India has been attempting to establish a cooperative framework with five Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, to promote connectivity and economic integration. However, India’s bilateral relations with Pakistan and China pose challenges to these objectives. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval highlighted India’s concerns about Afghanistan and China’s infrastructure projects in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, blaming Pakistan for denying connectivity and violating India’s sovereignty. Doval argued that such projects should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, adhere to environmental parameters, ensure financial viability, and not become debt burdens.
The concerns highlighted during the first NSA-level meeting in New Delhi on 6 December 2022 discussed the challenges of extremism, terrorism, and radicalization in the region. Doval emphasized that financing is the “lifeblood” of terrorism and that countering it should be a priority. India offered a range of offers to the CA countries in Kazakhstan, including fully funded capacity-building programs, close cooperation to help build defenses against cyber threats, and the free provision of India’s United Payment Interface (UPI) technology to facilitate the setting up of sovereign digital real-time payment systems. Additionally, India proposed the establishment of an India-Central Asia Rare Earths Forum to explore partnerships in strategic minerals.
India’s engagement with Central Asian countries (CA) is crucial for various reasons, including security cooperation after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, countering China’s influence, plans for connectivity with Europe, meeting energy needs, and old cultural links and trade potential. India has tried to draw similarities between the security concerns of New Delhi and CA countries, such as a virtual summit in January 2022. Since early 2022, India and CA countries have established a multi-level periodic engagement framework, including a leaders’ summit every two years, regular meetings among foreign and trade ministers, a joint working group on Afghanistan, joint counter-terrorism exercises, and a group to operationalize the use of Chabahar port by all five countries.
While CA countries, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, share some security concerns and may be amenable to increasing bilateral trade with New Delhi, they may not fully support India’s goals in the region, especially regarding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Some CA countries, like China, see benefits of the BRI, but India’s trade with the region is only $2 billion. As the India-CA countries NSAs met in Astana, heads of state or representatives of three CA countries attended the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev highlighted China’s role in global security and its role in economic and technological development. Turkmenistan’s ‘National Leader’ Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov represented the country at the Forum, where Chinese President Xi Jinping and Berdimuhamedov signed bilateral agreements. Xi Jinping promised to strengthen the alignment between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Turkmenistan’s development strategy. Turkmenistan, which shares good relations with Beijing, has not sent its NSA or senior security official to the meetings in New Delhi and Astana, asking its ambassadors to participate. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev attended the Forum, his second visit to China this year. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were absentees at the Forum, but both countries are part of the BRI and have been involved in numerous infrastructure and connectivity projects by Beijing. The Kazakh Presidential Press Service reported Tokayev’s speech, which was full of appreciation for China’s role in global security.
India aims to avoid the Chinese influence in Central Asia’s post-Soviet space by engaging with five CA countries and focusing on integrating the INSTC with Chabahar port in Iran. The INSTC aims to move goods from Mumbai to Shahid Beheshti Port – Chabahar (Iran) by sea, from Chabahar to Bandar-e-Anzali (an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea) by road, and then to Astrakhan (port in the Russian Federation) by ship across the Caspian Sea. Western sanctions on Iran and Russia have renewed interest in the INSTC project. The project’s implementation could take years without a clear roadmap, and India’s Central Asian outreach needs to accelerate, considering existing China-China economic integration. India can leverage its strengths to enhance trade, transit, connectivity, and actualize its Central Asia Connect policy.