Connecting With Central Asia

P Stobdan
India’s outreach to Kyrgyzstan needs to be more assertive. Kyrgyzstan offers some big-time opportunities for India, especially in hydro-power, mineral, agro-business and defence industry. Besides, the Central Asian nation has been a trusted ally
After the visit of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Almazbek Atambayev, is visiting New Delhi on a four-day trip from December 18.
President Atambayev’s visit comes right after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in June 2015, which proved a symbolic feat for India’s outreach. In fact, reconnecting with Central Asia forms a critical part of India’s foreign policy.
The visits are taking place, first against the backdrop of Central Asia is speedily getting swamped by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Second, the region’s current secular setting is threatened by rising fundamentalist forces, that are striving to establish Caliphate-i-Rashida in Central Asia. Even the Islamic State (IS) intends to curve out Wilayat Khorasan out of the region. Third, Russia’s growing proximity with Pakistan and the Taliban, is threatening to complicate the regional stability.
Kyrgyzstan is an ancient nation, with which India had contact, since the time of the Sakas or the Scythians. Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been most supportive of India’s diplomatic moves in the UN, and on issues that concerned India.
Kyrgyzstan is now a parliamentary democracy, and wants to emulate Indian model through intense parliamentary interactions. India’s engagement with Kyrgyzstan, presently is at a nominal, yet at a steady rate. President Atambayev has a natural affection and love for India. He praised the role of India as a champion of democracy, for upholding cultural values in a diverse society. He has been keen to seek closer engagement, as well as high value investment from India.
Kyrgyzstan offers some big time opportunities for India, especially in its huge hydropower, mineral, agro-business and defence industry potentials.
So far, India’s current engagement hasn’t entailed much of economic interdependence. None of the Indian assistance programmes appeared to have yielded any commercial opportunities for Indian companies. Indian businesses should instead capitalise on the real opportunities; especially exploring smart projects in mining, agro-farming, dry fruits, horticulture, cotton and silk faming, investment in pharmaceuticals, textiles, engineering, construction and small and medium enterprises.
These will push direct development processes, people-to-people contacts through increased air traffic and promotion of tourism between India and Kyrgyzstan. Good news is that India has lifted ban on walnut import from Kyrgyzstan.
Moreover, projects in specialised sectors like hydro-power, infrastructure, hospitals and IT sector should be pursued on commercial terms.
Kyrgyzstan is considered as ‘Switzerland of Asia’, and its famous Issyk-Kul Lake is just two hours’ flight from Delhi. It seems memorandum of understanding, would be signed for strengthening cooperation in the field of tourism.
India’s cooperation in defence industry sector with Kyrgyzstan, has been sound and beneficial. India should explore joint venture projects for weapons manufacturing and testing in Kyrgyz facilities such as in Dastan Company, that produces well-known torpedo weapon systems including super-sonic 220 mph Skhval-type rocket torpedo. Similarly, leasing of the unique Soviet-built facility ULAN Torpedo Range is a good option.
In pursuance of India’s signing of the base document for joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO), this year, Kyrgyzstan is among the first four SCO members states to have ratified India’s accession so far.
Connectivity is a major issue for India. Despite several key efforts, the obstacles have been hard to triumph over. As a result, India’s trade with Central Asia is paltry $1.4 billion, and meagrely $27 million with Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan can help India create new connectivity opportunities, under the SCO’s regional initiatives for opening new routes and transport operations and services, through inter-governmental agreements. An improved connectivity can create opportunities for India’s productivity enhancement of goods and services, increase information and communication technology networks; energy networks; people-to-people networks; and promotion of knowledge-based economies.
India needs to broaden the scope of its geopolitical engagement. There may be limitations for enhancing economic relations, but Kyrgyzstan is of enormous strategic significance for regional security and great power interests. It is a hub for power-play among great powers; the Russian, American and Chinese agendas here, are well drawn
Kyrgyzstan is a border state of China, where the Chinese are mutely expanding their influence, especially on the economic and strategic front.
At the same time, Kyrgyzstan is also a trouble-spot for China. The Chinese embassy in Bishkek, has been recently attacked by suspected Uyghur militants.
The Fergana Valley has long been an incubator of radical forces such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and others, having operational links with the Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremist groups based in Af-Pak region. The IS has also recruited its cadre, hugely from this region.
Russia’s aligning with Pakistan could allow Islamabad to gain more credibility in Central Asia, that might have implications for India. At the same time, Russia will remain an important factor in Central Asia.
Hopefully, India can gain from the SCO’s security structures, on the movement of terrorists and drug-trafficking and other negative trend of developments in the region, that we know little about.
Prime Minister last year rightly touched on India’s shared Islamic heritage, and Sufi traditions of Central Asia.
New Delhi should take the idea forward as a de-radicalisation means to combat terrorism. There could be no big-ticket items to turn the spotlight on Kyrgyzstan, but the recent high level visits have added a new impetus.
The Kyrgyz people had profound likeness for Bollywood, yoga, IT etc. India needs to revive the diluted links. On the cultural front, India needs to intervene in developing the vast treasure of Kyrgyzstan’s Buddhist past, found at archaeological sites in the Chu Valley.
India should also be generous in extending assistance in the hours of Kyrgyzstan’s economic crisis and international debt exceeding $3.7 billion or 62 per cent of country’s gross domestic product this year.
It had been New Delhi’s indecisiveness that had pushed the Kyrgyz people towards China. Hopefully, this mindset will now be reversed.
The writer served as India’s envoy to Kyrgyzstan and is currently senior fellow at IDSA.

Recommended For You

About the Author: editor