Courting the ‘stans: Imperative for India

Leaders of the five Central Asian Republics (CAR) will not be attending India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guests on January 26, but they will participate, virtually, in the first India-Central Asia summit the next day. The Indian government again decided against hosting any foreign dignitary as chief guest for the Republic Day ceremonies this year, because of the ongoing Covid pandemic and surging Omicron-fuelled cases which are likely to peak around the end of January.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will virtually host Presidents Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Kazakhstan), Sadyr Japarov (Kyrgyzstan), Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan) and Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Uzbekistan) for the first India-Central Asia summit to flesh out details of enhanced engagement between India and the former Soviet republics. India has spent decades courting the ‘stans, which it sees as its extended neighbourhood, but there is renewed vigour in the effort particularly after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

This first summit, coming soon after the India-Central Asia dialogue, at the level of foreign ministers, and the meeting of National Security Advisors last November, reflects not just New Delhi’s growing engagement with the CAR, but also India’s efforts to stem the tide of terrorism and narcotics emanating from the turmoil in Afghanistan, as it tries to regain a foothold in that country.

Like the Dialogue held between December 18 and 20, the key focus at the summit will be on Connectivity, Afghanistan, Covid-19 and trade. Ways to strengthen bilateral cooperation, particularly trade, will form a significant component of the leaders’ talks, as will methods to enhance regional security. Kazakhstan is just settling down after intense domestic unrest and worrying overtures from Russia, so all the five CARs would urge a greater Indian presence in the region to balance Russia’s posture of treating them as its suzerainty and the growing dominance of China in the region.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, at the Dialogue, said they had gathered together to discuss “a truly inclusive and representative government (in Afghanistan), the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, ensuring unhindered humanitarian assistance, and preserving the rights of women, children, and the minorities”.

Jaishankar’s remarks emphasized the need to take the already robust ties to the next level by focussing on the 4 Cs: Commerce, Capacity Enhancement, Connectivity and Contacts. Enhanced defence and security collaboration is also vital to both.

The 29-paragraph long comprehensive and detailed Joint Statement issued after the foreign ministerial Dialogue outlined how to achieve their aims of realising a genuine India-Central Asia partnership, giving primacy to collaboration in the area of defence and security, with “regular consultations among the National Security Councils of their countries.”

India’s renewed close engagement with Central Asia is shaped by vital geostrategic considerations, primarily stemming from the changed scenario after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Taliban grabbing power has changed dynamics and led to a worrying security situation not just in South Asia, but also in the CARs, which border Afghanistan to the north and northeast. As a relatively less powerful Russia tries to regain primacy in the region which it considers its backyard, there is an increasingly powerful China to contend with, rapidly raising its presence and influence in the area.

It is therefore imperative for India to strengthen its geopolitical and geostrategic engagement with the CARs, to stem the terrorism and narco-trafficking emanating from Afghanistan. It is vital to step up this engagement to try and slow down China’s overweaning reach, particularly after US and western troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

To do this India, which historically bore the brunt of Mongol attacks from the Central Asian region, and gradually succeeded in assimilating these influences through the medieval era, has a unique, more enduring cultural “weapon” in its armoury : the spread of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent over two millennia ago. These cultural linkages and the moral authority associated with the peaceful spread of Buddhism across Central and South East Asia have given India the authority to establish its peaceful bona fides in the modern era.

For New Delhi to “aggressively” pursue this aspect of mutual shared culture is thus normal and diplomats will more actively push “soft” culture and diplomacy through education, scholarships and religio-cultural ties (including cinema), all of which have enormous popular appeal, to make inroads. This aspect of cultural promotion blends well with the non-Wahhabi nature of Islam in the CARs and is an area of affinity that finds favour in those five countries, and is helping India to effectively raise its Central Asian profile and presence, to better fulfil its geostrategic purposes. – INDIA NEWS STREAM

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