religious extremism threaten the strength of these communities and the wider area. Water, security, environmental, and immigration issues have all become urgent. The Region is threatened by more recent acts of narcoterrorism coming from Afghanistan. Russia, China, the U.S., Turkey, Iran, Europe, the E.U., Japan, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan are all claimed to have significant economic and security interests in the Region, making the area a “theatre of the great game” where this and other conflicts are being played out. A significant obstacle to fostering and growing ties is that India still needs to have a shared land border with any of these states. Direct travel from Pakistan to either Afghanistan or Central Asia is prohibited. Thus, China is the transit country for time- and money-consuming land trade. India has made significant headway towards enhancing connectivity by signing a security cooperation agreement for the refurbishment of Chabahar port, the creation of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), and accession to the Ashgabat Agreement. This gap is expected to be closed by India’s involvement in both the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The India-Central Asia Summit was presided over by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2022 in the presence of all five Central Asian heads of state. The online meeting showed India’s dedication to its “Extended Neighborhood Policy”, which mandates that New Delhi diversify its geopolitical allies and diplomatic objectives, as well as its readiness to cooperate with its Central Asian partners on several fronts.
Overall, trade helps to position India as an essential player in the Central Asian Region and contributes to its regional and global significance. More interaction is anticipated to enhance regional economic growth and mutual security. Economically, Central Asia offers India’s industry a “near abroad” market, overland links to the Middle East’s and Russia’s rich resources, and considerable energy supplies at comparatively close ranges. Suez and the Mediterranean Sea are both shorter than the INSTC corridor route. This Region is projected to become more significant as competition with China for resources increases.
The increased trade can also help India to reduce its dependence on other areas for energy supplies and increase its bargaining power in the global market. It aimed at improving the flow of goods, services and investment between the two regions and also to tapping into the vast energy resources of Central Asia. Additionally, more significant business can lead to infrastructure development and job creation, thereby improving the economic conditions in both regions. However, it also faces challenges such as competition from other countries and the need for a well-developed transport and communication network in the area.
The CSTO and the U.S. in Central Asia
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is becoming more active amid growing instability in the wider Eurasian region. Imangali Tasmagambetov, who became CSTO secretary general at the beginning of this year, has met with the secretaries of the Security Councils of Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as with the heads of member states (except Russian President Vladimir Putin).
Tasmagambetov might have come to Yerevan as well, but they have recently tried to distance themselves from the CSTO. This year, Armenia refused to host the “Unbreakable Brotherhood” exercise and also decided not to take up the quota of deputy secretary general of the organisation.
Tasmagambetov is tasked with examining the difficult operational environment. On the western flank of the CSTO, there is a growing external threat from Ukraine and Poland, which could draw Belarus into a conflict between “the West” and Russia; in the southeast, there is the possibility of renewed conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and a growing Afghan factor. All this could have a negative impact on collective security.
On the European track, the urgent tasks of preventing and defending against aggression will first and foremost be handled by the regional grouping of troops from Belarus and Russia, which has been deployed since 2022.
As to the border problem between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Russian expert Alexander Knyazev believes that the CSTO should focus on demilitarization of the “conflict” areas and take them under the control of the Organization’s monitoring group and peacekeeping contingent. It is likely that Tasmagambetov visited both republics with these proposals.
The Afghan problem is multifaceted and requires a unified approach among the CSTO member states to curb it.
In addition to exploring challenges and threats in CSTO areas of responsibility, Tasmagambetov began promoting the topic of military-economic cooperation among CSTO member states.
At a meeting with Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, he suggested forming multilateral cooperation among military-industrial complex enterprises of CSTO countries to jointly develop and produce weapons and military equipment and establish service centres for their maintenance and repair.
Military and economic cooperation within the CSTO is an important component of integration, since it implies not only equipping the armed forces with the latest weapons, but also developing military engineering in all CSTO states and, importantly, maintaining common arms standards.
Tasmagambetov’s initiative will update the Concept for Standardisation of Armaments and Military Equipment within the CSTO, i.e. it will launch the work of defence enterprises under unified technical standards, ensuring compatibility of armaments on various parameters.
