Perizat RISBEK KIZI
Recently it was announced that the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi invited the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov to India to celebrate the Republic Day of the country and participate in the “India-Central Asia” high-level summit.
In addition, The Economic Times reports that India also plans to host five Central Asian foreign ministers on December 18-19 for the third regular dialogue. As the agency emphasizes, this happened immediately after the dialogue at the level of national security advisers with five countries and the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India, which confirmed the interests of New Delhi in Eurasia.
The upcoming meetings confirm India’s key long-term strategic interests in Central Asia, which were formulated in India’s 2012 political document “Connect Central Asia”. Despite the fact that the document was adopted almost ten years ago, in recent years, India’s efforts to engage in the region have gained particular relevance due to the growing energy consumption and geopolitical interests of New Delhi in the region.
Importance of Central Asian Energy Sources for India
The goal of India’s energy security policy is to reduce its overdependence on crude oil from the Gulf region by diversifying its energy sources from Central Asia. In this context, the uninterrupted supply of TAPI gas will be extremely important for the growing energy sector in India, as New Delhi is expected to become the main source of energy demand in the world in the current decade, overtaking China and the United States.
It should be reminded that the entire infrastructure necessary for receiving the gas pipeline in India has already been built. However, due to regional problems such as tensions between India and Pakistan, the project has been delayed all the time. In this sense, it is quite possible that this issue will become an important topic of the upcoming talks between India and Turkmenistan.
India’s economic diplomacy in Central Asia
Today, both within the region and outside, there is growing concern that Russia and China have too much influence in Central Asia. This has made trade and investment with other partners such as India, Japan, Korea and Europe increasingly attractive to countries in the region.
Thus, the current situation presents an opportunity for India to significantly expand its political and economic diplomacy, which in turn could lay the foundation for India to pursue its long-term goals of expanding its influences in Central Asia and all of Eurasia, potentially weakening the position of China.
India pursues this goal through a number of approaches, including increased trade and cooperation with Russia; becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2017; by concluding a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union and playing an active role in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank since 2016. Another important milestone in the development of India’s policy towards Central Asia was the creation of the India-Central Asia Dialogue Forum, which in 2019 included Afghanistan. Along with the aforementioned forum, the India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) also came forward with the goal of giving new impetus to India’s economic diplomacy in the region.
INSTC as an opportunity for India to forge ties with Central Asia
Transport corridors deserve special attention in the relationship between India and Central Asia. Thus, the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project, which will provide access to the sea for the countries of the region and a halve transit times, could become another important means by which India can consolidate its geopolitical and geo-economic position in Central Asia.
It is also worth emphasizing that India recently signed an agreement with Iran and Afghanistan that allowed it to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Iranian port of Chabahar. According to the Gulf International Forum, in this way, India is trying to penetrate the economy of Central Asia by investing in Chabahar, increasing its economic and political presence in the region and providing an alternative to the port of Gwadar, the main transit route between China and Pakistan. Hence, India is rapidly moving to the west and is strengthening strategic and economic relations with Iran and Afghanistan through the Chabahar Connectivity project to compensate for the Sino-Pakistani strategic and economic friendship and undermine the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
However, according to the South Asian Voices, Chabahar remains far from his original vision today because of the re-imposition of US sanctions against Iran and complex working relationship between Iran and India. In this sense, the Paradigm Shift stresses that maintaining close India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, with which Iran has controversial relations, could lead to the disruption of the Chabahar port deal. In addition, the Taliban declined to join talks with India and Iran on the Chabahar port, according to news reports, fueling some uncertainty over its future as Afghanistan is a crucial link in the 7,200-kilometer route.
In this regard, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) expert Matthew Ehret noted that instead of connecting INSTC to the Chabahar port, it is possible to build an INSTC rail link to Kabul, which would easily connect to the Trans-Afghan Railroad stretching from Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. According to him, the emerging new reality has demonstrated that INSTC is not a competitor to China’s BRI, but rather is in complete harmony with the New Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor, shortly called “The Middle Corridor”.