INDIA’S ties with Central Asia can be traced back to the ancient Silk Road, along which goods, people, and ideas flowed. While the dissolution of the Silk Road limited exchanges between the two, there is a renewed effort to reconnect New Delhi with the region. In the last decade, Central Asian nations have also been looking for viable partners particularly in economic and security sectors. Both sides share interests in tackling radicalization and terrorism, curbing illicit trade, and exploring opportunities for economic cooperation. India’s deep-rooted bonds with the region provide the perfect opportunity for both sides to capitalize on the existing relationship and find new and innovative ways to enhance the current partnership.
India and Central Asia share a long history of engagement. Politically, this ranges from the Kushan Empire, which spanned across the territories of modern Central Asia and India to the Mughal conquest of India during the early 16th century. Economically, not only did Central Asian cities – such as Ferghana, Samarkand, and Bukhara – play an important role in the Silk Road connecting India with China and Europe, but also Indian merchants based in the region formed an integral part of the local economies.1 Apart from strong economic bonds, cultural exchanges between the two regions also flourished. This included the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and beyond, and Sufism from Central Asia to India.2
With the decline of the Silk Road, the dawn of the European ‘age of discovery’ as well as the expansion of the Russian and Chinese empires into Central Asia, the region faded from India’s strategic imagination. Though Imperial Russia and British India jostled for influence during the ‘Great Game’ in the nineteenth century, British Indian influence was largely restricted to the territories bordering modern Central Asia. This was primarily aimed at securing British India from the Russian threat, and not an interest in Central Asia, per say.3
Following India’s independence, the country’s foreign policy largely focused on its immediate neighbourhood, the major powers in the international system and solidarity with other Afro-Asian colonies. The latter, however, did not extend to Soviet Central Asia, perhaps due to India’s robust diplomatic, defence and economic partnership with the Soviet Union, which was routed via Moscow. Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India established its only Central Asian consulate in Tashkent in 1987.4 Further, cooperation between India and ‘Central Asia’ was also limited due to the lack of a shared border and infrastructure connectivity after the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent. This continues to pose a challenge to cooperation, particularly given India’s renewed interest in the region.
In the 1990s, when the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – gained independence, India faced the twin challenges of adjusting to the emerging post-Cold War international order and domestic economic reform. In the decades since, India’s ties with the region have developed slowly despite enjoying several advantages. These include being the only non-communist country with a diplomatic presence in the region and being among the first to accord diplomatic recognition to the newly independent countries. In addition to this, as India adjusted to the post-Cold War order, its foreign policy evolved to include a greater emphasis on engagement with India’s extended neighbourhood, which included Central Asia.
Soon after the formation of the Central Asia states, former Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited four out of the five republics – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1993, followed by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1995.5 In addition to agreements signed focusing on expanding Indian trade, investments and development assistance to the region, this visit also emphasized the shared secular values and drew attention to common threats – religious fundamentalism, ethnic chauvinism, terrorism, narcotics-funded violence and crime. These shared security interests were a driving force behind India’s engagement with the region. Some commentators suggest that this was articulated through a ‘Look North Policy’ that emphasized shared concerns along with a desire to ‘promote stability and cooperation without causing harm to any third country.’6
For India, these threats were embodied in the civil war in Tajikistan between 1992 and 1997. Indian commentators attributed the Tajik civil war to external Islamist forces, supported by the Pakistan-backed Afghan Mujahideen, exploiting inter-regional and inter-clan rivalries in Tajikistan. India’s outreach to Central Asia during this period was, therefore, driven by fears that Pakistan may seek to gain strategic depth in the region.7 In the latter half of the 1990s, these fears sharpened as the Taliban gained control over Afghanistan in 1996, India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold in 1998, and American and Chinese influence grew in Central Asia.8