In addition, the CSTO itself is gradually being modernised. Ratification of the documents is underway, which will allow the military alliance to interact more effectively with the UN. Once ratification is complete, the CSTO will be able to form peacekeeping contingents and conduct operations under the auspices of the “coordinating state” with a UN mandate.
In February 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the CSTO was developing peacekeeping capabilities. He noted that “on Kazakhstan’s proposal we are making an addition” to the Agreement on CSTO Peacekeeping Activities, “because it says that CSTO peacekeeping forces are deployed by agreement and with the sanction of the UN Security Council. In Sergey Lavrov’s opinion, this norm is redundant and he believes that only an appeal by one of the member states to the Collective Security Council is sufficient.
Looking at the text of the Agreement on the Peacekeeping Activities, Article 3 notes that CSTO peacekeeping operations are authorised by the Collective Security Council (the CSTO body) if they take place on the territory of member states, as for example in Kazakhstan in January 2022, or by the UN Security Council if they take place on the territory of a non-member state of the CSTO.
The point of the forthcoming amendments to the CSTO documents, to which Lavrov referred, is that the CSTO could independently decide to conduct a peacekeeping operation on the territory of non-member states without consulting the UN.
It is not simply a question of stepping up CSTO activities. Increased instability in wider Eurasia points to the ineffectiveness of the universal global institutions for conflict prevention and resolution, which is the UN Security Council. At least in the form in which it currently exists. Therefore, the CSTO is now probably seen by the political elites of the member states as the basis for an autonomous regional security system.
It is not a question of a permanent break with international institutions such as the UN. The format of interaction with them will remain, and this is what the provision of a “coordinating state”, which will act under a UN mandate, is introduced for.
There is a risk that a peacekeeping operation will be vital, but the UN mandate will be blocked in the Security Council by some other countries. This is why the CSTO is planning to expand its mandate to carry out politico-military activities beyond the borders of its member states.
It is clear that it is not about distant “peacekeeping marches”. The CSTO is interested in the situation in neighbouring states where collective security may be threatened. If we talk about Central Asia, it is Afghanistan, from the territory of which militant groups can begin to carry out military and terrorist acts against CSTO member states.
The revival of the former Soviet-era cooperation between the defence establishments of the CSTO countries, which the Secretary General recently updated, may be aimed at creating a resource base for this autonomous security system in the region.
To prevent the development of military-economic and military-technical cooperation within the CSTO, the United States has initiated a discussion that Russia will at some point be unable to supply Central Asian countries with ammunition and weapons for border protection because of the ASW. In particular, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu stated this. The former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan noted that there is a debate on where the countries of the region could obtain defence equipment if needed, citing the United States, Japan and South Korea as possible arms suppliers.
Washington clearly understands that the revival of the military industry within the CSTO increases the level of independence of the member states. To prevent this, the U.S. is planning to get some CSTO member states put on the “arms needle”, possibly initially free of charge.
Armenia’s ‘special position’ in the CSTO is probably a phenomenon of the same order, which, according to some experts, is evidence of the desire of the country’s political elite to leave the Organisation. It is clear that this desire is motivated by the West, which seeks to prevent the emergence of an autonomous security system in our region. But according to Yerevan expert Grigor Balasanyan, a country’s withdrawal from the CSTO would not be in the interests of the Armenian people.
So far, with the exception of Armenia, the other CSTO members have demonstrated their readiness for further evolution of the organization, which may be joined by other states. For example, Serbia and Afghanistan are currently observer countries at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly. In addition, the SCO has a strong interest in developing cooperation with the CSTO, as these organisations have many overlapping lines and areas of responsibility.
Competition of U.S.-China in Central Asia & its Implications for Pakistan
US-China rivalry will affect various states, which have good relations with both (China and U.S). After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China and the U.S. have been ambitious in strategically influencing the Central Asia region. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a part of China’s grand strategy in Central Asia, which has intensified the importance of this region. Further, China’s influence in this region has increased through regional organizations such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Pakistan is an important pivot of China’s regional strategy. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project of China’s BRI. However, US’s grand strategies are phase 1.0 policy to 2.0 policy and C5+1 (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan with the United States of America) is also part of the US’s grand strategy in Central Asia.
