By Meena Singh Roy
External Affairs Minister SM Krishna paid a two-day visit to Tajikistan on July 2-3, 2012. His visit to Dushanbe is the first by an Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) to this strategically located country in nine years. He held extensive discussions with his counterpart Hamrokhom Zarifi about bilateral cooperation on several issues including energy, counter-terrorism and communication aimed at further cementing bilateral ties. The situation in Afghanistan and regional developments were also an important focus of these talks. During this visit Krishna also addressed a conference of the Indian Heads of Missions (HOM) to 11 countries in the region. Krishna’s visit needs to be viewed in the context of India’s growing interest in cultivating stronger ties with the Eurasian region through its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy and his new mantra of the four Cs, namely ‘Commerce, Connectivity, Consular and Community’.
During the past few years, New Delhi has stepped up its engagement with the Central Asian Republics with the aim of building a long term partnership both bilaterally and collectively. India has now expressed its desire to play an expanded and more meaningful role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) including its case for full membership in the organization. The high level visits from both sides—Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to Delhi and President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Tajikistan in 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhsatn in 2011 and Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to India in May 2011—are all reflective of growing political ties between India and the Central Asian region. New Delhi is now looking forward to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to India in September 2012.
The first India-Central Asia Dialogue, a Track-II initiative organised on 12-13 June 2012 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was yet another step towards building a long term partnership with the Eurasian region. The objective behind this regional conference is to start a regular annual dialogue forum among academics, scholars, government officials and business representatives from India and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) with the aim of providing inputs to governments on both sides. It was during this regional conference that E. Ahmad, Minister of State for External Affairs, pronounced India’s new ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy. He said that “India is now looking intently at the region through the framework of its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which is based on pro-active political, economic and people-to –people engagement with Central Asian Countries, both individually and collectively”. The ‘connect Central Asia’ policy is a broad-based approach, which includes political, economic and cultural connections between India and the CARs.
Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan is a continuation of India’s new policy approach towards the CARs and its readiness to play a pro-active, meaningful and sustained role in the Eurasian region. He articulated this very clearly in his address to the HOM’S conference in Dushanbe by stating that as the Eurasian region undergoes rapid transition, the time has come for India to evolve a calibrated and co-ordinated response in its engagement with each of the countries in the region to further secure core national interests. As a part of its ‘connect Central Asia’ policy India plans to set up an Indian-Central Asia University in Kyrgyzstan and is looking towards deploying its soft power to consolidate goodwill in all Central Asian countries through IT, culture, networking with young politicians and academia. In addition, New Delhi is talking with Tajikistan to set up a military hospital and also plans to operate up to 14 direct flights to Dushanbe. To begin with however, both India and Tajikistan will launch four flights each.
Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan also needs to be evaluated in the context of uncertainties surrounding the security situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. To ensure that Afghanistan emerges as a commercial bridge between South and Central Asia and prevent it from becoming the hub of terrorism and extremism is one of India’s core national interests. India’s current policy approach towards this region is reflective of its growing concerns about future developments in Afghanistan after the US military drawdown in 2014. This concern is shared by other Central Asian countries as well. India has already stepped up its engagement with the US, Russia and regional countries to address the Afghan Quagmire. New Delhi views the Central Asian countries as reliable partners in addressing this problem. Last month, during the third Indo-US Strategic Dialogue, India agreed to formal trilateral consultations with the US on Afghanistan. This initiative will enable India and the US to explore opportunities to promote Afghanistan’s development in the areas of agriculture, mining, energy, capacity building and infrastructure. India also hosted an international investor’s meet on Afghanistan in New Delhi on June 28, 2012, in which more than 270 private sector firms and consultancies from India and Afghanistan besides regional and global partners participated. This is an attempt to help Afghanistan transition from an economy so far being sustained by foreign aid to one sustained by private investments. This meeting precedes an international meeting of donors to Afghanistan in Tokyo on July 8, 2012. India is contributing in a big way for capacity building in Afghanistan by earmarking more than US $2 billion in reconstruction assistance as well as by providing security, training and supporting the New Silk Road initiative in the region.
Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan also assumes significance given the key strategic location that Tajikistan occupies as Afghanistan’s neighbour. Further, Tajikistan has worked closely with India along with Russia and Iran in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime earlier. Tajikistan is on the same page as India on Afghanistan. Terrorism and extremism are common threats faced by both countries. There is already a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism between India and Tajikistan. During Krishna’s visit, both countries agreed once again that without a stable Afghanistan the region cannot be stable. India also shares close defence and security relations with Tajikistan, which help in cementing the strategic ties between the two countries. It has upgraded the Ayni airport near Dushanbe, which is fully operational now. There is ongoing cooperation in the defence sector, with India providing training to Tajik forces as well as providing slots to a large number of Tajik military cadets and young officers at various defence training institutes in India. This military training is offered free of charge to Tajik military personnel. India plans to further strengthen its strategic and security cooperation with all the CARs with a focus on military training, joint research, counter-terrorism coordination and close consultation on Afghanistan within the framework of its ‘connect Central Asia’ policy.
The other important area of the ‘connect Central Asia’ policy is India’s economic ties with the region. While Krishna asked the 11 Indian heads of mission in the region to work on converting India’s ‘’enormous goodwill’’ into “tangible and strategic advantages”, the current status of India’s trade, which is pegged at a mere $ 500 million, indicates the most unsatisfactory part of an otherwise excellent relationship with the region. In the case of Tajikistan, India’s trade stood at $10.7 million in 2004-05 and $32.56 million in 2009- 2010. Lack of connectivity with the region still remains a major impediment for India to reach out to the region for boosting economic cooperation. To overcome the connectivity hurdle, Krishna suggested that “India needs to explore innovative and practical solutions in consultation with local Government”.
Related to the issue of economic cooperation is the aspect of the relevance of the energy-rich Eurasian region for energy deficit India. India views Central Asia as a long term partner in energy and natural resources trade. So far India has made some progress in the Turkemistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and is also acquiring an oil block in the Caspian Sea by signing a commercial agreement between ONGC Videsh Limited and the Kazakh State Company. Tajikistan occupies a special place in terms of its hydrocarbon resources. The country is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia. Its potential, according to official figures, is about 40,000 MW, which is around four percent of the world’s hydroelectric potential. According to the official report “Tajikistan’s National Strategy for Energy Sector Development 2006-2015”, the country is likely to reach a production of 35 billion Kwh in 2015. However, it is important to note here that despite this potential Tajikistan produces only 17 billion Kwh per year and has to import energy from Uzbekistan. The country needs investment in this sector. Russia, Iran and China are already involved in Tajikistan. India is providing help for the Varzob-I Hydro-Power Station. Bilateral cooperation in the hydroelectric power sector was another important issue discussed during Krishna’s visit. Tajikistan’s hydroelectric sector offers great opportunity for government and private Indian companies.
While Krishna’s two day visit can be termed as a stepping up of India’s newly pronounced ‘connect Central Asia’ policy, the biggest challenge that remains is the conversation of these proposals into reality. The realisation of the various initiatives taken by India in the past few years demands not only heavy investment but also long-term and sustained implementation of various proposed projects. India’s economic engagement with the region will require the involvement of the private sector in the Central Asian market, which has so far not been viewed by Indian big business houses as a very attractive market. Therefore, a two fold strategy will be required to address this issue. Firstly, the Indian government must facilitate greater interaction between the Indian private sector and Central Asian market forces. Secondly, Central Asian states will have to work towards creating a more attractive investment environment for the Indian private sector. To improve India’s connectivity and energy cooperation India will have to play a pro-active role both bilaterally and through regional cooperative mechanisms. In this regard, India will have to factor both China and Pakistan in addition to its cooperation with Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/SMKrishnasVisittoTajikistan_MeenaSRoy_050712