In practice, Tajikistan functioned as India’s bridgehead in the region during this period. India provided material and logistics assistance to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, routed through Tajikistan. Subsequently, Tajikistan also became the recipient of long-term Indian military training as well as the location of what could have been India’s first overseas military base.9 In 2002, India and Tajikistan signed a bilateral defence agreement, as part of which India refurbished Ayni, a disused Soviet airbase.10 Widely considered to have been motivated by an Indian desire for access to the airfield, this did not come to pass. India’s military cooperation with other nations in the region has been significant, but far more limited. Tashkent has been an arms supplier, with India acquiring six Ilyushin-78 in-flight refuelling aircraft from Uzbekistan.11
In all, India’s military cooperation with the region has been mostly limited to military education and training, with officers from the region having attended courses at India’s military institutions, infrastructure assistance to military training institutions in the region, as well as the establishment of field hospitals. Notably, India conducted its first ever joint military exercise with Kyrgyzstan, Khanjar, in 2011.12
Over the next decade, as India’s economy grew, so did its demand for energy and the need to diversify sources beyond the Gulf. During this period, Central Asia also looked toward supplying energy to fast-growing countries in Asia, such as India and China, to overcome its reliance on pipeline routes through Russia. However, the lack of connectivity – with any planned routes facing serious financial, political, and security constraints – between India and the region has frustrated oil and gas diplomacy. For instance, the long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was first proposed in the mid-1990s and all four actors officially signed an intergovernmental agreement in 2010.13 Since then, progress has been stalled due to the instability in Afghanistan and the lack of trust between India and Pakistan.
The only significant achievement in the energy sector has been civil nuclear cooperation. In 2008, Kazakhstan supported India in obtaining India-specific exemption to allow civil nuclear cooperation with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) countries. The following year, India and Kazakhstan signed an agreement for the supply of 2,100 tonnes of uranium to India until 2014. Two years later, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhstan, they signed an agreement for ‘Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.’14
The adverse geographic terrain and the thorny India-Pakistan border dynamic, greatly impedes connectivity, thereby curbing greater economic cooperation between India and the region. In contrast, external powers such as Russia and China, have benefitted from close cooperation and influence, courtesy of their porous borders with the region. Thus, apart from pipeline routes through the region, India has also been looking towards Iran for connectivity with Central Asia. As far back as in April 1995, India, Iran and Turkmenistan signed an MOU to create transit corridors through the latter two states to facilitate trade among each other, and transit through territories crossing the latter two states.15 Nonetheless, the full potential of this route is yet to be realized.
Most significantly, India, Iran and Russia signed the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) agreement in 2000, which was then ratified and came into effect in 2002.16 Aimed at the transit of goods through Iran and the Caspian Sea to Russia and Northern Europe, it also offers connectivity between India and Central Asia through Iran. Reflecting this opportunity, over the years, the INSTC’s membership has expanded to include the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Further, in 2012, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan agreed to extend support to member countries to complete the missing links along the corridor. While the INSTC is routed via Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, India has also explored the possibility of connecting with Central Asia via Iran’s Chabahar port and thereafter overland corridors passing through Afghanistan.
However, progress has been slow. In addition to the usual problems associated with security and capacity constraints, the security situation in Afghanistan and political differences within Central Asia, coupled with the confrontation between Iran and the United States have also posed hurdles.
Despite limited progress, India’s growing interest in the region crystallized in the form of its ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’. Unveiling this policy during an address in Bishkek in 2012, then Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed drew attention to Central Asia’s ongoing political and economic integration with the world and highlighted the region’s place in India’s extended neighbourhood. Seeking to ameliorate the dismal state of economic cooperation with the region, the policy included a focus on strategic and security cooperation, including close consultations on Afghanistan, energy and other natural resources, as well as connectivity.17 For the next three years, there was limited progress.