China’s connection with Central Asia can be traced to an ancient times, but established during the Soviet. In 1992, the Ashkhabad summit intensified China’s role in this region.
China joins this region through Xinjiang, an autonomous region with a majority Muslim population. It also falls into the Central Asian region. Xinjiang shares its border with three Central Asian states (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan).
The collapse of the Soviet Union curtailed security threats to China’s national security from Central Asia. However, in 1991, the victory of the US in the Gulf War and the emergence of the New World Order was an alarming situation for China. This situation pressed China to discover a role, particularly in regional affairs in newly born states of Central Asia.
In the New Great Game, China has comprehensively increased its national strength politically and economically and has influenced this region culturally. China has utilized classical geopolitical concepts, reviving the Old Silk Road, and divide and rule strategy. Silk Road is China’s identity, which connects Asia and the West by the terminus in Xinjiang.
In 2002, Former Secretary of the State Colin Powel once remarked in House Foreign Affairs Committee that we would enhance our presence and interest in Central Asia that we had not dreamed of before.
US grand strategy falls into two phases towards Central Asia. 1.0 Phase means to protect Soviet Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), protect the sovereignty of newly born states from Russian aggression, to break Russian monopoly over transit routes and gas pipelines. In this phase, the US should have paid more attention to its geopolitical approach towards Central Asia and had fewer priorities in this region.
11 September 2001 brought huge changes in US strategy towards Central Asia, and it introduced the 2.0 phase, which means that the agenda of the US towards Central Asia is political and economical. However, the military prevailed over this policy due to US’s military presence in Afghanistan, conducting an operation against terrorism. The US has utilized this policy for military cooperation in this region.
Strategic competition between U.S. and China will directly impact Pakistan’s national security at the broader level, such as economy, military and politics.
At the political level, it impacts Pakistan’s relations with China, Iran, Russia, and the Gulf States. At the military level, Pakistan’s geostrategic location enhances Pakistan’s importance. Pakistan has been an important ally of the US against the war on terror and played its role as a frontline state against this war. At the economic level, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a game changer for Pakistan’s economy. It will create opportunities for the economy of Pakistan.
The bigger challenge for Pakistan is how it can maintain its relations with China and the US. Pakistan needs help to maintain good relations with both (US and China). If we see a historical perspective, in the 1970s, Pakistan built a bridge between US and China. Strategic affairs experts strongly believe that Pakistan can defuse the tension between the US and China.
Pakistan has few policy options through which Pakistan can maintain its good relations with both countries.
China is Pakistan’s strategic partner, which addresses Pakistan’s regional strategic concerns in all fields, such as defense, economy, politics and security sectors. CPEC has formed strategic interdependence. Pakistan cannot afford to be the part of the US’s grand strategy to contain China.
Good Pak-US relations are required for regional security. These are guarantors to bring peace in Afghanistan and can counter terrorism and extremism in this region. It is difficult for Pakistan to uncouple from the US. However, the US has a great influence on IMF and World Bank. Pakistan is in negotiation with IMF to get a loan. The US can assist Pakistan with IMF. However, Pakistan has serious concerns over Indo-US growing strategic relations, creating an imbalance in the South Asian region. India is utilizing Indo-US strategic relations as a tool against Pakistan, which concerns Pakistan’s national security. However, good Pak-US relations depend on the US that how it wants to conduct its relations with India and China.
The last option for Pakistan is that it should only place some eggs in one’s basket. Pakistan needs diversifying approach towards all major powers. Although it would be difficult for Pakistan, Pakistan can maintain its relation through an issue-based relationship. It will not affect Pakistan’s relations with anyone rather than choosing one side. This option would protect Pakistan’s regional strategic interests and address Pakistan’s security concerns.
Putin’s USSR 2.0 project to be undermined by his satellites
On January 18, 2023, the EU released a “joint motion for a resolution on the humanitarian consequences of the blockade in Nagorno-Karabakh,” planning to deploy a security mission in Armenia, a result of continuous efforts of its leader Nikol Pashinyan. Westminster Hall debates on the closure of the Lachin Corridor and the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh are scheduled in the UK for Tuesday, January 24, 2023. These European initiatives, obviously with more to follow, reflect an increasing invasion into the Russian political turf in the Caucasian region. Russian-created Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) loses its influence in the region, which becomes a playground for the West, Turkey and China.
