Crossroads Asia

A ‘New Chapter’ for India and Central Asia?

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Crossroads Asia

A ‘New Chapter’ for India and Central Asia?

Leaning on history, India and Central Asia eye further security and economic cooperation.

A ‘New Chapter’ for India and Central Asia?
Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock

In Tashkent Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the relationship between Central Asia and India has “ancient roots” and “now occupies a significant place in India’s future.” In Astana Tuesday, Modi declared his intention to “write a new chapter in an ancient relationship.” Modi’s mission in Central Asia points to significant interests in energy, economics, and counterterrorism. Still, engagement between Central Asia and India leans heavily on history.

The Uzbek government called upon the shared historical figure Babur, a descendant of the Mongals and Timur and the eventual founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur was born in Andijan, ruling over the Fergana (and then losing it and seeking his fortunes elsewhere) long before there was an Uzbekistan:

Much of the history, literature, music, art and architecture of the Uzbek and Indian people, their mutual enrichment is associated with the name of our great ancestor Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur.

In Uzbekistan, Modi met with President Islam Karimov–who has visited India five times since coming into power in 1991–as well as with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has served in that position since 2003. Modi tweeted that his discussions with Karimov were “very productive.”

In a joint press statement, Karimov said India was one of Uzbekistan’s top foreign policy priorities. Modi, for his part, categorized the relationship as a strategic partnership and one of the key pillars in India’s overall engagement with Central Asia. Throughout the various statements, India and Uzbekistan noted global threats and challenges–whether financial instability or extremism. The situation in Afghanistan is of particular concern to both sides. Interestingly, one of the first points in the joint statement was a reaffirmation that their engagement is based on “mutual respect for the developmental model chosen by each country in accordance with its domestic conditions and based on their national interests.”

The two sides signed three agreements which cover cooperation in cultural and tourism sectors, as well as cooperation between foreign ministries. The joint statement goes on to note that despite growth, the economic relationship is not as strong as it could be–commenting that “the current volume of trade did not correspond to the potential and opportunities that exist in both countries.”

According to the Uzbek government, trade turnover between the two amounted to $315.9 million last year. While this pales in comparison to trade between Uzbekistan and Russia or China, India remains an important partner. Statements from both sides mention a range of industries–from education to textiles, from pharmaceuticals to tourism.

Moving onto Kazakhstan, Modi’s focus on economics came into sharper focus. Kazakhstan, as the region’s most economically powerful state, is a critical draw for India. In Astana, Modi inaugurated a supercomputer from India and had plans to “launch the drilling of the first oil well with Indian investments in Kazakhstan.”

Speaking at Nazarbayev University, Modi commented–as he did in Uzbekistan–that trade and engagement is modest between the regions, but has huge potential for growth:

Yet, we will be the first to say that the engagement between India and Central Asia falls short of its promise and potential.

We have a special place in our hearts for each other. But, we have not paid as much attention to each other as we should.

This will change.

While Central Asia does not, geographically, factor into Modi’s famed “Act East” policy it seems he is nonetheless intent on giving the region a little more attention. Without mentioning China’s One Belt, One Road strategy by name, Modi referenced the “surge of interest in reconnecting Asia with itself and beyond” and placed India firmly at the crossroads. He closed his remarks at Nazarbayev university will a few moving lines from from Abduraheim Otkur, a Uighur poet:

Our tracks remain, our dreams remain, everything remains, far away, yet
Even if the wind blows, or the sand shift, they will never be covered, our tracks,
And the caravan will never stop along the way, though our horses are very thin;
One way or another, these tracks will be found someday, by our grandchildren;
Or our great grandchildren.”