LONDON – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kazakhstan last month is a reminder of the Central Asian stakes for Indian foreign policy.
While Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev needed legitimacy for his re-election victory that has been criticized in Western capitals, for New Delhi there are real issues in that part of the world that concern its national security and economic growth.
Not surprisingly, the two main areas that were given serious consideration were the civilian nuclear cooperation pact and the situation in Afghanistan. New Delhi and Astana signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which provides a legal framework for cooperation in this field including fuel supply, joint mining of uranium, reactor safety mechanisms and construction and operation of nuclear power plants.
Nazarbayev also affirmed that his nation is on course to fulfill its commitment of supplying 2100 tons of uranium to India by 2014. On Afghanistan, the two sides agreed that “it was essential that renewed efforts were made to sufficiently build up the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces.”
President Nazarbayev won overwhelming approval in the presidential election held in early April with more than 95.5 percent of the votes but the world community remained unimpressed. The elections were widely considered a sham as an absence of opposition candidates and a vibrant political discourse had resulted in a non-competitive electoral environment in the country.
Nazarbayev’s domination has been so complete that no serious political competition has been able to emerge and yet much of the population reveres him, as he is credited with keeping Kazakhstan protected from the turmoil that has roiled otherCentral Asian nations such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Manmohan’s visit to Astana gave Nazarbayev a much needed opportunity to showcase his international acceptability as the leader of a strategically vital state in Central Asia.
Major powers have competed for power and influence in Central Asia since the 19th century and that “Great Game” seems to be back with a bang.
The importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that has evolved into a forum for discussion on regional security and economic issues cannot be overstated in this context. It has become even more important post-9/11, because growing ethnic nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism is a major cause of concern for Russia, China and Central Asian states.
Russia and China have been successful in using the strong aversion of the United States to terrorism since 9/11 for their own ends to tackle Islamic insurgency within their territories.
In the post-9/11 environment, the SCO serves as a means to keep control of Central Asia and limit U.S. influence in the region. In fact, the SCO denounced the misuse of antiterror war to target any country and threw its weight behind the U.N. in an attempt to show its disagreement with the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
India’s growing interests in Central Asia are well-recognized. There is a growing convergence between U.S. and Indian interests, especially their reluctance to see the region fall under the exclusive influence of Russia or China.
India was worried in the 1990s when Russian influence in Central Asia weakened substantially with a commensurate rise in Chinese influence. This negatively impacted Indian threat perceptions, which stabilized only after the growing U.S. presence in the region since 2001.
India views itself as a stabilizer and security provider in the region and with its growing economic clout, an attractive economic power for region state. India’s interest in securing reliable energy supplies and trade through Central Asia remains substantial.
There is a seamless logical web from the objective of ensuring Central Asian stability and India’s voice there to the conclusion that India must also ensure reliable energy access to oil and gas sources originating in Central Asia.
The requirements of energy security also postulate a continuing positive relationship with Moscow — even had the past 60 years not been one of unbroken friendship — and friendly ties to all the Central Asian states. India must create firm ties among the energy-exporting states of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, if possible,Turkmenistan.
It should be no surprise then that India’s ties with the regional states are growing. Moreover, the imperatives of getting Afghanistan right are stronger than ever today when the situation is rapidly deteriorating.
India opened its air base in Ayni, Tajikistan, in 2002 to guard against growing instability in the region, though nothing much has happened on that front for a long time. India’s ties with regional states are growing and moderate Islam of the region makes it imperative for India to engage the region more substantively.
Other powers, barring China, have recognized this reality and have sought to harness India toward achieving common goals. Russia, for example, supports Indian membership in the SCO and has talked about the possibility of India participating in the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
A great power competition in Central Asia will make it harder for India to pursue its interests in Central Asia. As such, it becomes imperative for Indian diplomacy to work toward major power cooperation to bring some measure of stability to Afghanistan as well as the larger Central Asian region.
The Indian prime minister has made a start by bringing Kazakhstan back on India’s diplomatic radar. It remains to be seen whether New Delhi can harness its growing profile in the region to its diplomatic advantage.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.