Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia | South Asia

How India Can Broaden its Relationships With Central Asia

From the January 2022 summit to the recent NSA meeting, India has ramped up its outreach to Central Asia this year.

How India Can Broaden its Relationships With Central Asia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the virtual India- Central Asia Summit, Jan. 27, 2022.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

On December 6, top security officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan arrived in New Delhi for the first India-Central Asia meeting of national security advisors. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval highlighted the India-Central Asia relationship, emphasizing their common shared interests, such as stabilizing the security situation in Afghanistan and reinforcing territorial integrity. 

The meeting came 10 months after the first-ever India-Central Asia summit, which reignited the momentum to develop a burgeoning India-Central Asia relationship.

In January 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the India-Central Asia Summit with all five Central Asian heads of state present. The virtual meeting demonstrated India’s commitment to its “Extended Neighborhood Policy,” which calls for New Delhi to diversify its geopolitical partners and diplomatic goals, and its willingness to engage its Central Asian partners on a multitude of fronts.

Despite the receptiveness of the Central Asian governments, since the summit crises like Russia’s war in Ukraine, global inflation, food insecurity, and strategic concerns have overshadowed India’s ambitions to bridge the geopolitical divide with Central Asia. As evidenced by the recent NSA meeting between India and the Central Asian states, security remains the focal point of Indian-Central Asian relations, but India must forge links with this dynamic region via transit, trade, investment, and people-to-people connections in order to cement New Delhi as a reliable and long-lasting partner in Central Asia amid geopolitical challenges.

India-Central Asia Relations: A Security Focus

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Countering violent extremism has long been the focal point of India-Central Asia relations. In 1995, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon assessed that Dushanbe and New Delhi would need to coordinate to shield their institutions from malign terrorist groups. Since then, the bilateral relationship has been characterized by joint counterterrorism initiatives, like the Tajikistan-India Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism.

Furthermore, India has attempted to boost its security presence in the region by renovating military bases in Tajikistan. During the days of the Northern Alliance, India operated a military hospital in Tajikistan’s Farkhor district to service opposition fighters against the Taliban. It was closed after the Northern Alliance was disbanded but rumors circulated although without evidence that India maintained an air force presence at Farkhor. India did spend about $70 million to renovate the Ayni Air Base in Tajikistan between 2002 and 2010. There are no reports that India has stationed aircraft at the base, and experts indicate that it remains unused. If operational, the airbases would offer India a strategic advantage against its two adversaries: China and Pakistan. Tajikistan is located close to the Wakhan Corridor, which connects Afghanistan and China, as well as Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

India joined the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – as a full member in 2017. The grouping provides New Delhi with a forum to establish security relationships with Astana, Bishkek, and Tashkent, adding on to robust ties with Dushanbe. For example, India hosted the joint anti-terror exercise under the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia participating. The joint exercise affirms the India-Central Asia security partnership and contributes to India forging comprehensive partnerships across Central Asia.

Geopolitical Pressures Reshape Relations

Shifting perceptions of critical security threats are impacting the India-Central Asia relationship. While the SCO aims to tackle regional security concerns, its enlargement to include India, Pakistan, and most recently Iran, has somewhat reframed the security discussions within the organization. At the most recent summit for the security-focused organization, India noted trade cooperation amid pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and rising costs of energy and food imports as critical areas of concern. 

India will assume the rotating presidency of the organization and host the 2023 summit. Its position as SCO president could grant New Delhi the leverage to shape next year’s agenda to prioritize interregional connectivity and shared economic issues.

Modi has previously advocated for bolstering connectivity with Central Asia. Modi met with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the 22nd SCO summit held in Samarkand in September to emphasize the broadening of their countries’ bilateral relationship. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan have exposed the geopolitical vulnerabilities of the landlocked Central Asian states. India should take the opportunity to reinforce itself as a consistent partner to Central Asia. Joint counterterrorism efforts allow New Delhi to flex its security capabilities in the region and monitor its adversaries from a closer range. However, without resolute coordination on other issues to supplement the security aspect, the India-Central Asia relationship is susceptible to geopolitical, economic, and domestic pressure.

Moving Forward

This year’s slew of geopolitical crises placed immense stress on existing bilateral relationships and tested the resiliency of collaboration through multilateral engagements. Both India and the Central Asian states seek additional partners beyond their traditional allies to counter this geopolitical pressure and expand their reaches past their immediate neighborhood. India and the Central Asian states would benefit from a burgeoning relationship supported by initiatives across multiple sectors.

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Security concerns remain the crux of the India-Tajikistan bilateral relationship. Growing this rapport to include other Central Asian countries would demonstrate New Delhi’s readiness to encapsulate the entire region in its foreign policy agenda. The United States regularly interfaces with the Central Asian countries through its C5+1 multilateral format. Similarly, Japan introduced the “Central Asia plus Japan” dialogue in 2004 to strengthen its diplomatic and economic cooperation with the region. Creating a similar multilateral format – building on the 2022 summit – would give India a better launching point for further engagements with its Central Asian partners.

On the economic front, India should promote itself as an entrepreneurial hub to its Central Asian counterparts. India boasts more than 38,000 officially recognized start-ups and has risen to become the third-largest source of tech start-ups globally. New Delhi could use its position as a technology hub to network its nascent tech entrepreneurial sector with that of Central Asian countries. In November, India hosted the UNESCO India-Africa Hackathon, which convened like-minded individuals from India and the African continent to use computer programming to resolve social issues. Similarly, students from 10 Southeast Asian countries participated alongside Indians at the ASEAN-India Hackathon, held last in 2021. Central Asian countries have instituted several initiatives, like the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Digital Strategy 2030 to scale digital technology and enhance digital literacy across the region. India’s tech sectors can provide support and expertise to support Central Asian countries.

Although improving connectivity between India and the Central Asian states is a goal for New Delhi and Central Asia, an adverse Pakistan and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan restrict ambitions. Instead, India can promote the establishment of air corridors with Central Asian states to facilitate the movement of people and goods between the subcontinent and Central Asia. This method would increase the volume of trade and endorse people-to-people relationships. Air Astana resumed direct flights between Almaty and New Delhi in December 2021. Likewise, Tajikistan resumed flight service between Dushanbe and New Delhi in April after a hiatus due to the pandemic.

Improved connectivity would also streamline the process for thousands of Central Asians seeking medical treatment in India. At the India-Central Asia Business Forum, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar mentioned the importance of medical tourism and the need to expand it. Not only would simplifying the medical tourism process encourage greater connectivity between India and Central Asia, but it would also further medical information exchanges and training. For instance, Uzbekistan offered 2,000 Indian medical students spots in Uzbek universities after the students were forced to evacuate Ukraine due to the Russian invasion.

Security is the foundation of India’s relationships with Central Asian countries, and it continues to be the most compelling factor in bridging New Delhi with the region. Nevertheless, India and the Central Asian states must diversify their relationships to include other sectors and means of cooperation to bolster the relationships’ resiliencies and forge multi-pronged partnerships moving forward.