India’s ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ was reinforced in 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian head of state to visit all five nations between July 6 and 13. Since then there has been significant progress in cooperation, particularly in the fields of defence, energy and connectivity. This renewed focus on the region can be attributed to the changing geopolitics of the region, particularly the formation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the external security threats to the region. The convergence of China’s BRI projects in the region with India’s unrealized economic interests there has prompted the latter to adopt a more proactive approach and look at new avenues for economic cooperation. Since China has been able to leverage its geography, finances and population to ensure that its projects can contribute toward making its dream of a new and improved Silk Road a reality, India is also committed to expanding the scope of its economic relations with the region.
Beyond economics, the regional security challenges in Central Asia also have the potential of spilling over into India. The increasing Islamic radicalization has become a major security concern for the governments of the region. Following the start of Syria’s civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (IS), estimates suggest that several thousands of Central Asians, ranging from 2000 to upwards of 4000, migrated to join the terrorist group. Apart from men from the region, who account for 5-10 per cent of the foreign fighters, these migrants also include families, particularly women and children.18 As the IS began losing their territories in the Middle East, concerns emerged about the return of foreign fighters to their home states as well as the responsibilities of those home states toward them and their families. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan conducted an operation to evacuate 231 citizens from the Syrian conflict zones and Uzbekistan repatriated 156 citizens.19 Given its experience in successfully tracking down and limiting the influence of the IS domestically, India’s agenda in Central Asia includes cooperation to tackle terrorism and radicalization.
At the bilateral level, India has enhanced the institutional basis for its defence cooperation with the region. Notably, during Prime Minister Modi’s visits in 2015, India signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and agreements related to defence and military technical cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.20 Reflecting the growing engagement, India and Kyrgyzstan agreed to hold their bilateral military exercise, Khanjar, annually. The following year, they agreed to construct a Mountain Training Centre to provide instruction, train personnel of the Kyrgyz Armed Forces and to host joint mountain training exercises.21
India also held its first joint army exercise with Kazakhstan, Prabal Dostyk, in 2016.22 Held annually thereafter, this was renamed as the KAZIND in 2018. This exercise focuses on joint counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations in urban and rural environments, mountainous terrains, and those conducted under the mandate of the United Nations. In addition, the Kazakh Armed Forces Unit also underwent training on peacekeeping operations in India in April-May 2018 and was then deployed under the command of an Indian Battalion at UNIFIL Lebanon.23 Most recently, during Uzbek President Mirziyoyev’s visit to India last year, both sides agreed to expand cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism, with joint military training exercises, military education and military medicine. They also agreed to institutionalize this cooperation by setting up a Joint Working Group on defence related activities.24
Further, to secure its energy interests, India has also expanded civil nuclear cooperation with the region. In 2015, with their earlier deal having expired, India and Kazakhstan signed a new agreement for the purchase of 5000 tonnes of Kazakh Uranium until the end of 2019.25 Currently, both sides are negotiating a third agreement, as part of which Kazakhstan is planning to increase its supplies to India to 7500-10000 tonnes.26 Earlier this year, India also signed a uranium supply agreement with Uzbekistan.27
Apart from the bilateral cooperation, India has also focused on multilateral engagement with the region at two levels. The first is through regional connectivity, with a renewed push for long delayed projects starting with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Iran, India’s gateway to Central Asia, in 2016. During this visit, both sides signed an agreement to develop Chabahar Port, which has now become commercially operational.28 To facilitate transport of goods between India and Central Asia via Iran, India acceded to the Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods under cover of TIR Carnets in 2017 and joined the Ashgabat Agreement – which includes Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – in 2018.29 While these steps have given a new lease of life to India’s vision for Eurasian connectivity, New Delhi must combine skillful diplomacy with action on the ground to ensure the continued viability of these projects in the face of US-Iran tensions.
The second is through platforms for multilateral cooperation with both the Central Asian states and other external powers. On the economic front, India and the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, set up a Joint Study Group to explore the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement in 2015.30 While the group submitted its feasibility report in 2017, formal negotiations have not yet begun.31 More importantly, twelve years after it became an observer, India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member in 2017. The change of status from observer to a full member marks an important shift in India’s approach to the region as a whole.
