Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's visit earlier this week provides an opportunity to consider India's relations with its extended neighbourhood lying beyond the Amu Darya. The region, Central Asia, which now comprises of five countries—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan—has impacted on India for many millennia through the flows of peoples, ideas and ways of life. Central Asia's interaction with indigenous Indian culture and traditions added to the richness of Indian life. India's connections with Central Asia were interrupted as Russia expanded and absorbed the region in its fold in the 19th century and India fell under the British yoke. In 1947 the geography of Indian sub-continent changed. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Central Asian states (CAS) emerged as independent countries. That set the stage for a new relationship between India and the region.
CAS correspond to the erstwhile constituent republics in the Soviet Union. With independence they faced immense challenges in all spheres of their national life. Arguably a modicum of stability was provided by the continuation of the old communist leaderships in four of the five countries; in Kyrgyzstan (its name changed to Kyrgyzstan in 1993) Askar Akayev not an old entrenched leader was not a dyed in the wool communist. Civil conflict in some countries, economic dislocation, social disruption and cultural confusion prevailed for more than a decade. By now though all these countries are essentially stable. Except in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, the first-generation leaders have been replaced by new politicians. Economic and social conditions are also better.
Global and regional powers have vied to enhance their influence in the region where the major contradiction is between the Turkic and Persian speaking peoples. The latter are concentrated in Tajikistan while the former in the remaining four. Naturally, Turkey is focussed on its co-linguists and has formed the Turkic Council. Iran has sought to promote cultural ties with Tajikistan; its political relations have not been entirely smooth. The real story over the past two decades though has been Chinese and Russian attempts to limit US influence and role. Bilaterally, Russia has attempted to retain decisive influence in the security sphere. China is seeking to integrate the region comprehensively now through is Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) is the multilateral vehicle for this purpose. CAS with the exception of Turkmenistan, whose doctrine of permanent neutrality prevents participation in such organisations, became members along with China and Russia. With India and Pakistan joining as full members in 2017 SCO is on the way to becoming a major regional organisation aiming to curtail, if not prevent, extremism, terrorism and separatism in the area.
In this situation what should be India's objectives?
Notwithstanding the continuing challenges imposed by Pakistan which prevents direct overland connections with Central Asia India must maintain robust cooperative ties with the region. CAS recognise India as, Mirziyoyev said, in Delhi, as "one of the largest powers in the world". He went to say that Uzbekistan's relations with India are "one of the most important priorities of Uzbekistan's foreign policy". Other CAS countries may not use such clear words but they treat their ties with India as significant. This requires that India needs to maintain continuous high-level political dialogue and develop those areas that can be well nourished without land connectivity even while that is sought to be made viable through the Chabahar and Afghanistan route. Health, education, culture, investments, defence and security are among the sectors that came be purposefully taken forward.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearly realised the high importance of Central Asia to India's diplomatic and security interests. He did well to visit all five countries in July 2015. That trip sent the signal that India's northward gaze would not get checked by the Hindukush and nor would it be limited to Afghanistan. During the Mirziyoyev visit Afghanistan remained an important discussion area. Continuing violence and instability in the country adversely impacts CAS as well as India. The India-Uzbek joint statement stressed reconciliation as the way forward to stabilise the country. Mirziyoyev said categorically that there was no military solution to the issue and that the path ahead lay in negotiations between the Afghan government and the 'opposition'. The problem is that the opposition i.e. the Taliban has shown no real intent to negotiate with the government.
Of the five countries Uzbekistan is the most populous. It is a large producer of cotton and has substantial tourist potential, including from India. Samarkand and Bukhara are historic cities and centres of Persianate culture. While that cultural heritage has declined in India it can still resonate with many Indians. There are serious possibilities for mutually beneficial cooperation in a large number of fields. The Joint Statement issued after Modi-Mirziyoyev talks noted an impressive extent of cooperation covering, "political ties, defence, security, counter-terrorism, trade and investment, science and technology, space, nuclear energy, information technology as well as cultural and academic linkages". The visit also witnessed seventeen agreements to establish institutional linkages and cooperative mechanisms in the health, pharmaceutical, space and agriculture sectors. Particularly significant is the agreement for military training.
The Mirziyoyev visit reminds decision makers of the need to maintain focus on Central Asia as a whole. That would be in India's present and long-term interest. It is also imperative that bureaucratic mechanisms are fashioned that ensure the implementation of the decisions taken by the leaders. Without that political level effort is largely wasted.