In order to celebrate and build on the twenty years of friendship and cooperation between India and Central Asian Republics, a roundtable on “India’s Engagement with Central Asia: Exploring Future Directions” was organized at IDSA. The event was chaired by the Director General of IDSA. Dr. Arvind Gupta, with the Ambassadors of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in attendance as speakers and participants along with a host of Indian and Eurasian academics, analysts, experts and observers.
Dr. Gupta initiated the discussion by briefly highlighting India’s new Connect Central Asia policy. He elaborated upon the opportunities and challenges that exist in the current partnership with the Central Asian countries. These include relaxation of visa regimes, better air and land connectivity, cooperative security framework for regional stability, greater emphasis on people to people and cultural contacts (track 1.5 and track 2 levels of diplomacy), establishment of a Central Asia University, multilateral engagements through Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and improving the current low levels of economic ties.
Dr. Irina Orolbaeva, Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to India, highlighted India’s historical and cultural links with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and welcomed India’s desire to strengthen ties with Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia through the new ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’. She referred to the first India-Central Asia Dialogue, a Track-II initiative organized in June 2012 in Bishkek as a step towards building long-term partnerships with the Eurasian region. Kyrgyzstan and India share a special bond especially with the introduction of parliamentary democracy in the country. She argued that India’s active presence in the Central Asian region will help promote stability in the area especially with the 2014 deadline in Afghanistan fast approaching. Moreover, Dr. Orolbaeva stressed on the need to revive cultural, humanitarian, educational and scientific exchanges (especially amongst the youth of the two countries) and felt that the proposed Indian university in Kyrgyzstan is a step in the right direction. She urged the Indian government to explore the possibility of setting up an India Cultural Center in Bishkek. Economic and financial ties could be strengthened by promoting investment and cooperation in sectors such as education, mining, agriculture, pharma, leather, cotton, textiles and tourism. The Ambassador emphasized on the need to improve air and land connectivity between Central Asia and India and observed that Kyrgyzstan is keen on bringing Indian technology and expertise to the country. She particularly appreciated India’s contribution towards the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) projects which will have benefits for the entire region.
Mr. Doulat Kuanyshev, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to India, welcomed India’s soft power initiative in the region through the new Connect Central Asia Policy and highlighted the close ties Kazakhstan has enjoyed with India in the last two decades citing the recent high level visits. There is an institutional cooperative mechanism of dialogue on many critical sectors. The Ambassador reiterated Kazakhstan’s support for India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC, full membership within the SCO and in other international and regional fora and lauded India’s contribution in making CICA a success. Mr. Kuanyshev observed that there is an enormous potential for big Indian Corporations (synonymous with economic success) to invest in Kazakhstan and recommended the bridging of information gap amongst the business communities on both sides. Referring to the energy sector, the Ambassador recommended that India should tap into the secondary markets since at present the Kazakhstan government has put on hold the issue of allocation of ‘rights for exploration of new blocks’. Mr. Kuanyshev outlined Kazakhstan’s initiative in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project, expressed his appreciation for India’s contribution in the project and felt that its completion will help boost economic ties between the two countries.
Mr. Saidov Saidbeg Boykhonovich, Ambassador of Tajikistan to India, highlighted the existence of strong ties between the two countries especially in the field of economy, polity, science and culture. Tajikistan and India have effective cooperative mechanisms in the IT, hydroelectricity, railways, education, health care (military hospital), defence and security sectors. The Ambassador observed that the two countries share common concerns over terrorism since Tajikistan is itself a victim of Taliban and Uzbek Islamic terrorism. There exists a joint working group on counter-terrorism. Tajikistan and India share similar views on many issues of mutual concern and there are no contentious issues in their bilateral relationship. Highlighting the opportunities that can be explored, Mr. Boykhonovich felt that it was an excellent time to improve tourism between the two countries and air connectivity between India and Tajikistan is being developed with the introduction of the Delhi-Sharjah-Dushanbe flight. There is an enormous potential for Indian companies to invest and set up joint ventures in Tajikistan especially in the agriculture sector. The recently concluded agreement on agriculture will form the basis for cooperation in areas like scientific agricultural research and exchange of information. There are frequent cultural and political exchanges and President Rahmon’s visit to India later in the year will add further substance to the partnership. Elaborating upon the need for improving connectivity in the region, the Ambassador appreciated India’s contribution towards the INSTC project. However, he also suggested that India can explore the option of a trade route through the Karakoram highway. Observing that it has been just twenty years since the CARs were established, Mr. Boykhonovich requested for Indian support and hoped that it will provide the same facilities to CARs as it does to SAARC countries. Citing the differences in education systems between Tajikistan and India, the Ambassador called for relaxation in norms for Tajik students wanting to study in India.