Previously, the agenda set by the SCO was greatly influenced by the two looming powers – China and Russia. But, with the induction of India and Pakistan, the SCO nations now represent almost half of the world’s population. This platform is not only beneficial for India to remain connected with Central Asia, but also has the potential for India to work collectively with other leading powers in the region to address economic and security issues that have potentially detrimental consequences for the world.
Within the region, India has observed the strengthening of mutual understanding, dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian states. Recognizing this as a positive step, India has explored opportunities to engage with the region as a whole rather than bilaterally or as part of mechanisms that include other external powers. The first ever India-Central Asia Dialogue, at the Foreign Ministers’ level, was held in Samarkand on 13 January 2019.32 The second iteration of the dialogue is expected to be held in New Delhi in 2020. Through regular institutional dialogue and exchanges, this platform can help bring India and the region closer together.
Geography has placed Central Asia at the nexus of crucial political and economic transformations for centuries. With the actualization of the BRI, India’s Connect Central Asia policy, and the EU’s new Central Asia strategy, the 21st century could possibly be the most decisive period for the region. Stemming from its historic cultural and economic bonds, India is now well placed to take a more active role in the development of the region. India’s growing global visibility and key contributions to multilateral forums – like the SCO – have catapulted India from an observer into a critical stakeholder in the region. As India looks beyond its borders, Central Asia provides India with the right platform to leverage its political, economic and cultural connections to play a leading role in Eurasia.
1. ‘India-Uzbekistan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, January 2017, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Uzbekistan_Jan_2017.pdf
2. ‘India-Kazakhstan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, December 2018, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/december_2018.pdf
3. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. John Murray, London, 2006.
4. ‘India-Uzbekistan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, January 2017, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Uzbekistan_Jan_2017.pdf
5. Bhavna Dave, ‘Resetting India’s Engagement in Central Asia: From Symbols to Substance’, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, January 2016, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/PR160202_Resetting-Indias-Engagment.pdf
6. Emilian Kavalski, ‘India’s Bifurcated Look to “Central Eurasia”: The Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan’, in David Malone, C. Raja Mohan and Srinath Raghavan (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 424-437.
8. Sebastien Peyrouse, ‘Domestic and International Articulations of the Indian Involvement in Central Asia’, in Marlene Laurelle and Sebastien Peyrouse (eds), Mapping Central Asia: Indian Perceptions and Strategies. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, 2011, pp. 75-90.
9. Emilian Kavalski, ‘India’s Bifurcated Look to “Central Eurasia”: The Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan’, in David Malone, C. Raja Mohan and Srinath Raghavan (eds), op. cit., pp. 424-437.
