Understanding the background of Central Asian Region !!
In the post cold war period, the Central Asian countries have engaged themselves in nation building and consolidation of their statehoods. The pessimistic scenarios feared in the early nineties of Central Asia disintegrating have not fortunately been realized. No state has become a failing state. On the contrary, countries like Kazakhstan have made great strides. At the same time, the Central Asian countries continue to face daunting socio-economic and security problems. The relations among themselves are far from smooth. Issues like water security, borders, environmental degradation and migration have become acute. Religious extremism & fundamentalism pose serious challenge to regional stability.
CAR track record on socio-economic development is mixed.
- Kazakhstan with its vast mineral resources has done better than the others.
- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lag behind the others in socio-economic development.
- Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain closed and controlled societies.
- Uzbekistan sees itself as a leader in Central Asia but it has problems with its neighbours, namely, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Religious extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism continue to pose challenges to Central Asian societies as well as regional stability. The Fergana Valley remains a hot spot of fundamentalism. Central Asian republics face serious threat from illegal drug trade emanating from Afghanistan. Instability in Central Asia can spill over into sensitive regions like Xinjiang.
Traditionally, Central Asia has been an arena of "great game". The modern version is being played out even today. Russia, China, US, Turkey, Iran, Europe, EU, Japan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan have all substantial security and economic interests in the region. In order to maximize their geo-political advantage and also to ensure that their national interests are safeguarded, the Central Asian countries have engaged with the rest of the world through a variety of channels and institutions.
Central Asian countries are land locked and have looked for building connectivity to global markets. They have sought to revive the ancient Silk Route. Their connectivity with Russia remains the most dominant feature. In the recent years, new connectivity has been built with China as reflected, for instance, in the Kazakh-China gas pipeline. New infrastructure has been built facilitating Central Asia’s connectivity with rest of the world.
Role of China in Central Asia
- The deepening engagement with China is a relatively recent feature.
- China has built bilateral as well as multi-lateral relations with Central Asian countries.
- China conducts its relations both bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
- China’s primary thrust has been to make use of Central Asia’s vast mineral resources for its economic development; to supply the much needed consumer goods to Central Asia and to protect itself against the threat of “separatism, extremism and terrorism” arising out of Central Asian territories.
- China has sought to build connectivity of various kinds with the Central Asian countries.
- Slowly, the Central Asian countries are developing a kind of dependency on China which may not be in their long-term interest.
- China is following a strategic approach to Central Asia.
- It has offered $ 10 billion grant and aid to SCO members.
- It is squarely focusing on trade, energy and infrastructure cooperation.
- It has linked Central Asia with China’s western regions. On 1st August 2012, China Central Asia Gas Pipeline Project was launched. Within the SCO framework, China and Russia have carried out a number of anti-terror military exercises starting from 2001. China’s total trade with Central Asia amounts to $ 46 billion in 2012.
Role of Russia in Central Asia
- Russia regards CARs near abroad.
- It has floated a number of institutions including the CSTO, EURASEC etc. to maintain and further develop its ties with the Central Asian countries.
- It also hosts a large number of economic migrants from Central Asia.
- Russia provides the established outlet to the Central Asian countries.
- Central Asians gas exports for instance, to Europe are through Russian network of oil & gas pipelines.
- Central Asian countries fall squarely within the Russian security parameter.
- However, the relationship between CARs and Russia is not smooth.
- The CARs are also looking for diversification of their ties.
- As a result, their engagements with China, the US and NATO have grown in the recent years.
Role of US in Central Asia
- The US has used Central Asia to achieve its logistical and military objectives in Afghanistan in the past decade or so.
- Central Asian countries have provided land and air routes to the US for supplies to Afghanistan.
- These routes will also be used when the US withdraws from Afghanistan.
- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been direct beneficiaries.
- The withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan would result in dilution of the US influence in Central Asia.
Role of others in Central Asia
- Several other actors have developed stakes in the Central Asian region.
- These include Iran, Turkey, European Union and even Japan.
