Right steppes

Why Central Asia should be the exception to Modi's strategy of trying to match China

To be effective in the 'stans', New Delhi should work towards a framework for cooperation that acknowledges Beijing's importance in the region.

The steppes of Central Asia give away their secrets only grudgingly. Deserving candidates must demonstrate their capacity for persistence, tenacity – and sheer audacity. That was how Genghis Khan succeeded in conquering Bukhara in 1220.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s whirlwind tour of Central Asia from Monday – five “stans” in five days – won’t be wasted. This a region where India is traditionally well regarded but is, paradoxically, a marginal presence on the political or economic landscape. Any gain that Modi makes, howsoever marginal, will still be a gain, since he is starting with a relatively clean slate.

Decision-making is exasperatingly slow in those parts – even by Indian standards – and is highly centralised at the pinnacle of power. In Inner Asia, personal equations matter a great deal and Modi is an exceptionally good communicator. Modi’s regional tour could herald the beginning of a new chapter in India’s relations with the Central Asian states, provided New Delhi goes about it purposively.

People have noted that every trip – at least, most trips – Modi makes and every word he utters while abroad, is with one eye on matching China’s influence as a rising power. A good case can be made that this Central Asian tour should be an exception to such a thumb rule.

China's approach

As things stand, it will be virtually impossible for Modi to wean Central Asia from China’s influence. If China has almost come on par with Russia (and elbowed out the United States) as the great power with the most influence in the Central Asian region, it is largely because Beijing has tried to behave with much savoir-faire. China’s leaders have sought to win over the Central Asian counterparts by demonstrating respect combined with easy familiarity.

The heart of the matter is that India has not taken an interest in the region intrinsically. India’s considerations have been relative – in relation to Pakistan’s activities in the region, counterterrorism, or, more recently, the preponderant Chinese influence in Central Asia. This has made engagement with the region episodic. The Central Asian leaderships have understood this and have accustomed themselves to this.

In some other respects, though, the Indian and Chinese diplomacy in the Central Asian region have common features. Like China, India too has not tried to bind them by way of economic “integration”, or sought to manipulate political outcomes to New Delhi’s advantage. India has scrupulously avoided all discussions of domestic political affairs. Yet, the Central Asian states have increasingly found China to be a more attractive foreign partner.

First and foremost, China relates to Central Asia with the sense of immediacy of a proximate neighbor, which India has lacked. Central Asia is a key source of energy and mineral resources for the Chinese economy and a trade partner, and the Silk Road is a vital communication link of immense strategic significance connecting China with the world market. Most important, the stability and security of Xinjiang depends on China’s equations with the “stans”.

A case study

India would do well to study closely the ten-day victory lap by China’s president Xi Jinping to four Central Asian countries between in September 2013 – Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Not once did Xi invoke directly or indirectly the “Great Game”.  Instead, he signed a series of economic agreements with each of the four countries in the fields of infrastructure, trade and finance and energy.

The Chinese investments in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are estimated to be in the region of $30 billion, while Xi signed contracts worth at least $51 billion. Thus a magnificent backdrop became available for Xi to dramatically unveil China’s historic initiative – the Economic Corridor of the Great Silk Road. It struck a favorable chord almost instantaneously with the Central Asian leaderships.

India too should focus on fostering economic cooperation by constructing transport infrastructure, increasing trade and removing barriers to trade and strengthening the role of national currencies in mutual trading.

Xi suggested the possibility of creating a free trade zone with the Central Asian region. Can’t India think on those lines, too? At the people-to-people level, China has offered scholarships for 30,000 students from the SCO countries. The Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation programme pales in comparison.

In the ultimate analysis, therefore, it all depends on what Modi can offer by way of an economic partnership. India may not be able to match China, but its presence didn’t have to be so thin on the ground.

Regional forum

On July 9 and 10, Modi will be in the Russian city of Ufa to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a forum started by  four of the "stans", China and Russia  to discuss regional security and cooperation. India currently has observer status at the SCO but last year formally applied for full membership. The Central Asian countries have been uniformly enthusiastic about this possibility. A structured relationship is in the making.

