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Central Asia does not feature in the news much, and indeed, why would it when surrounded by far more happening regions? To its south lies the war in Afghanistan, the flames of Islamism in Pakistan, and a nuclear hot zone; a little to the west is Iran and its nuclear programme; of late, even the Caucasus has been in the limelight, torn as it is between Russia and the European Union; to the north is Russia, still attempting to stem the bleed-out of its power from its days as the Soviet Union; and to its east is China, flexing its military muscle everywhere from the East China Sea to Aksai Chin.

Central Asia and the CaucasusCentral Asia, once called the Eurasian Balkans by Zbigniew Brzezinski, is at once unstable, corrupt, dangerous, unfathomably rich in mineral wealth, strategically located, a grand prize in the new Great Game, and most importantly for Delhi, in its near abroad and slipping away. Like many others, India has enjoyed free-riding on a global security commons founded initially upon the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States and later, as the Cold War ended, upon a US strength of arms. However, that strength was hardly felt in Central Asia and whatever little of it existed is on its way out by the middle of next year.

As the United States prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, Tajikistan is worried about the potential overflow of terrorism from across its southern border. Due to ethnic kinship and the highly profitable narcotics trade, Afghanistan’s problems have always drawn in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan’s northern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, has already been through two revolutions in 2005 and 2010, and is worried of jihadists freed from fighting in Afghanistan or returning from Syria to foment trouble at home. Terrorists from groups such as the Hizb-ul-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have been arrested on several occasions in the past few years and are known to have received special training from secret al-Qa’ida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the fractious nature of inter-clan relations, any Central Asian republic is vulnerable to instability and sudden waves of domestic terrorism as Kazakhstan experienced in 2011.

Poor relations between the five countries makes matters worse; Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan vie with each other to be primus inter pares in Central Asia, all the while forgetting the Russian bear; Uzbekistan also contests territory with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Fergana Valley, and while the latter upper riparian states are considering hydroelectric power projects (Kambarata and Rogun) which would starve the former of water, Uzbekistan has a habit of switching off gas supplies and closing borders with its eastern neighbours.

Russia’s influence over Central Asia is undeniable, not just historically but also economically. Some 29% of Kyrgyz and 47% of Tajik gross domestic product comes from remittances of their migrant labourers from Russia, and an easy way for Moscow to cajole Bishkek or Dushanbe to seeing its point of view is to float the idea of requiring visas for Central Asians. In fact, Russia has even persuaded Kyrgyzstan to join a customs union which carries little benefits for the Central Asian country given that China accounts for about 50% of its trade and Russia only 17%.

In addition, Moscow’s military aid and training to the region persuades the Central Asian capitals to stay away from entanglements with foreign powers. Not only has the US lease of Manas not been renewed, it was asked to leave Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan after it criticised a massacre of civilians in Andijan in 2005. In the meantime, Moscow has signed a treaty with Dushanbe that will see Russian troops on Tajik soil until 2042.

Until recently, China was content with taking a back seat in the Central Asian Great Game. However, China’s insatiable hunger for energy and resources has made it take note of its western neighbours. Furthermore, unrest in its own Xinjiang province necessitates Beijing’s interest in maintaining a calm Central Asia. The major difference between China and the other powers, however, is that Chinese entry is backed by billions of dollars in aid. Hillary Clinton voiced the idea of a New Silk Road in a speech in Madras in 2011, an “international web and network of economic and transit connections” that would link South and Central Asia to the West via Afghanistan, but little has come of it. China, on the other hand, has invested tens of billions of dollars in road, rail, and pipeline projects, all linking Central Asia to China. Given the economic crunch, stingy Russian aid, and Central Asia slipping down the United States’ priority list, Beijing’s no-strings-attached cash transfusion is very welcome.

In 2000, China launched the Great Western Development Plan in 2000, which has made Xinjiang a vital trade and energy corridor along the New Silk Road. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as bilateral agreements, China has already invested over $30 billion in Kazakhstan, including its Kashagan oil field, the world’s largest discovery of oil in the last 30 years, and the purchase of MangistauMunaiGas. Beijing has also signed a $15 billion deal with Uzbekistan for oil, gas, and uranium, and it has started production at Galkynysh in Turkmenistan, the world’s second-largest gasfield. Beijing has also lent Ashgabat $4 billion to develop the gasfield at South Yolotan and extended $10 billion to the whole region during the international economic recession through the SCO. In 2012, China’s annual trade with Central Asia stood at $46 billion.

