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How 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue helps make great strides towards a stronger partnership

How 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue helps make great strides towards a stronger partnership, the vie

India is pro-actively engaging the leadership and people of Central Asia to realise the full potential of the bilateral and regional partnership

The third India-Central Asia Dialogue (India-CAD) was held in New Delhi on 18-19 December 2021. Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — visited India at the invitation of their Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, to participate in this Dialogue.

It is commendable that the foreign ministers of the five countries travelled to India in these uncertain times when the threat of Omicron, the new variant of coronavirusHow 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue helps make great strides towards a stronger partnership, the vie , is raging around the world. This is testimony to the importance that these countries accord to their relations with India. It is particularly noteworthy that they opted to come to India when a Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to discuss humanitarian aid to Afghanistan was taking place next door in Islamabad. Also, the Secretaries, National Security Councils of these countries were in India just over a month ago for the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue convened by India.

The geopolitical significance of these countries is not only due to the huge riches of natural and mineral resources including oil, gas, uranium, iron ore, copper, coal, water etc., that these countries possess but also on account of the connectivity by rail and road as well as through oil and gas pipelines that these countries provide to their neighbours.

Their proximity to Afghanistan has also enhanced their role in trying to bring peace and stability to that unstable and volatile country. All the five Central Asian states are at risk of infiltration of terrorist groups as well as drugs and refugees from Afghanistan to their countries.

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Over the years, the Central Asian countries have become active partners of China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Antipathy against China in many of these countries has however grown because of the rapidly expanding Chinese footprint in their economic and political systems as also due to the incarceration and persecution of several Kyrgyz and Kazakh Muslims along with Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. These have resulted in many anti-Chinese protests in these countries.

Central Asia is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood with which it has had strong and vibrant cultural and civilisational ties through millennia. In the present day context, India’s security, trade, economic and physical connectivity, energy security, etc, are closely linked to Central Asia.

Connectivity, Afghanistan, COVID-19How 3rd India-Central Asia Dialogue helps make great strides towards a stronger partnership, the vie and trade dominated the discussions at the Dialogue. In addition to strengthening bilateral cooperation and promoting regional security, the Central Asian countries would like to balance the growing dominance of China in the region.

In his opening statement, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar exhorted the ministers to take the already robust ties to the next level by focusing on the 4Cs: Commerce, Capacity enhancement, Connectivity and Contacts. The 29-para long comprehensive and detailed Joint Statement issued at the end of the deliberations seeks exactly to achieve this.

On the bilateral front, the ministers “welcomed the signing of MoUs for implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) for socio-economic development in Central Asian countries, based on grant assistance by India”. It would be recalled that at the last Dialogue held virtually in October 2020, India had offered a Line of Credit of $1 billion for infrastructure development projects in Central Asian countries.

The ministers mandated their senior officials to hasten progress in this regard. Rapid and timely implementation of these projects would determine the success of the India-CAD initiative as it will instill confidence in the Central Asian states about India’s determination to reinvigorate the partnership.

The potential for expanding trade and investment between India and Central Asia is enormous. The biggest obstacle in deepening such partnership is the absence of common contiguous borders. With Pakistan refusing to provide access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through its territory, India has sought to overcome this impediment by developing connectivity through the Chabahar port in Iran as well as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Central Asia and Russia.

While focusing on the optimum use of the INSTC as well as the Ashgabat Agreement to enhance connectivity, the ministers stressed that “connectivity initiatives should be based on the principles of transparency, broad participation, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries”. This is an indirect but pointed reference to the deficiencies of projects undertaken by China under the BRI. Ministers also welcomed the proposal made by India last year to include Chabahar Port within the framework of INSTC.

The ministers expressed their commitment to achieving the full potential of trade, especially in sectors like pharmaceuticals, information technology, agriculture, energy, textiles, gems and jewellery, etc. They also focused on establishing direct linkages between the States of India and Regions of Central Asian countries, including through the establishment of twinning/partnership relations between them. The ministers encouraged the India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC), established early last year, “to promote business linkages and incentivize mutual investments.’’

Several areas like healthcare, including medical tourism, pilgrimage, historical and cultural tourism, encouraging investment in tourism infrastructure, etc were identified for focused attention.

The ministers agreed to collaborate in the area of defence and security and hold regular consultations among the National Security Councils of the countries to fight against terrorism and other emerging challenges in the region.

On Afghanistan, the ministers inter alia emphasised the respect for sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity and non-interference in its internal affairs. This was a veiled dig at Pakistan. Ministers also decided to continue to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. They “reaffirmed the importance of UNSC Resolution 2593 (2021) which unequivocally demands that Afghan territory not be used for sheltering, training, planning or financing terrorist acts and called for concerted action against all terrorist groups”. They noted the broad ‘regional consensus’ on the formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking….and preserving the rights of women, children and other national ethnic groups.

The ministers reiterated their support for a permanent seat for India in an expanded UN Security Council. India invited the Central Asian countries to join the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

The joint statement contains strong words condemning “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”. It contains the standard Indian language against “providing safe haven, using terrorist proxies for cross-border terrorism, terror financing, arms and drugs trafficking”, etc, and that “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice”.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the five countries in July 2015 just after a year of forming a government in New Delhi had invigorated India’s bilateral ties with the individual countries as well as the region. The Third-CAD has imparted greater confidence and dynamism to these relations.

India is in discussion with the five Central Asian States to invite their presidents jointly as chief guests to the Republic Day celebrations in 2022 to mark 30 years of establishment of diplomatic relations. This would be similar to the visit of ten ASEAN leaders in 2018. An announcement to this effect could be made soon after concurrence is received from all the countries.

In addition to participating in the India-Central Asia Dialogue, the Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin paid a bilateral visit to India from 18-20 December, 2021. This visit assumes significance because Tajikistan has emerged as one of the strongest critics of the Taliban regime in Kabul and is the only Central Asian country not to have any interaction with the Taliban. Its position on Afghanistan is very similar to that espoused by India.

Going forward

India enjoys huge goodwill in Central Asia. It is creditable that the Indian government is pro-actively engaging the leadership and people of these countries to realise the full potential of the bilateral and regional partnership. The India-Central Asia Dialogue is an excellent platform to achieve this objective.

The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.

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