For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who, on May 15, 1992, signed Collective Security Treaty as its foreign policy long arm to exert Russia’s influence in the former USSR republics, it was just a formal body to substitute the late Warsaw Pact in a mini format. But Vladimir Putin made s step further, creating the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) on May 14, 2002, trying to reaffirm Russia’s dominance in Caucasia and Central Asia regions in an evident attempt to re-create the USSR model.
Currently having only six member-states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan), CSTO, formed after the example of the Warsaw Pact, created in 1955 and declared at an end in 1991, has had some turbulent times recently, and one can compare its current state of being with the situation in the Warsaw Pact in 1980-81 when its member countries were simmering after the Solidarity movement demonstrations in Poland. Back then, Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the USSR, declared that “we will not leave Socialist Poland in trouble.” Furthermore, the USSR managed to cope with the crisis for some time, only to collapse ten years later.
Brezhnev’s articulated his “limited sovereignty” doctrine in 1968 after the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to crack down on the starting democratic movement. Since then, the Warsaw Pact’s military abilities were to be considered by national opposition leaders when fighting for reforms. Furthermore, the Polish governance crisis of 1980-81, when the military invasion was indirectly promised but never fulfilled, showed the limitations of this doctrine.
After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Brezhnev’s doctrine silently died. Moreover, the Western credit lines of Hungary and Poland did not allow Gorbachev, who sought Western support at the time, to exert the Warsaw Pact’s military influence in those countries in the 1980-s when anti-socialist reforms started to broaden.
Putin created CSTO in 2002 as a logical development of the Collective Security Treaty of 1992 and as a reaction to a US-supported coalition of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, with Uzbekistan joining later, that created their strategic pact GUUAM, although never had enough resources and consensus to develop a solid joint military force.
CSTO’s importance for Russia made Vladimir Putin fly to Yerevan to participate in its summit on November 23, 2022, in a futile attempt to block the centrifugal tendencies tearing the Organization apart.
CSTO, an anti-NATO heir of the Warsaw Pact, was created to stress Russia’s dominance, making countries who did not want to follow Russia’s policy leave the Organization. However, Russian less-than-effective governance practices could not make CSTO an effective international power structure. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the countries that recently gained independence with some significant territorial and other claims to each other.
The Soviet Union’s collapse ignited wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which ended in 1994, and a civil war in Tajikistan, which officially was over in 1997. Unfortunately, these wars did not allow the countries to agree on border delimitation with their neighbors. As a result, we saw another round of Armenia-Azerbaijan military conflict, with more to follow.
The same for Tajikistan. The country has had more than 230 situations of military conflict with Kyrgyzstan over the issue of who owns the river Isfara. Moreover, we should not forget that Uzbekistan also claims ownership of the disputed river, although not yet involved in a military confrontation with its neighbors.
The lack of will to compromise on issues of joint utilization of the scarce water resources between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan; mutual accusations in support of radical (Islamic) opposition between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; incessant flow of smuggling illegal goods, including drags, through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to neighboring countries – all of this is just another preamble to future military escalations.
Russia has taken the suzerain mandate to manage the post-Soviet terrain, including countries that could not resist the Russian influence before creating CSTO. The ubiquitous rise of China has changed the power balance in the CIS landscape. China follows the path of exerting soft power through the economy, providing cheap credits, executing essential infrastructure projects, and trying to corrupt leading national political leaders into its sphere of influence. So, China, not Russia, replicates the USSR power game in CIS countries, though very indirectly. And when Putin dared to use Russian troops, nominally called CSTO’s military force, for the first time in January 2022 in Kazakhstan., his desire to show his military might ended just four days after China’s snuffy grumping made him withdraw.