China’s growing clout in Central Asia comes at Russia’s expense, but Moscow and Beijing need each other too – the Kremlin wishes to entice some of China’s wealth into the Russian economy while Beijing realises Russia’s value on the international stage. After all, a reverse Russo-American rapprochement 40 years after Richard Nixon came to China would not do. Beijing views Central Asia as very much within its sphere of influence, its zhoubian, though it allows the perception of Russian control. China and Russia also have common problems – their wariness of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, and Islamic extremism in the region. China is particularly worried of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang and their  over half a million ethnic brethren across the border. For these reasons, the two giants have managed to tango together well in Central Asia.

Interestingly, despite the enormous flow of investments from Beijing, there is very little trust of its motives among the Central Asian republics. The Chinese practice of using its own labour force, for example, has not eased tensions with local communities who have family working in Russia. In addition, many think it is only a matter of time before Chinese immigrant workers settle in the Central Asian republics and take away more jobs. China’s brutal repression of the Uighur in Xinjiang has not gone unnoticed, nor has its behaviour along its borders with other states; it is unlikely that Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, or Kyrgyzstan will soon forget that they ceded land to China to maintain the peace, particularly when the ensuing protests removed the Kyrgyz president from office. Last year, Kanat Ibragimov, a Kazakh performance artist, symbolically decapitated a toy panda to protest against Chinese expansionism into his country. Despite Russia’s militarily dominant position via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, fears of Chinese expansionism pervade the region.

In this climate, India’s entry into Central Asia appears almost welcome. Not only is the economic and strategic significance of Central Asia to India difficult to overestimate, the region is Delhi’s near abroad too – a flight from India to the farthest point in Central Asia takes no more than three hours. Yet the South Asian country has barely made a mark, its annual trade of $700 million with the five republics vastly overshadowed by its northeastern rival. In the last couple of years alone, Russia has blocked India from obtaining a military base in Kyrgyzstan and renewing the lease on Ayni in Tajikistan, while China has pipped India in the competition for the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan and the Dauletabad gasfield in Turkmenistan.

Like Clinton’s speech, Delhi has been tall on words but short on action. South Block’s Connect Central Asia initiative envisions engagement across a wide spectrum, from education, medicine, tourism, energy, and agriculture, to archaeology, security, transportation, construction, and e-networks. Yet there has been little focus on short-term projects that would start yielding results immediately. India had hoped to establish an International North-South Trade Corridor connecting South Asia to Europe by road, ship, rail, and pipeline via Central Asia and the Caucasus, but nothing has materialised yet. In fact, it looks like China has supplanted India yet again, its New Silk Road already connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.

The perception in Central Asia is that not only are Indian investments paltry compared to Chinese projects, but India is extremely slow in its delivery mechanism. India’s political dillydallying and sluggish bureaucracy has put in doubt the country’s seriousness and ability to be a reliable partner in Asia and elsewhere. However, one reason India has not been able to engage fully with Central Asia is lack of access; China shares a border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, but India is separated by difficult terrain through Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, Several Indian companies have refrained from doing business with Central Asia only due to the high cost of logistics.

India’s entire Central Asian strategy hinges on Chabahar, a port in Iran that Delhi was supposed to develop but has been dragging its feet on in fear of US and European sanctions. The connection of Bombay to Chabahar via ship and road, rail, and pipeline from Chabahar to Bamiyan in Afghanistan by way of Zaranj and Delaram, and to Bandar-e Anzali on the Caspian Sea will drastically cut the time and cost of transporting goods from Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to India. The project has support from several countries, not the least of which are Iran, Russia, Armenia, Afghanistan, the five Central Asian states, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Belarus, and Syria. Beyond transportation, countries along the route must come up with mechanisms to decide pricing, legal issues, banking and procedure before the INSTC can come to fruition.

India’s greatest advantage in Central Asia is that the same logistical difficulties that prevent it from a fuller engagement with the region also make it a safer and more trustworthy partner. India’s goals in Afghanistan and its own concern regarding Chinese expansionism makes India a welcome partner in Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Tashkent. Washington is also likely to smile upon increased trade between Central Asia and India and Europe as it would balance Russia and China in the region and avoid a Chinese monopoly over Central Asian resources.

It is unclear why Delhi does not pursue its plans in Central Asia more forcefully. It has refused to equip the Afghan army, put the development of Chabahar in cold storage, and slunk away after it was bettered by Russia and China in Central Asia. If India continues at this pace, it will find itself hemmed in on all sides and fighting for scraps even in its own backyard.

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on December 13, 2013.