Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to host the first India-Central Asia Summit in a virtual format on Thursday. The online event will see the participation of Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) informed that this will be the first engagement of its kind between India and the Central Asian countries at the level of leaders, a move that has not yet been even taken by China or Russia, both of which have close strategic ties with these five countries.
It is to mention that the first-ever summit with Central Asian leaders comes at a time when Chinese influence is growing in the Central Asia countries and their significance has increased with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. In the midst of growing Chinese footprints in these countries in both the defence and economic spheres, India aims to become a leading player in the Central Eurasian landmass. According to the MEA, the upcoming summit is a reflection of India’s growing engagement with the Central Asia countries, which are part of India’s “Extended Neighbourhood”.
The MEA said that during the first India-Central Asia Summit, the leaders are expected to discuss steps to take forward India-Central Asia relations to newer heights. They are also expected to exchange views on regional and international issues of interest, especially the evolving regional security situation. The MEA said that the Summit is symbolic of the importance attached by the leaders of India and the Central Asian countries to a comprehensive and enduring India-Central Asia partnership.
India’s connectivity with Central Asia
At present, India remains a peripheral actor in the affairs of Central Asia. It, however, desires to play a bigger role in the region. In a bid to grow engagement with the Central Asia countries, PM Narendra Modi even paid a historic visit to all Central Asian nations in 2015. Subsequently, since then, there have been exchanges at high levels at bilateral and multilateral forums.
But India still continues to face several constraints in the Central Asian region. Currently, the geopolitical barrier is posed by Pakistan, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) networks of China and security threats from radical forces in the region and in Afghanistan. India also faces connectivity issues with the region as Pakistan territory separates the two regions and Islamabad is unlikely to allow the country to transit goods through its country.
India will have to depend upon the successful completion of the multi-modal International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to enhance connectivity with Eurasia. Moreover, India, Iran and Uzbekistan are discussing ways to trade through the Chabahar port. To improve connectivity with the region, New Delhi also joined the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018, which aims at connecting Central Asia with the Persian Gulf. Now, with the upcoming Summit on Thursday, it is expected that the leaders will find more ways to improve connectivity between the two regions.
Growing China’s presence in Central Asia
As mentioned before, China’s increasing influence in the Central Asia region is worrisome for India. At the moment, New Delhi does not seem to be competing directly with Beijing. However, experts believe that with growing interest in the regional competition between the two countries is inevitable.
Notably, China’s BRI initiative has contributed to the development of infrastructure in the region. It is focusing on transport, electricity and industrial projects. China is the biggest investor in the region as according to China Investment Global Tracker, China’s trade with Central Asian states was estimated to be over 40% billion. India will have to develop a collaborative as well as a competitive strategy with and against China in a bid to play a bigger role in the region.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan back in mid-August has emboldened movements of radical forces such as the Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda in various parts of the region. Previously, New Delhi worked with the US in Afghanistan. However, with the collapse of the US-backed regime in Kabul, India will now have to act in close collaboration with Central Asia states to curb the influence of the radical forces. Experts say that the summit will prove to be a long-term gain for India in the region, and will be closely watched by China as well as Pakistan.