As China’s One Belt, One Road policy unfolds in Central Asia, strategic alliances within the region are becoming increasingly complex. While existing partnerships are deepening, new opportunities are emerging for key South Asian players. India, a long-standing absentee in the region, may very well hold the key to the balance of power in Central Asia as a potential ally of Russia.
India began to develop a presence in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2002, Russia and India signed an agreement to launch the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). In 2012, New Delhi devised its official Central Asian policy, a 12-point list aiming at increasing connectivity among the five Central Asian stans, taking advantage at the energy potential of the region and developing its banking sector. Opening roads to Central Asia, China’s prime objective in the region, has also been India’s priority for a decade. Ensuring that these roads aren’t carrying only Chinese goods, however, will remain a key priority for India as it does for Russia. This is one of the reasons why the two countries may both stand to gain significantly from active collaboration in the region.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Narendra Modi has been more proactive than his predecessors on Central Asia policy. The Indian prime minister toured the five Central Asian countries in July 2015. Among the multiple deals signed with Central Asian leaders, Modi secured an agreement with Kazakhstan to supply 5000 tons of uranium to Delhi for the next four years. The belated Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline was discussed with Turkmenistan, poised to take the lead on the project. Although a recent boom in construction, IT and pharmaceuticals has stirred the Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbekistan economies, poor infrastructure and geographic distance has severely limited trade between India and the region.
Conversely, India figures relatively high in Central Asia. New Delhi enjoys a reputation as a neutral country. A former leader of the non-aligned world during the Cold War, its presence in Central Asia threatens neither China and Russia. India’s clearly stated willingness to engage in the multinational bodies associated with the region is a relief in the context of fears over Chinese and Russian dominance.
An Indo-Russian channel
In Great Game, Local Rules (2012), Professor Alexander Cooley at Barnard College argues that India’s success in Central Asia has been greatly overstated. Nationalism in the Indian media over its ‘’Northern Strategy’’ has largely exaggerated India’s diplomatic successes in Central Asia. That said, India’s ambitions do have real significance for the Kremlin. According to Cooley, India’s ability to bring balance to Central Asia can be a game changer: “The inclusion of India and Pakistan will take the spotlight away from the China-Russia relationship and tensions over the organization’s purpose and role, and recast the organization as a more comprehensive regional forum.”
The “organization” in question is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In fact, it was less than a year ago that Russia actively supported India’s nomination as a full-fledged member of the SCO, a Chinese-led security organization chiefly regarded by Moscow as an encroachment on its Near Abroad. Launched by China in 2001, the SCO has devoted much of its energy to fighting terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, all of which are of great concern to India as well.
Meanwhile, Russia, India and China, three members of the BRICs, may act as a springboard for the recently established New Development Bank and create momentum for trade within the bloc. India, a long-time Russian ally, has also been one of Moscow’s steadiest arms buyers. For these reasons, closer cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi could greatly facilitate hopes for Eurasian integration.
Soviet friendship, however, is now a thing of the past. The physical obstacles to commerce have done little to bring the two powers together. In 2014, bilateral trade between India and Russia amounted to less than $10 billion dollars. Moreover, the United States has increasingly nudged Russia aside by providing India with more and more military hardware. This is nothing the Indian government is ready to admit publicly, arguing it is the result of a shift in defense relationship “from a simple buyer – seller framework to one involving joint research.”
Perhaps a bigger strain in bilateral relations came in September 2015 when Russia agreed to sell its fourth-generation Su-35 fighter to Pakistan, India’s security arch-rival. The contract has arguably cast a shadow over Russian-Indian relations, as did the earlier sale of Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters and Limov RDP93 engines for its series of JF-17 fighters. Although Russia initially courted India (and indeed China) as a possible buyer for the Su-35 fighter, the decision to deal with Pakistan sent a powerful message to the Indian establishment, confirming the decade-long decline in the Russian share of arms sales to India, as well as a lack of political commitment to Indian security.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit in Moscow in December 2015 may have changed that. The two countries signed 16 agreements, including a $6 billion sale of S-400 supersonic air defense systems. On May 9, India took part in Russia’s high-profile military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nuclear energy stands atop the key areas of cooperation, Russia being effectively the only country engaged in the sector with India. Moscow helped built two nuclear power units equipped with some of the world’s safest light water reactors at Kudankulam.
If Russia and India both fear a Chinese-dominated Central Asia, the same is true with Central Asian leaders, who do not want the opening of Eurasia’s core to be single-handedly organized by Beijing. India, a major market, is seen as a competitor with China, and as such is a reassuring presence in the neighborhood.
In a sense, both India and Russia are struggling to find their role in the international order. Everything now depends on Russia and Indian’s capacity for real cooperation in Central Asia, and their ability to send powerful messages about the depth of their commitment to security in the region.
Pierre-Olivier Bussieres is a Desk Officer for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and Research Analyst at the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Republic of the East, an online web journal on post-Soviet spaces.