- Central Asia’s mineral resources and Central Asian markets are important motivations in the policies of these countries.
Impact of Af-Pak region
- Afghanistan and Af-Pak region pose security challenge to the cohesiveness of Central Asian Region.
- Drug trade and extremism emanating from an unstable Afghanistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan region is a concern which Central Asian countries have not been able to handle effectively.
- The SCO is getting active in Afghanistan but the effectiveness of its engagement is questionable.
- SCO has not been able to come out with any credible regional initiative on Afghanistan.
- Central Asia also faces a variety of environmental challenges.
- The shrinking of the Aral Sea illustrates the ecological fragility of the region.
- Water scarcity and its unsustainable use have created problems among Central Asian countries.
India’s Growing Interest in Central Asia !!
- India’s quest to become a full-fledged member of the SCO is a reflection of its desire to diversify its trans-regional ties in the emerging regional order in Eurasia.
- Among the factors encouraging this, geopolitical proximity may force India (and China for that matter) to expand its strategic relations to secure energy supplies.
- No matter what it implies for their neighbors’ navigation rights, India and China may develop common strategic interests in ensuring stability in the South China Sea, although New Delhi has not had much to say about Beijing’s claims of sovereignty in this region.
There is also obviously a meeting ground between some of India’s interests and the priorities of the SCO. Since its beginning in 2001, the SCO has focused on fighting terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, areas of clear interest for India.
- The projected SCO Free Trade Area, to be in place by 2020 to economically integrate all members of the SCO, is also appealing to New Delhi.
- Observers say that it could be more attractive than the West’s offer to admit India to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and worry that India’s full-fledged accession to the SCO might be a setback for the U.S.
Historical - Cultural context !!
However, India’s interest in expanding its trans-regional ties with SCO has a historical-cultural context too. Indian traders and travelers also used the Silk Road, and Buddhism spread across the vast Eurasian plains from India. Interactions between India and Central Asia manifested through the movement of peoples, goods and ideas, including spiritual interfaces.
Economic status right now !!
- In recent decades, India has been seeking to add economic ties to these political and cultural links.
- At present, India’s trade with Central Asia is a relatively paltry $500 million.
- New Delhi knows that it must overcome obstacles like limited land connectivity and the comparatively modest size of Central Asian markets.
- This will call for intensified diplomatic efforts through the framework of its “Connect Central Asia” (CCA) policy.
- The CCA is a multi-level approach entailing political, security, economic and cultural connections.
- India outlined the CCA at the India-Central Asia dialogue held in June 2012.
- While addressing the SCO Summit held in June 2012, India’s External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna said that India always valued “the fact that most SCO member countries are our neighbors, or belong to our extended neighborhood, with a strong historical and cultural legacy of centuries binding us together.”
At the SCO Summit in Beijing, in 2012, India said that it would be happy “to play a larger, wider and more constructive role in the SCO as a full member, as and when the organization finalizes the expansion modalities.” India also welcomed the general trajectory of the SCO towards expansion and redefinition of its role “to deal more effectively with the common challenges of security and development in our region.” At last month’s SCO meeting, then, India’s foreign secretary was simply echoing New Delhi’s long-cherished desire to be a major player in the Eurasian region.
New Delhi sees connectivity with countries under the SCO as crucial to augment India’s trans-regional ties. It is clearly ready to work with regional entities to bridge Central and South Asia. In areas ranging from information technology and entrepreneurship to energy and disaster management, India and the SCO look set to accelerate the pace of cooperation in the years to come.
India into the Central Asian Region via Iran !!
- Iran which provides alternative access to Central Asia, is an important but unspoken factor in India-Central Asia relations.
- However, India-Iran relationship for the last decade or so has not progressed well.
- Mutual suspicion mars this relationship.
- The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which would pass through Iran, is still underdeveloped and requires huge investment.
- India has also been slow in realizing the potential of the strategic Chabahar Port in Iran.
- India will require making substantial investments in Iran to make the INSTC as well as Chabahar Port to provide short and effective access to Central Asia.
- This must be top priority in India’s foreign policy.