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Sushma Swaraj at India-Central Asia Dialogue: Strengthening ties with CAR countries will help region, especially Afghanistan

India's external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj emphasized strong India-Central Asia links while participating in the first-ever 'India-Central Asia Dialogue' at Uzbekistan’s Samarkand. Swaraj proposed a dialogue on air corridors with Central Asian countries in an attempt to boost connectivity for enhancing trade and commerce. The dialogue, attended by foreign ministers of India, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, has also backed an inclusive peace process in Afghanistan that is "Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled".

India has invited the Central Asia Republics to participate in the Chabahar Port project that is being jointly implemented by New Delhi and Tehran to move Indian goods to landlocked Afghanistan. All the countries participating in the dialogue are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which has become a wider regional forum for talks on counter-terrorism, investment, energy, transport, energy among others. India is a new entrant in the SCO.

While Central Asian countries are willing to increase export of energy resources, they also face considerable geographical and infrastructural constraints. According to Swaraj, "While geographically, Afghanistan and Central Asia are landlocked, there are several ways in which India, Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries can join hands to work on promoting connectivity in the region so that trade and commerce may flow between us and our people to people exchanges may prosper," further noting that "Chabahar provides a shining example of what strong partnership can achieve to overcome any obstacles."

 Sushma Swaraj at India-Central Asia Dialogue: Strengthening ties with CAR countries will help region, especially Afghanistan

File image of Sushma Swaraj. Reuters

She did not forget to mention that India has been using the Chabahar Port to send "very substantial quantities of wheat to Afghanistan", while also mentioning the opening of local office by an Indian company at the Shaheed Behesti Port at Chabahar. India has also supported multiple regional connectivity initiatives in Central Asia: New Delhi has recently joined the Ashgabat Agreement, which seeks to establish an International Transport and Transit Corridor between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has recently built a rail link between Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. India would like to see this railway link being further extended to Afghanistan's Herat.

India is not opposed to any connectivity projects that pass through non-disputed areas, it was noted. New Delhi's participation in the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) is clearly indicative of this stand. Swaraj has reiterated India's long-held position that "connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency, and equality. They must follow principles of financial responsibility and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity."

These remarks must be viewed against the backdrop of India's strong sovereignty objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a vital component of the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With increasing concerns being raised about BRI projects, India will not want to see hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian countries relying exclusively on China for their exports or falling into the 'debt trap'.

India has shown interest in promoting a "dialogue on air corridors with the participation of civil aviation authorities, air freight and aviation companies of India and Central Asia so that goods, including perishable items, can be transported efficiently and swiftly". India has already been operating air corridors between India and several Afghan cities in order to bypass Pakistan which has consistently denied the transport of Indian goods overland to Afghanistan through its territory.

Most Central Asian countries have constructed a complex network of roads, railways, pipelines from East to West and North to South. India's attempts to deepen ties with Central Asia can be understood from the perspective of securing access to valuable energy resources as well as getting a foothold in an emerging market for export. China has already established strong links with these nations. From China's perspective, security and stability in Central Asia and Afghanistan is integral to its own Xinjiang province, apart from China's overall energy security.

Beijing is already participating in major oil production projects in many Central Asian countries. It has taken a vital stake in financing the construction of oil and gas pipelines connecting Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and China. Most importantly, Russia and China have developed many convergences in Central Asia including a shared interest in keeping the NATO and the US out of the region. Both share misgivings about a hidden American plot of keeping long-term military presence in Afghanistan as a coercive geopolitical tool.

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in India’s bilateral ties with Central Asian countries. For instance, Kazakhstan has a civil nuclear pact with India to provide much-needed uranium. In terms of consuming Indian tea, Kazakhstan is ranked fifth in the world. India has ties with Kyrgyzstan on import of oil and petroleum products. New Delhi assists Kyrgyzstan with human resource development in the IT sector and the visa process for Kyrgyz citizens wishing to travel to India, which has become easier. Uzbekistan imports pharmaceutical products, mechanical equipment, automotive parts, and optical instruments from India.

Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, had visited India in October last year. Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are interested in instituting joint defence production with India. On the sidelines of the SCO Summit in China in mid-2018, Modi met three Central Asian leaders separately.

For many Central Asian countries, India's growing economic power makes it an attractive partner. However, India’s current trade volume with Central Asia is minimal, and cannot be increased without substantially improving transport connectivity. However, the most important dimension of India's diplomatic efforts bringing the Central Asian countries on a single platform is to forge a regional consensus on the resolution of Afghan conflict. India has been trying to fine-tune its diplomatic approach amidst crucial negotiations between America and the Afghan Taliban as well as reports of an imminent US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Trump has unrealistically asked both India and Pakistan to be militarily involved in the fighting in Afghanistan. As Afghanistan's most trusted regional ally, India has a special responsibility to ensure that all Central Asian countries stand together with the Kabul government when it comes to counter-terrorism and regional connectivity.

Trump's strategy to radically change Rawalpindi’s manoeuvrings inside Afghanistan by using diplomatic threats and withholding of military aid to Pakistan has failed to produce the desired outcomes. In fact, the US military involvement in Afghanistan was doomed because Washington always underestimated Rawalpindi’s 'spoiler' behaviour and did not target the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan.

Pakistan's security establishment, which views Islamist extremism as less of a threat than Pashtun nationalism and India's presence in Afghanistan, is increasingly getting ready for a Taliban takeover. Inaction or vacuum carry consequences. The Kabul government cannot avoid diversifying and strengthening its regional relationships, and India would be more than willing to help it achieve this objective.

India's interest in expanding ties with its extended neighbourhood stems from New Delhi's desire to promote security, stability and growth. Therefore, strengthening of relations between India and Central Asia is a win-win proposition as it would benefit all countries involved, including Afghanistan.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 19:05:15 IST

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