Shri Ajay Bisaria, Joint Secretary, Eurasia Division, MEA, elaborated upon the Indian Government’s June 2012 Connect Central Asia policy. The word ‘connect’ refers to the core policy of establishing an e-network to provide medicine and education expertise to Central Asia with India as the hub, thereby increasing the country’s engagement with its extended neighbourhood and giving substance to the existing political relationship. India will continue to maintain high-level political contact with the CARs. Mr. Bisaria observed that India is working on developing significant strategic, security, developmental and defence projects with Central Asia apart from intense discussions on Afghanistan with each CAR. Considering that tourism is followed by business, there is a need to improve India’s connectivity (both land and air) with the region. The civil aviation industry has recently approved 14 flights to Central Asian countries. India is committed to the INSTC project and is also exploring alternative routes. Meanwhile, a comprehensive economic agreement is being worked out with the CARs. TAPI can be a major game changer and if successful, could open the doorway to several more road and rail links. India wants to be a long-term energy partner in the region. Cooperation on energy will definitely boost trade for both Central Asia and India. India hopes to be active in Central Asia with flagship projects involving medicine, health, IT, energy and education (establishment of a Central Asia University) and seeks a long term profitable partnership with the CARs. There is also a need to explore multilateral cooperative mechanisms in the form of SCO, CICA and various economic integration projects.
Ambassador (retd) Rajiv Sikri emphasized on the need for CARs to start working together as a group. However, he felt that deep differences among the countries may prevent them from working as closely as they should. Referring to TAPI, he observed that the project is relevant only to Turkmenistan and not Tajikistan; whereas Tajikistan has interests in hydropower and transmission lines. Similarly, developments in Afghanistan are of more relevance to the bordering countries. These differences will make policy implementation very difficult. Besides, the China factor is more relevant and influential for all Central Asian countries than India. Therefore, there is a need to project India as a serious and big partner in the region. India can explore the option of joint science and technology projects. Moreover, Ambassador Sikri suggested that the CARs can leverage their geographical location for being passenger and cargo hubs on the lines of the Gulf countries and focus should not be limited to trade alone. With developments in Afghanistan reaching a critical phase, he elaborated on the need for CARs to push for India’s full membership in the SCO if they want India to have a greater presence in the region.
Prof. Gulshan Sachdeva observed that in recent years a lot of research has been done on the geopolitics and geo-economics of the region which is in line with the government’s changing policy towards the region. The main trigger to improve linkages between India and Central Asia is the current scenario in Afghanistan and the speculation over its future. The knowledge that developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan will have an impact on the entire region has spurred greater cooperation between CARs and India. Therefore, for the future, building of strategic cooperation, development of economic relationship and establishment of cost effective modes of connectivity will be the main priorities for India and CARs.
Prof. Arun Mohanty observed that it would have been easier for India to engage with CARs if they were in a politically and economically unified space. While comparing both India’s and China’s economic engagement with CARs, he observed that India lags far behind China in practically every sphere of economic cooperation and infrastructure building. Prof. Mohanty argued that India should aim to promote educational exchanges with CARs, provide greater access to cost effective medical facilities and explore the option of anti-terrorism information exchanges with SCO.
Key points that were raised during discussions;