At the same time, CSTO refused to send any military force after receiving an official address from Tajikistan in 2021, which felt it may not have been able to deter the Afghan military from regular violations of the Tajik-Afghan border. When Putin sees no gains in his international posture, he does not use Russian military force. However, his loss of international influence became more evident for CSTO countries’ leaders even before Russia unleashed a full-scale war in Ukraine.
During Russia’s military involvement in Syria, Putin had to coordinate his international power efforts with other regional powers, primarily Turkey and Israel. Although in 2021, Igor Yurgens, the head of the Kremlin-affiliated think tank Institute for Contemporary Development, proposed an idea to send CSTO peacekeepers to Syria in a blatant attempt to ease Russia’s military burden, this has never been discussed formally at any CSTO summit.
Decreasing Putin’s international independence became visible again when CSTO refused to interfere in the Armenia-Azerbaijan military conflict in both 2021 and 2022. Of course, Putin could never upset Turkey, which indirectly supported Azerbaijan. However, the inability to help Tajikistan in its more than legitimate address can not be regarded differently from the absence of a political will.
This absence of will, and possibly strength, became obvious for Armenia and Central Asian countries (backed by the US and China, respectively) that first decreased their involvement in CSTO joint military exercise and then started openly criticizing CSTO’s functionality and Russian foreign policy practices.
2022 became very sour for Putin. After his strategic blunder with Ukraine, when Russia’s inability to lead a successful traditional war and rapid loss of international authority became difficult to ignore even by its closest dependents, Kyrgyzstan refused to host the CSTO military exercise planned for 10-14 October 2022, and also ignored the exercise in Tajikistan. Armenia abstained from another CSTO’s military exercise in Kazakhstan, and at the very beginning of 2023, Armenia declared that it would abstain from any CSTO military exercise in 2023.
In September 2022, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon publicly asked Vladimir Putin not to treat the Central Asian republics as vassals “the way it was in the USSR.” Armenian President Nikola Pashinyan, hosting a CSTO summit in November, refused to sign the resulting declaration.
All its members view CSTO as nominal and useless. Still, Russia’s view is different. CSTO has been essential to its USSR 2.0 project, performing a quasi-Warsaw Pact role there. Russia tried to use it as an integration mechanism of the post-Soviet terrain, which it considers its sphere of influence. But, unlike the USSR, Russia can not offer any uniting idea (even a wrong one), and its neo-imperial ambitions are only supported by money and pressure. With less Russian money and less Russian pressure, integration stops, and integration mechanisms threaten to collapse if member-states continue to see Russia losing power.
The Kremlin thinks in the past paradigm while its satellites start to think in the future, seeking support and new alliances. Different thinking evokes different actions, and we may soon see another “sovereignty parade” like the one USSR witnessed in 1988-1991.
Putin’s imperial unwillingness to correctly pronounce the problematic name of the leader of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev, became infamous in Russia. However, when the newly elected President of Kazakhstan came to Russia just a few days after the disastrous-for-Russia CSTO summit held in Yerevan, Putin did call him correctly for the first time, explicitly showing respect. Furthermore, Putin offered Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to form a “Three-Party Gas Union.” But in vain. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan rejected Russia’s proposal to pursue political and financial support elsewhere. Moreover, on December 12, Uzbekistan signed a gas treaty with Turkmenistan, a warning sign for Putin.
Besides strong economic ties with Russia and even economic dependence, the Central Asian countries defiantly dissociate themselves from Kremlin, enjoying multiple partner choices between Turkey, China, and the USA. The “Stans” seem to have started to follow Nelson Mandela’s wish, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” replacing the complicated past with a promising future.
While NATO guarantees not only security from external enemies to its member but also their freedom, since 1949, there have been no wars between thirty NATO members, the ugly Warsaw Pact copy called CSTO is a failed replica: its fundamental Treaty was signed in Uzbekistan, which left CSTO; two out of its current six members are in a state of war (Azerbaijan and Armenia), two countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have incessant military conflicts.
CSTO is a good litmus test that measures how far Russia can project its power outside its borders. Belarus President Lukashenko said in Yerevan that the future of CSTO depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, bashfully calling it a special military operation, which means the end of the would-be Russian empire after the victory of Ukraine, Russian coercion mechanisms not working anymore.
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