However, the Central Asian states are not in desperate need of Indian military assistance. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation commits Russia as the provider of security for the region. The priority for the Central Asian states would be economic cooperation and access to the Indian market. Modi announced a billion-dollar credit line to Mongolia during his recent visit to that country. Can’t a similar gesture be made during the forthcoming visit?

India lacks a “big picture” in its diplomacy toward the Central Asian region. Had it been otherwise, India would have understood a long time ago that without an access route, all the rhetoric about partnership with that region would remain vacuous.

Clearly, a strong relationship with Iran is an essential underpinning for our Central Asian policies. It is over two decades since we first began talking about an access route to Central Asia via Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran. From all accounts, the work on the project is just about to commence. It is a diplomatic scandal that the Modi government still hasn’t effected a high-level exchange with Iran so far. And it exposes the lack of seriousness of India’s Central Asia policies.

The best-case scenario

What is it that India hopes to get with such an unprecedented all-out engagement with the region at the highest level?

The government’s media briefings highlight the spectre of the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a principal leitmotif of Modi’s conversations with the regional leaders. That’s airy talk. Central Asia has in place fairly credible mechanisms to counter the threats of extremism, separatism and terrorism. Both Russia and China are active on this front. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has developed its own mechanisms, too.

The high probability is that our mandarins hope to do some Pakistan-bashing on the pretext of “countering” the IS. But it will be a folly to do that, since the Central Asians are increasingly averse to taking sides between India and Pakistan. The threat posed by terrorism and Islamism is very real for the Central Asians and is not the stuff of propaganda. India needs to think through carefully as to what additional elements it can bring on to the table to supplement the robust mechanisms the region already has in place to fight terrorism.

One way could be to work with Russia (and China). But then, India needs to factor in that it is a liability to flaunt its closeness to the US’ regional policies. In the steppes, there is great weariness about “colour revolutions” and the US’ record of manipulating the extremist Islamist groups as geopolitical tools. There are misgivings already in the region that the Islamic State itself is a creation of the US to provide an alibi for intervention in the region.

The previous UPA government committed a grave error by identifying with the US’ “New Silk Road” strategy. Delhi could have anticipated that the US’ game plan was a non-starter because its real intent was to “liberate” the Central Asian region from the sphere of influence of Russia and China. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers for it in the “stans”. And in the event, of course, China simply co-opted the US’ “New Silk Road”, revamped it with Chinese characteristics, repackaged it, and incorporated it as a template of the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

A new world view

But then, the ideologues of the Modi government often speak of Russia in private conversations as a “declining” power. Shockingly, even top figures in the foreign policy establishment have publicly identified with such facile notions of the ebb and flow of great-power politics. The root problem seems to be that some simply cannot get over the “unipolar moment”. It is a liability because the Central Asian states do not share our predicament.

That brings us to a concluding point. India needs to rethink its approach to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. Standing aloof and sulking is not going to help matters. With or without India’s cooperation, the Chinese strategy will work and there is broad acceptance of it even in the West.

Russia and China have recently decided to integrate their respective regional approaches in Eurasia, which will have profound impact on the geopolitics of Central Asia, in terms of integrating the Moscow-led Eurasia Economic Union project with Beijing’s grand Silk Road plans to develop Central Asian infrastructure and economies as a gateway for China to link with Europe.

Simply put, the strategic ambiguity in the thinking in Delhi regarding its participation in the “Belt and Road Initiative” poses the danger of rendering India all but irrelevant in the Central Asian region, because in the steppes, the massive infrastructure development in the offing becomes the centre piece of the regional politics for a foreseeable future.

Against the backdrop of India’s induction as a full Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member country, the best outcome of Modi’s Central Asia tour would be if his discussions with his counterparts helps stimulate the Indian regional strategy to work on a new paradigm of regional cooperation attuned to the contemporary realities that includes Pakistan and China.

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