Rhea Menon and Sharanya Rajiv
Once the epicentre of global trade, culture, and politics, Central Asia – composed of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – found itself isolated following the dissolution of the ancient Silk Road. However, in recent years, external powers have stepped up efforts to develop overland connectivity – from China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the European Union’s Connecting Europe and Asia Strategy 2018 as well as India’s renewed push for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), in partnership with Russia and Iran.
Realizing India’s Strategic Interests in Central Asia
Rhea Menon and Sharanya Rajiv
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.
Overcoming Barriers to Regional Integration
The level of cooperation currently witnessed in Central Asia had last been seen in the early 2000s. The worldwide trend in the post-Cold War period has been the expansion and institutionalization of various forms of regional cooperation. As cooperation among Central Asian countries is in ascendance following the change of administration in Uzbekistan in 2016, the question arises as to whether the Central Asian countries will join the worldwide trend of regionalization and unite under a single political body. So far, none of the Central Asian countries have expressed a desire for a supranational institution and prefer to cooperate at the bilateral level to avoid the need for a regional organization. Therefore, it turns out that the major impediment to integration is not the persistence of disputes over borders and shared resources in the region, but a lack of desire to work under a supranational body. This does not entirely preclude all forms of regional integration; economic integration is in fact a reality.
Central Asia as a Transport Hub for Eurasia
At present, in the context of globalization, Central Asia faces an imperative to open up to the world community. While there are a growing number of actors in the region, the main catalyst to Central Asia’s reintegration process has been the resurgence of the ‘Great Silk Road’. The process of opening up the region was significantly intensified in 2013, after Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the Silk Road Economic Belt1 that forms part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This massive investment programme will help countries that participate in it to receive investments for the development of their infrastructure, particularly in the transport sector. Today, almost six years since the initial declaration, the question of transforming Central Asia into a transport hub still remains open.
A Deepening Engagement
Ashok Sajjanhar in conversation with Rhea Menon and Sharanya Rajiv
Historically, India and Central Asia were well connected through flows of goods, people, ideas, religions, and empires. In the modern era, this continued during the Soviet period when sister-state relations were established between some of these Soviet Republics and the Indian states and India’s defence imports from the USSR also passed through this region. However, the big caveat is that all engagement between India and Central Asia, during this period, was indirect, through Moscow. Following the break-up of the USSR, Former Prime Minister (PM) Narasimha Rao realized the strategic importance of the region and was the first Indian head of state to travel to the independent republics – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1993, and Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in 1995. Although India faced some domestic turmoil during this period, which could have constrained its international action, PM Rao’s visit to the region was an important gesture and highlighted the crucial role he believed this region played in India’s strategic landscape.
Unlocking Economic Potential
The gravity model of international trade, in its simplest form, predicts that trade between two countries/regions is a function of the distance between these two regions. By this metric, there should be substantial trade flows between India and Central Asia because even though India does not share a border with any Central Asian country, it remains extremely close to the region. Most Central Asian capitals are closer to New Delhi in radial distance than a few Indian cities in the South and the North East. So, do existing trade flows and economic engagement between India and Central Asia fall in line with the prediction of the gravity model?
Central Asia in Russia’s Greater Eurasia
The term ‘Greater Eurasia’ entered Russia’s official discourse with President Putin’s address at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2016. However, not only has the creation of a Greater Eurasia been debated in Russian academic literature since 2013, but also the ideas of what it means to be ‘Eurasian’ or the concept of ‘Eurasianism’ has been at the centre of Russian geopolitical debates for a while. Typically, ‘Eurasian’ refers to the forces in Russian society that oppose its westernization and propose a relatively ‘independent’ path for Russia. The concept of Greater Eurasia builds on this. Broadly, it proposes a vision for the continent that does not borrow from western thinking in the hope that Russia, along with its neighbours, can play a leading role.
China’s Silk Road Through Central Asia
Central Asia has been an increasing priority for China’s foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the focus of Beijing’s engagement with the region was to settle the Soviet legacy of disputed territories. However, in the three decades since, engagement has been driven by a desire to stabilize and integrate China’s poor western regions into global markets via Central Asia. Since 2013, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) has emerged as an umbrella project for all Chinese engagement with the region, including ones that predate the initiative.
A New EU Strategy on Central Asia
It has been twelve years since the first European Union (EU) strategy for Central Asia (CA) was adopted in 2007. Since then it has been reviewed and amended four times, most recently in June 2015, to incorporate the changing geopolitical landscape in the region. During this time, the EU has been successful in increasing its presence in the region. It has created several platforms and mechanisms for working and improving ties with Central Asian authorities, and by the end of 2019 the EU is expected to open a new delegation in Turkmenistan. Human rights, security, stability, rule of law and the EU’s model of governance are among the priorities of the first ambitious strategy. These conditionalities, however, did not win the hearts and minds of the Central Asians, who had been keen on increasing trade with the EU, attracting foreign direct investments (FDI) for big infrastructure projects and obtaining ‘fancy’ border management equipment.
Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order by Bruno Maçães
The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century by Robert D. Kaplan
Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw
Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan by Joanna Lillis