Modi’s Central Asia Visit: New Opportunities, New Approach – Analysis


By S. Daultrey*

The visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all five countries in Central Asia is India’s first since those countries gained independence and rivals the 2013 tour by Chinese President Xi Jinping (who visited four), which produced investment and loan agreements on energy, trade and infrastructure. The outcome of the visit for India has been full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and renewed pledges of investments in energy, collaboration on regional security and revitalised trade relations.

Any regional visit of this scale prompts questions about how and where such an itinerary and agenda can produce useful results, in timeframes that are relevant at home and to the citizens of each partner country. The conjoining of a regional tour with attendance at the 15th SCO meeting partially illustrates the rationale: it is well understood that the countries of Central Asia prefer bilateral relations with outsiders (and this is illustrated in the preferences of others towards the region, notably China and the US) but will utilise SCO when convenient.

This feature of regional relationships should figure large in India’s strategic calculus. It is clear India has a larger role to play in and with Central Asia. But how? Should India coordinate a single Central Asia policy, continue to maintain bilateral relations, or some combination thereof?

Founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, the SCO has principally functioned as a joint security alliance. Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia have observer nation status; Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka have dialogue partner status. Former observers India and Pakistan were admitted during the summit as full members.

Russian and Chinese are the official working languages and the secretariat is located in Beijing.

The US has requested observer status to SCO but has been turned down. The SCO is variously seen as an alliance, a regional cooperation organisation, a loose alignment of foreign policies, a platform for a security council and as a trade organisation, with China and Russia commonly perceived as its most powerful members. It may be more accurate to view it as a collective of shared interests based on common challenges and shared cultural heritage. For India, ancient Silk Road connections with the countries of Central Asia offer a clear strategic advantage here over other international actors.

Analysts have argued that SCO has demonstrated real progress in Central Asia only in counter-terrorism and security (particularly since 2006), with economic cooperation more an aspiration than a reality. SCO certainly plays a role in the theatre of China-Russia relations across Central Asia which, as succinctly described by Bobo Lo “eschew formal alliances in favour of more flexible and opportunistic arrangements”. Outsiders (including the US) should not fear China’s utilisation of SCO in its foreign policy strategy: a more nuanced view of how China selectively manages its regional relations bilaterally and collectively, through platforms including the SCO, teaches much about how to ‘do business’ in the region and reveals subtleties about the regional security complex at work in Central Asia, where countries seek to balance internal rivalries with the merits of their collective action while exercising caution about engaging with outsiders.

For India, Central Asia could become a theatre of competition with rivals, or a catalyst for multi-scale collaboration in trade and security. India’s re-engagement with Central Asia is also useful for dealing with concerns in the margins, e.g. energy relationships with Iran (oil and gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan and the long-awaited TAPI pipeline, which may perhaps be eased with lifting of sanctions on Iran) and stability in Afghanistan (India has a military base in Tajikistan).

India already cooperates bilaterally with Kazakhstan on nuclear energy, space flight and cyber-security; with Uzbekistan on joint military training exercises and building electricity infrastructure; and with Tajikistan on counter-terrorism and hydropower. The ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy announced in Bishkek in June 2012 added only marginally to the existing menu of activities, but did at least describe the vision in one frame, in terms accessible to would-be investors from India. The policy included ambitions for establishing universities, hospitals and information technology centres, an e-network in telemedicine connecting India to Central Asia (demonstrated in Dushanbe during Prime Minister Modi’s visit), facilitation of joint commercial ventures, improved civilian air connectivity with Delhi to boost trade and tourism, joint scientific research and partnerships in defence and security. To date, direct air links and new commercial ventures illustrate some progress; security and defence partnerships were already established and have continued.

The Modi government could now re-examine the scope of the Connect Central Asia policy in the context of the new strategic environment. Investors and commentators are animated about the opportunities in the energy sector: realising their visions will require a delicate balancing of bilateral relations with Turkmenistan (not party to the SCO) and Kazakhstan. Sectors other than energy must be brought into the mix, to deliver more immediate returns. It is perhaps also the right moment to ‘deal with’ Afghanistan: both India’s role in post-conflict operations and India’s economic interests there (particularly in mining), for which Tajikistan could be an important ally. Membership of SCO may help with India’s participation in regional stability tasks and perhaps even help to draw out a more balanced view of SCO in the international arena.

On the multifaceted ‘security’ agenda, the first questions should be, security for whom? By whom? And where? For ‘security’ encompasses a range of issues on multiple timeframes and scales, including: defence of territory and nation-state; cooperation between countries on issues of shared concern (like drugs trafficking and terrorism); manufacture and movement of defence equipment and personnel; border patrol and customs services; countering financial crime and fraud; and the non-traditional security agenda on issues like assuring clean water and guaranteeing food and energy supplies. For each of these, cross-border exchange of information is essential.

In essence, ‘security’ is a human issue: it is about feeling safe in communities, economies and decisions. It is deeply local. Beyond this month’s landmark tour, how will India engage with countries in Central Asia on ‘security’? Will we see those Tajik border guards who are stationed in facilities built with money from Europe and the US carrying equipment manufactured in Bangalore? Will joint training exercises between Indian and Central Asian militaries, perhaps in collaboration with new education centres, produce trained personnel proficient in local languages who are ready to combat at-source the virus of the narcotics trade? Can Indian scientific expertise contribute to securing water quality in Central Asia’s most fragile mountain ecosystems?

The issues present a menu of options that must be translated into short-term trade, investment and tangible deliverables (probably in energy, mining, space and satellites, possibly in urban infrastructure and education); while managing the tricky, contextual longer-term issue of strong relationships – bilateral and otherwise. In the past, India benefitted from its axis of trust with Russia; now that China has assumed (and is likely to keep) a more dominant role, this strategy needs refreshing.

Some tasks will call for ‘regional’, others may require bilateral or trilateral initiatives. Being flexible and opportunistic is an appropriate approach. Concurrently, a comprehensive Indian policy that is empathetic, nuanced, cool-headed and implemented with precision timing is imperative.

*Sally Daultrey is an Independent Research Analyst based in New Delhi. She works in science diplomacy and researches on networks, borders and boundaries in Central Asia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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