Former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan Ashok Sajjanhar: “Good prospects exist for enhancing cooperation in trade and economy between India and the EAEU”

Perizat RISBEK KIZI

Over more than seven decades of diplomatic relations, Russia and India have managed to build stable strategic, military and diplomatic ties. In parallel, both countries are actively developing economic cooperation and plan to develop a free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and India. Thus, an Indo-Russian free trade agreement would lead to a much larger free trade agreement including India, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In this context, The International Asia Today presents the views of Ashok Sajjanhar, former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, on the relationship of India with Russia, EAEU and countries of Central Asia.

Mr. Sajjanhar, how would you characterize the current level of Russian-Indian strategic relations? How important is cooperation with Russia in the military-technical sphere for India?

Ashok Sajjanhar
CEO of the Institute for Global Studies, former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia

Relations between India and Russia in the strategic field are informed by trust and confidence in each other. This is particularly strengthened by the close rapport and understanding between PM Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin. The two countries entered into a Strategic partnership in 2000. This was upgraded to a special and privileged strategic partnership in 2010. Relations in the area of security and defense, nuclear energy, fossil fuels, culture, people-to-people contacts etc. continue to expand. 21 annual bilateral summits have been held so far since 2000. The Annual Summit in 2020 was not held due to the corona virus pandemic. President Putin’s visit to Delhi on 6th December 2021, (only his second travel outside Russia since the pandemic erupted two years ago, the first having been to Geneva in June 2021 for a meeting with President Joe Biden), for the 21st Annual Summit is testimony to the importance that Russia attaches to this relationship.

India procures about 60% of its imported military supplies from Russia. The recent purchase of S-400 ballistic missile defence system is an important contribution to enhancing India’s security. Russia is actively engaged in the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (Self-sufficient India) and “Make in India” initiatives of the Indian government. India has signed agreements for supply of 200 Kamov 226-T attack helicopters and 700,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles, both of which will be made in India resulting in more transfer of technology as well as generate employment in the country.

Despite the positive signs in relations between India and Russia, many observers and experts note the different positions of these countries on issues such as the Indo-Pacific region and QUAD. How do you think these factors affect bilateral relations?

India is hopeful that with the passage of time there will be better appreciation of India’s position on the QUAD and Indo-Pacific by Russia. We continue to impress upon Russia that India’s membership of the QUAD and support for the Indo-Pacific is in no way directed against Russia. It is a response to the rapidly evolving geo-political and geo-strategic architecture.

Both the countries have taken a conscious decision to not allow these issues to in way adversely impact the development of positive bilateral relations.

Not so long ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will begin negotiations to conclude an agreement on a free trade zone. Could you tell us what is India’s interest in the EAEU? How do you assess the prospects for cooperation between the two sides?

Although India enjoys excellent relations with Russia and other members of the EAEU, our ties in the economic and commercial field are significantly below potential. One of the most significant reasons for this is lack of connectivity. India’s free trade agreement with the EAEU will provide preferential access for Indian goods, services and investments to these markets and vice-versa. India has huge strengths in the areas of medicine, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, education, information technology, business process outsourcing (BPO), infrastructure, agriculture and processing of agricultural products, energy, space industry, textiles, leather and footwear industry, gems & jewellery etc. which it could supply to the EAEU countries to mutual benefit.

Good prospects exist for enhancing cooperation in trade and economy between India and the EAEU. It is understood that Uzbekistan is also planning to join the Organization. This will be an addition to its current membership of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This will make the grouping more attractive for all members.

Focusing on Central Asia, could you assess the latest developments in Kazakhstan? How do you think relations between India and Kazakhstan will develop in the light of new events?

Developments in Kazakhstan are very unfortunate. Kazakhstan after its independence in 1991 has emerged as a role model of peace, stability, economic growth and prosperity. I am happy that the situation was brought under control very quickly. Kazakhstan will take some time to fully recover. Full details of the causes of the unrest will become available in the coming weeks. I am confident that the Kazakh government will take all appropriate measures to ensure that such instances don’t recur and Kazakhstan will become even stronger and more resilient and confident in the aftermath of this unhappy episode.

India’s relations with Kazakhstan are robust and vigorous. India was the first country, outside the CIS, visited by the President of Kazakhstan in 1992 after its independence. Ties will continue to expand and grow in multifarious fields in the coming months and years. It is expected that the Kazakh President will visit India this year. This will provide a further impetus to our bilateral ties.

How do you assess the results of the first India-Central Asia summit, which took place on January 27 in a virtual format?

The first India-Central Asia Summit was a historical event. Many significant decisions were taken to advance India’s relations with the Central Asian countries to the next higher level. A highly ambitious and visionary Delhi Declaration was issued at the conclusion of the Summit. Some of the major areas identified for enhanced focus include peace and stability in Afghanistan, trade and investment, connectivity, development cooperation, including capacity building, security and defence, culture and people to people contacts.

The most consequential decision taken at the Summit was to institutionalize the framework for India-Central Asia cooperation at a regional level and to hold Summits every two years. In addition, it was agreed to hold regular meetings between Ministers of foreign affairs, trade, and culture, as well as Secretaries of National Security Councils to advance cooperation in these areas.

On Afghanistan, it was affirmed that all countries share the same objectives including establishment of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, preserving the rights of women, children and minorities, and providing immediate humanitarian assistance.

Leaders emphasized making concerted efforts to boost trade and investment in medicine, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, education, information technology, business process outsourcing (BPO), infrastructure, agriculture and processing of agricultural products, energy, space industry, textiles, leather and footwear industry, gems & jewelry etc. They welcomed establishment of direct contacts between States of India and Regions of Central Asian countries. India proposed organizing a round table on connectivity and energy cooperation.

The leaders emphasized cooperation amongst their National Security Councils in view of the common challenges of terrorism, extremism and radicalization in the region.  It was also agreed by the leaders to showcase Buddhist exhibitions in Central Asian countries; commission an India-Central Asia dictionary of common words; hold joint counter-terrorism exercises; arrange visit of a 100-member youth delegation annually from Central Asian countries to India; and organize special courses for Central Asian diplomats.

In other words, the First India-Central Asia Summit represented a culmination of India’s sustained diplomatic engagement with the Central Asian countries in recent years.

An interview on our website is the personal opinion of the expert and may not reflect the institutional view of the International Asia Today.

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