New Delhi: Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has brought back the focus on Central Asia after 30-year-long neglect of this landlocked and resource-rich region that shares cultural and historical links with India, said the former envoy to Kazakhstan, Ashok Sajjanhar.

Speaking with ANI, the former envoy to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, Ashok Sajjanhar pointed out that since their emergence as independent states after the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991, India could have done more in terms of bolstering ties with the Central Asian nations.

"India could have done more in regards to its ties with the Central Asian nations. It goes without saying. From 1995 to 2015 we had only four Prime Minister visits from India. In 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2011," Sajjanhar said over the sporadic attention given to the region from Indian leaders for decades.

However, the diplomat exuded confidence in the current strides India is taking by expanding its strategic depth in Central Asia. "Now we are trying to make up for the lost time through a large number of initiatives such as the India-Central Asia Dialogue which was launched in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2019. We also had the meeting last year of the NSAs of the region and then we had the first India-Central Asia summit. So, we are paying a lot of attention to this region now."

"In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to have visited all five Central Asian states--Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan--during a single trip. We have been making a number of forward movements that have taken place in our relations with Uzbekistan and some of the other countries. Things are moving ahead. We need to maintain the pace and even make it even greater," he added.

He also emphasized that India might not have the same heft as China as far as trade is concerned, however, it has a large number of strengths in terms of historical and civilizational links with these countries.

"India's annual trade with the region is at around USD 2 billion while China's trade with the region stands at more than USD 40 billion. But the reason for that is we do not share the geographical borders. However, we have large number of strengths in terms of our historical and civilizational links with these countries and we really need to exploit them and take advantage of that."

When asked about China's increasing clout in Central Asia, envoy Sajjanhar said, "As India lost interest, China made huge strides across Central Asia. In 2009, Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline was commissioned. It goes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Moreover, all the oil is coming in from Kazakhstan to China. Also, the Belt and Road initiative through Kazakhstan to Europe etc."

However, he said, "China does not share the same strengths as India vis-a-vis Central Asia as there is fear and lack of trust in China, the aspects that cannot be ascribed for India. There is much greater confidence and trust and people-to-people contact between Indians and Central Asian people from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan etc. India has expertise in a large number of areas and we can really use them for mutual benefit as well as our own partnership relationship with these countries."

"As far as connectivity is concerned we have been focusing on Chabahar port and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and we have seen that there has been significant progress on both these fronts over the last few years."

One of the other points the envoy elucidated on is why Chabahar port could not make as much progress. Chabahar port could not make as much progress as it could have because the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal was withdrawn by the United States, he noted.

While speaking on the connectivity issues, the envoy at the same time expressed confidence in the steps taken to boost trade via INSTC and stressed, "I think it has caught up. We have seen the first consignment from Russia through the INSTC coming to India and there have been consignments from Chabahar port to Afghanistan prior to the Taliban's takeover."

Speaking further, he said that it is not only trade and connectivity but also strategic consideration that Uzbekistan and this whole Central Asian region have become very important after the Taliban took over power in Afghanistan last year. The significance of this region has further grown as far as India is considered, he said.

The envoy also elaborated on how the significance and relevance of Central Asia for China have increased very significantly, particularly after the Russia Ukraine conflict.

"Earlier China was sending all its goods, exports to Europe through Russia. However, after Russia being struck down by very stringent sanctions, now it is no longer possible. So the export through Central Asia has increased in past few months."

The other aspect, envoy Sajjanhar said, is the China-Kyrgystan-Uzbekistan Railway line (CKU) which has not been able to take off since its discussion many years ago. Sajjanhar said that Russia has been against the CKU railway line as it knew if the railway line comes into operation it will very adversely impact the exports of goods from China to Europe through Russia.

However, keeping in mind Russia's position amid western sanctions there is an agreement that CKU construction is going to start next year, he added.

Back in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is moving to recreate Russia's influence in a region that Russians called the "near abroad" - the five nations of Central Asia. It may be in Putin's interest to also diminish China's power in the region.

"Central Asian nations say that they will continue to follow their multivector foreign policy and will not recognize the independence of Luhansk peoples Republic or the Donestk People's Republic. They will not stand in the way of western sanctions and will abide by the western sanctions. And we have also seen how these countries have voted in the UNGA on the discussions on the Ukraine conflict."

The envoy stated that due to all these reasons "Russia is very keen that it will not allow these countries to go too far away from it."

On the significance of Pakistan in Central Asia, the envoy said that the country does not really come for much in that region neither in terms of trade nor in terms of defence, military or strategic cooperation.

"Although Pakistan shares a boundary with Tajikistan through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, it is still not been able to leverage that for stronger relations. The only factor on the basis of which it structures its relations with Central Asia is Islam and that does not take it too far."

"All these countries are land-locked but I haven't seen any great desire for any of these countries to use the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through Karachi and send their goods or wares via Pakistan so Pakistan I don't think so is a significant factor as far as Central Asia is concerned."

Central Asian Nations will never say it but they definitely feel that terrorism, drug trafficking etc are aspects that are to be taken into consideration and that is also why Pakistan has not been able to advance its relationship with these countries.

He also talked about how Pakistan's illegal occupation of Kashmir is impacting India's trade with Central Asia. "If Pakistan occupied Kashmir had been with India then we would have had the border with the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan we would have been able to reach Tajikistan and the other countries but unfortunately that is not the case."

Moreover, envoy Sajjanhar noted that the US has always looked at the Central Asian region through the prism of Afghanistan "Now it has moved out of Afghanistan so in that sense the significance, the influence of Central Asia for the US has considerably decreased. US companies have invested but at the strategic and political level US has not really invested much effort or much political capital in taking forward its relations with Central Asia."

"I think right now maybe it is doing a little more. It does not want the region to be totally captured by China and Russia. So it is trying to maintain its presence but I don't think it is at the moment, adequate.. It needs to be much more proactive."