India’s political, cultural, and historical ties to Central Asia date back to antiquity. But contemporary circumstances, namely the quest for energy and the threat of terrorism, have imparted a new urgency, adding strategic realities to historical tradition. Indeed, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has said that India’s energy requirements are growing at a “terrifying pace.” Consequently, India’s government recently announced that it refuses to lay down a quota for importing oil (and presumably gas) from any country, including Iran. Instead, India will buy oil (and, again, presumably gas if not other energy sources) from wherever “it gets the best deal.” In this context it is even looking at the Arctic for energy sources. Not surprisingly in this context the Caspian basin is seen as an “important source” of hydrocarbons and ONGC is buying an 8.42% share of Conoco Phillips’ holidngs in Kazakhstan. It also is buying equity (albeit modest) in Azeri fields around the Caspian.
Yet despite the urgency for India, if not Central Asia, of strengthening those ties, India is failing to keep pace with its rivals, particularly China. New Delhi knows this to be true as does every analyst who observes its efforts in Central Asia. For example, despite the importance of the so-called TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, no international firm is ready to finance the project. This failure occurs even though the U.S. supports an expanded Indian role in Central Asia, and the American presence vastly enlarges the political, economic and military space available to India. Indeed, Washington’s presence allows India to play, or at least aspire to, a greater Central Asian role than it could achieve on its own. Washington also counts on New Delhi playing an expanded role in Afghanistan and Central Asia as its troops depart Afghanistan.
While India plays a large role in Afghanistan, focused principally on building human capital and physical infrastructure, improving security, and helping the agricultural and other important sectors of the country’s economy, it nevertheless continues to lag China and Russia. India’s difficulties in Central Asia also confirm that, unlike Russia, China sees India as not just an obstacle in its own right, but as a U.S. stalking horse and continues to obstruct Indian efforts to enhance its presence in Central Asia. As we approach 2014 it seems clear that absent that U.S. role (and despite Russian support), China and Pakistan will probably succeed in checking India’s ability to project meaningful economic or military power into the region, including its ability to negotiate contracts for energy supplies.
Yet India certainly cannot depend on Russia to advance its Central Asian interests. Indeed, according to U.S. experts, India’s effort to refurbish and maintain an air base at Ayni in Tajikistan was quashed when the Tajik government told India that Moscow opposed any foreign bases there regardless of whom they belonged to.
India clearly needs a partner to be effective in Central Asia, while China does not, and China intends to exploit that advantage for as long as possible. Certainly China has far outpaced India to date throughout the region, regarding both energy acquisitions and the building of a long-distance transportation, trade and infrastructure network despite India’s rising wealth and power. China’s ability to compete successfully against India is visible in its accelerating consolidation of its own version of the Silk Road. Neither is this rivalry occurring only in Central Asia. The same process took place in the Sino-Indian competition that China won for a gas pipeline from Bangladesh and Myanmar to China rather than India. And Indian analysts worry with good reason about China’s increasing presence in the smaller countries of South Asia.