Engaging Central Asia
Sub Title : Security dynamics in Central Asia are changing rapidly as Russia cedes space to China and India weighs its options as a traditional ally
Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023
Author : Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar
Page No. : 30
Category : Geostrategy
: August 2, 2023
This brief feature provides an insightful analysis of the geopolitical landscape in Central Asia and the impact of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. The article discusses the diminishing influence of Russia, China’s growing presence, involvement of other countries, and how India can capitalize on these dynamics.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been a game changer for Central Asian countries. In addition to the other challenges of shortages of food, fuel, fertilizers, supply chain disruption, rising debt and inflation that the whole world is facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Central Asian countries find themselves in an even more precarious situation because of their very close partnership and security relations with Russia, and, on account of their robust and expanding economic and commercial, and increasingly security, partnership with China.
Since 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the five Central Asian countries emerged as sovereign, independent states, Russia has been viewed as the security provider of Central Asia. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in a significant decline in the influence of Russia in the world and particularly in Central Asia, because of their geographical proximity with each other. Russia views the Central Asian countries as its ‘’near abroad.’’ The Central Asian countries are strategically dependent upon Russia for their trade, investments, remittances, large labour force from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan working there, etc.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has transformed the relative equation between Russia and China in Central Asia. This had become evident even in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The sanctions by the West pushed Russia increasingly into the embrace of China, with Russia emerging as a subordinate partner to China. The Central Asian nations are getting increasingly uneasy and uncomfortable with Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
China is rapidly expanding its foot print in Central Asia over the last many years, not only in the trade and economic fields but also in strategic, political, military and security affairs. This is evident in the myriad oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to China over the last two decades as well as the establishment of a military/police post in recent years in Tajikistan. The Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013 in Kazakhstan has rapidly expanded the China-Central Asia partnership.
Russia’s diminishing stature in Central Asia has animated China to enhance its influence in the region. Several far-reaching agreements to further expand economic and commercial partnerships were signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September 2022. China hosted its first Summit with leaders of Central Asia virtually on 25th January, 2022, just two days before the India-Central Asia Summit. The first in-person Summit between Central Asia and China on 18 May, 2023 has given a further fillip and led to the institutionalization of the partnership. The six countries decided to significantly increase the level of trade and expand cooperation in emerging fields such as the development of infrastructure, digital trade and the green economy. In addition, they committed themselves to speed up the construction of the cross-border China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway.
Sensing the vacuum in Central Asia because of the declining influence of Russia, many other countries are actively reaching out to strengthen their presence in the region. Some of the important ones are Turkiye which shares historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and civilizational ties with all of them, except with Tajikistan; Iran which has become the newest member of SCO at the New Delhi Summit on 04 July 2023; USA; EU, and others. Central Asia has witnessed the visits by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken as well as the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan in recent months. President of the European Council Charles Michel as well as the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also visited Central Asia in recent months to advance their partnership with this increasingly important region.
The rapidly changing dynamics of Central Asia’s regional and global political, strategic and economic architecture provides a bright opportunity for India to diversify and deepen its partnership with these countries. India has not been able to leverage its age-old connections with this region because of the absence of geographic contiguity with these countries. India has significantly accelerated its engagement with the region over the last nine years starting with the historic visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all the five countries in July, 2015.
Prime Minister Modi organized a Central Asia+India Summit in virtual format on 27th January, 2022. It was agreed that such Summits would be organized every two years. There is considerable identity of views and position on most regional and global issues between India and Central Asia. Some of these include peace and stability in Afghanistan; Connectivity (INSTC and Chabahar); counter-terrorism; climate change; trade and investment etc. There is empathy, warmth and trust between the people of India and Central Asia.
- In the midst of growing geo-political turbulence, Central Asia is looking for options and partners other than Russia and China. India eminently fits the bill as India is seen as a benign power and there is no threat perception for Central Asia from India.
- India needs to significantly augment its collaboration with the region in all areas viz. political, official, security, strategic, business, scientific, technological, health, education, tourism, cultural, academic, sports, people-to-people connect, Think Tanks and others, both at bilateral and at regional level.
- The next in-person India+Central Asia Summit should be held early next year. Adequate preparations should be made so that a strong impetus to bilateral ties is provided.
- Meetings agreed to in the last Central Asia+India virtual Summit on 27 January, 2022 i.e. between Foreign, Trade and Culture Ministers, Parliamentarians etc. should be arranged expeditiously.
- Urgently convene the India-Central Asia Dialogue, which could not be held last year.
- Prioritize relationships with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan due to their strategic importance. Although all countries need to be given due attention, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan merit special focus; Uzbekistan because it is the most populous and proactive among the Central Asian states to increase partnership with India, and Kazakhstan, because it is the largest country in geographical area and size of economy, and is endowed with significant mineral resources.
- Collaborate with like-minded countries like the USA, Japan, and Europe to strengthen Central Asian engagement.
- Appoint a Special Envoy for Central Asia to streamline and facilitate these efforts.