Alignment: India recently hosted a conference of National Security Advisors of Russia, Iran and CA states on Afghanistan

India’s relations with CA countries have acquired a strategic dimension. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have emerged as important suppliers of uranium to fuel India’s nuclear power plants. Tajikistan provided critical help in the evacuation of Indians from Afghanistan. It will be in India’s interest to augment its linkages with these countries to reduce their dependence on China.

India is considering a proposal to invite the Presidents of five Central Asian (CA) states, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as chief guests at the forthcoming Republic Day celebrations. The decision is a recognition of the shifting geo-political trends following the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, increasing threats to security from terror groups based there, emergence of CA countries as strategic partners and China’s creeping economic and security outreach in this region.

Recently, there has been a sharp increase in India’s interaction with the CA states. Last month, India hosted the National Security Advisors of Russia, Iran and the CA states for a dialogue on Afghanistan. Instead of attending the OIC meeting in Islamabad on December 18-19, the foreign ministers of CA countries came to New Delhi for the 3rd India-CA dialogue with India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM). Earlier this year, EAM Jaishankar had visited Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and also held a meeting with his Turkmenistan counterpart.

Central Asia is home to the world’s biggest untapped resources of oil, gas and minerals. It is also a key gateway for connectivity with Russia, the Middle East and Europe. While Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are endowed with attractive hydrocarbon deposits, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have considerable strategic importance. Three CA states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share common borders with China; similarly, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan while Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are proximate to India.

Russia has traditionally enjoyed considerable influence in the CA states as their economies, infrastructure and the ruling elites were closely linked to Moscow. Ethnic Russians account for 5%-20% of the population in these countries. Russia has allowed millions of Tajik and Kyrgyz nationals to work and send remittances; it meets Russia’s needs of additional labour in view of its declining population (its population of about 143 million is estimated to decline by 20% by 2050).

Russia established the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 to foster closer economic ties with its ex-Soviet Republics, including the CA states. Its record has been patchy. While Russia views it as a political instrument to regain its former influence, others such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan see it as primarily economic. Kazakhstan has been opposed to any EEU support for Russia’s counter sanctions imposed on certain Western commodities. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been reluctant to join the EEU.

Another multilateral grouping which Russia set up, this time with China and four CA states (all except Turkmenistan) was the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on June 15, 2001, mainly to fight against regional terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism. India and Pakistan were added in 2017 and now a decision has been taken to include Iran. Russia and China look at SCO in terms of strengthening their influence in Afghanistan and South Asia. The SCO has taken some initiatives against the spread of terrorism, separatism and encourage cooperation in agriculture, energy, education, pharmaceuticals and IT.

In the field of security, Russia has established a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, providing formal security guarantees to its members. Russia has expanded its military presence in CA by deploying new anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles at its bases in Tajikistan.

China views Central Asia as a buffer between an unstable Afghanistan and its Xinjiang province and as a transit point for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to reach across the Middle East and Europe. It is building high-speed rail lines, roads and other infrastructure to connect CA with Europe. China’s FDI in the five CA countries reached $14.7 billion in 2018 from $8.9 billion in 2013. Its investments have been made to secure a steady supply of hydrocarbons, minerals and seek tacit cooperation for Beijing’s political agenda.

China’s trade turnover with the CA countries in 2018 was about $41.7 billion, almost twice that of Russia; it accounted for 22% of all CA exports and 37% of their imports. Several CA countries are reeling under a huge debt trap, i.e., debt of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan owed to China is about 20% of their GDP, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan about 16% and Kazakhstan 6.5% (2018).

While Russia remains the main security provider in CA, China is gradually expanding its role keeping the Russian sensitivities in mind. In 2016, China set up a military base in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakshan region to prevent the infiltration of Uighur activists via the Wakhan corridor. China also established a new regional mechanism, including Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to monitor the security situation in this area.

Since 2002, China has conducted many military exercises with the CA countries, both under the SCO framework and bilaterally. China has emerged as an important exporter of military equipment (mainly air defence systems, drones, armoured carriers and surface missiles) and technologies to the CA countries.

India has historical, cultural and religious links with the Central Asian countries. India’s interaction with these countries has expanded after several high-level visits, including by PM Modi in July 2015, and joining of the SCO. Among the CA countries, Kazakhstan is India’s biggest trade partner. A major constraint for India is lack of connectivity as the trade routes to these countries pass through Pakistan-Afghanistan, Iran and China. The Iran route was severely impacted due to the US sanctions. India and the CA countries are now trying to set up new transportation links using the Chabahar port.

India’s relations with the CA countries have acquired a strategic dimension. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have emerged as important suppliers of uranium to fuel India’s nuclear power plants. Tajikistan provided critical help in the evacuation of Indians from Afghanistan in August-September 2021. Considering that CA is part of India’s extended neighbourhood with its increasing political, economic and strategic significance, it will be in India’s interest to augment its linkages with these countries to reduce their dependence on China.