10. Sandeep Unnithan, ‘PM Modi to ask Tajikistan for lease of Soviet Airbase’, India Today, 12 July 2015, https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/pm-narendra-modi-tajikistan-indian-air-force-ayni-airbase-sushma-swaraj-pakistan-china-281955-2015-07-12
11. Amit Mukherjee, ‘IAF To Get 5th IL-78 Refueller Soon’, The Times of India, 29 September 2004, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/IAF-to-get-5th-IL-78-refuellersoon/articleshow/867031.cms
12. John C.K. Daly, ‘India and Kyrgyzstan Deepen Their Military Cooperation’, Eurasia Daily Monitor 15(83), 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/india-and-kyrgyzstan-deepen-their-military-cooperation/
13. Angira Sen Sharma, ‘Uncertainty Still Looms Large Over TAPI’, Indian Council of World Affairs, September 28, 2012, https://icwa.in/pdfs/IBunsertanitystill.pdf
14. ‘India-Kazakhstan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, December 2018, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/december_2018.pdf
15. ‘Memorandum of Understanding on International Road and Rail Transport and Transit between the government of India, Iran and Turkmenistan’ (1995), Foreign Affairs Record 1995, Ministry of External Affairs, 1995, https://mealib.nic.in/?pdf2583?000
16. ‘Intergovernment Agreement on International ‘North-South” Transport Corridor’, https://instc.org/Include/ReadFile.asp?qsFileName=Agreement.pdf&qsFilePath=EArchiverad742BC.pdf
17. E. Ahamed, ‘Keynote Address by MOS Shri E. Ahamed at First India-Central Asia Dialogue’, 12 June 2012, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/19791/
18. Edward Lemon, Vera Mironova, and William Tobey, ‘Jihadists from Ex-Soviet Central Asia: Where are They? Why Did They Radicalize? What Next?’, Russia Matters, 7 December 2018, https://www.russiamatters.org/analysis/jihadists-ex-soviet-central-asia-where-are-they-why-did-they-radicalize-what-next
19. Rikar Hussein and Asim Kashgarian, ‘Analysts: Central Asin States Must Learn From IS-Linked Citizens’, Voice of America, 17 June 2019, https://www.voanews.com/extremismwatch/analysts-central-asian-states-mustlearn-linked-citizens
20. ‘Military Ties With Foreign Countries’, Press Information Bureau, 8 August 2017, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=169712
21. John C.K. Daly, ‘India and Kyrgyzstan Deepen Their Military Cooperation’, Eurasia Daily Monitor 15(83) 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/india-and-kyrgyzstan-deepen-their-military-cooperation/
22. ‘Indo-Kazakhstan Joint Exercise ‘Prabal Dostyk 2017’, Sainik Samachar, http://www.sainiksamachar.nic.in/englisharchives/2017/dec01-17/h12.htm
23. ‘India-Kazakhstan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, December 2018, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/december_2018.pdf
24. ‘India-Uzbek Joint Statement During State Visit of President of Uzbekistan to India (30 September-01 October 2018),’ Ministry of External Affairs, 1 October 2018, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/30454/IndiaUzbekistan+Joint+Statement+during+State+Visit+of+President+of+Uzbekistan+to+India+September+30++October+01+2018
25. ‘India-Kazakhstan Relation’, Ministry of External Affairs, December 2018, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/december_2018.pdf
26. Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, ‘India, Kazakhstan in Talks to Renew Deal With Higher Uranium Imports’, Economic Times, 16 April 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-kazakhstan-in-talks-to-renew-dealwith-higher-uranium-imports/articleshow/68898103.cms?from=mdr
27. ‘Prime Minister meets President of Uzbekistan on Sidelines of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit - 2019 in Ahmedabad’, Ministry of External Affairs, 18 January 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/30917Prime_Minister_meets_President_of_Uzbekistan_on_sidelines_of_the_Vibrant_Gujarat_Global_Summit2019_in_Ahmedabad
28. ‘India Takes Over Operations of Part of Chabahar Port in Iran’, Economic Times, 7 January 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-takes-over-operations-of-part-ofchabahar-port-in-iran/articleshow/67424219.cms?from=mdr
29. ‘Statement by External Affairs Minister at the Second Session of the India-Central Asia Dialogue’, Ministry of External Affairs, 13 January 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/30906/Statement_by_External_Affairs_Minister_at_the_Second_Session_of_the_IndiaCentral_Asia_Dialogue
30. ‘Joint Statement Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of India: Shared Trust, New Horizons, 24 December 2015’, Ministry of External Affairs, 24 December 2015, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/26243/Joint_Statement
31. ‘Russia Hopes to Expand Military Cooperation With India After Eastern Economic Forum’, TASS, 28 August 2019, https://tass.com/politics/1075354
32. ‘Press Statement by EAM After First India-Central Asia Dialogue’, Ministry of External Affairs, 13 January 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/30907/Press_Statement_by_EAM_After_1st_IndiaCentral_Asia_Dialogue