Foreign Policy Watch: India-SCO

India- Central Asia Relations

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- India's engagement with Central Asia

Context

The inaugural India-Central Asia Summit, the India-Central Asia Dialogue, and the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan in New Delhi — all held over the past four months — collectively indicate a renewed enthusiasm in New Delhi to engage the Central Asian region.

Significance of Central Asia for India

  • India has limited economic and other stakes in the region, primarily due to lack of physical access.
  • And yet, the region appears to have gained a great deal of significance in India’s strategic thinking over the years, particularly in the recent past.
  • New geopolitical realities: India’s mission Central Asia today reflects, and is responsive to, the new geopolitical, if not the geo-economic, realities in the region.

Factors driving India’s engagement

  • One of the factors driving this engagement and shaping it is the great power dynamics there.
  • Withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan: The decline of American presence and power in the broader region (due primarily to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) has led to a reassertion by China and Russia seeking to fill the power vacuum.
  • India-Russia relations: Moscow considers India to be a useful partner in the region: it helps it to not only win back New Delhi, which is moving towards the U.S., but also to subtly checkmate the rising Chinese influence in its backyard.
  • For the U.S., while growing India-Russia relations is not a welcome development, it recognises the utility of Moscow-New Delhi relations in Central Asia to offset Beijing’s ever-growing influence there.
  • India’s dilemma:  In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, New Delhi faces a major dilemma in the wider region, not just in the pre-existing theatres like the Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control.
  • India’s China challenge: India in the region might get further hemmed in due to the combined efforts by China, Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan.
  • If so, it must ensure that there is no China-led strategic gang up with Pakistan and the Taliban against India in the region, which, if it becomes a reality, would severely damage Indian interests.
  • Consolidation of Afghan policy: India’s engagement of Central Asia would also help it to consolidate its post-American Afghan policy.
  • Now that the Taliban have returned to Kabul, New Delhi is forced to devise new ways of engaging Afghanistan.
  • That’s where the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia could be helpful. 
  • The announcement of a Joint Working Group on Afghanistan during the summit between India and the CARs is surely indicative of such interest.

Russia’s prominence

  • In India’s current vision for a regional security architecture, Russia appears prominent
  • Countering China: By courting Russia — its traditional partner, also close to China and getting closer to Pakistan — to help it re-establish its presence in the Central Asian region, India is seeking to work with one of the region’s strongest powers and also potentially create a rift between China and Russia.
  • Joint defence production by India and Russia has been on the rise and the CARs could play a key role in it.
  • India’s non-critical stance on developments in Ukrain and Kazakhstan: This growing India-Russia partnership also explains India’s non-critical stance on the developments in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Challenges in India’s engagement with Central Asia

  • China’s dominance in the region:  China, which shares a land border with the region, is already a major investor there.
  • Iran’s role: An even bigger challenge for India may be Iran.
  • India’s best shot at reaching the CARs is by using a hybrid model – via sea to Chabahar and then by road/rail through Iran (and Afghanistan) to the CARs.
  •  So, for New Delhi, the ongoing re-negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are of crucial importance.
  • While Iran getting close to the West is not preferred by Russia (but preferred by India), if and when it becomes a reality, India would be able to use it to its advantage and join Russia in engaging the CARs.
  • Delivering on the commitment: Most importantly, India will have to walk the talk on its commitments to Central Asia.
  • Does it have the political will, material capability and diplomatic wherewithal to stay the course in the region?

Conclusion

India’s renewed engagement of Central Asia is in the right direction for the simple reason that while the gains from an engagement of Central Asia may be minimal, the disadvantages of non-engagement could be costly in the longer run.

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