Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Central Asia recently to enhance India’s linkages with a strategically critical region at a time when major powers are competing for influence in the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia has made its determination to restore some of its historical influence over its former Soviet empire clear. But it is China that is making the real splash in the region.

Though Russia and China are planning to enhance their engagement in Central Asia and have decided to coordinate their policies in the region, Beijing’s economic transformation of the lands west of its restive Xinjiang province has gathered pace in the last decade. With China spending billions of dollars on infrastructure and energy projects to link up the region, it has emerged as the main trading partner of four of the five Central Asian countries that gained independence from Moscow in 1991.

Unlike China, which shares a border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, India’s transit to the region lies through Pakistan and Afghanistan, limiting its reach. Yet 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 India’s threat perceptions, which stabilized only after the U.S. presence in the region began to grow from 2001.

India’s ties with the regional states are increasing. India views itself as a stabilizer and security provider in the region, and with its growing economic clout an attractive economic power for regional states. India’s interest in securing reliable energy supplies and trade through Central Asia remains substantial. Besides oil and gas, energy-hungry India is eyeing imports of uranium from both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

India has long wanted to play a larger role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and has been seeking support from individual member states for quite some time. However, New Delhi has not been successful in achieving an upgrade in its observer status. The organization has failed to achieve a consensus on India’s role in the grouping. India was admitted as an observer at the 2005 Astana summit along with Iran and Pakistan. Though the 2010 Tashkent summit lifted the moratorium on new membership, India’s role in the grouping remained a marginal one. With Russian backing, India will now be joining the SCO next year.

Against this backdrop, Indian strategy has focused on developing strong bilateral partnerships in the region. With Uzbekistan, India has signed a pact on the import of over 2,000 tons of uranium much like the one India has signed with Kazakhstan. India is also exploring with Uzbekistan the possibility of extending the Friendship Railway Bridge to Herat in western Afghanistan. The requirements of energy security also postulate a continuing positive relationship with Moscow and friendly ties with all the Central Asian states. India must create firm ties with the energy-exporting states of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, if possible, Turkmenistan

But India has so far failed to invest the diplomatic capital that the region demands. India tried to open an air facility in Ayni, Tajikistan, in 2002 to guard against growing instability in the region though nothing much happened on that front for long. And in 2010 the Tajik government officially made it clear that Russia is the only country likely to use the air base in the future. This happened despite India spending around $70 million between 2002 and 2010 to renovate the Ayni base and extending the Ayni runway to 3,200 meters as well as installing state-of-the-art navigational and air-defense equipment there. Meanwhile, China managed to win the competition for the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan and the Dauletabad gas field in Turkmenistan. The much-hyped Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, which is supposed to transport gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, has yet to get off the ground.

With a strategic approach toward Central Asia, China has made significant headway in the region with $10 billion in grant and aid to SCO members and development of regional linkages with its western region. China’s trade with the Central Asian region crossed the $50 billion mark in 2013. Meanwhile, trade between Central Asia and India remains much below potential, struggling to hit $2 billion. India’s lack of a direct overland access to the region due to Pakistan’s reluctance to allow Indian goods to pass through its territory has constrained India’s trade interests from growing in the Central Asian region. Consequently, trade with the region remains far below its potential. India’s much touted International North-South Transport Corridor aimed at expanding India’s trade and investment links with Central Asia remains a work in progress.

It is time for New Delhi to give the region sustained attention it deserves. A single visit by the Indian prime minister won’t suffice in the face of the Chinese onslaught in the region. Otherwise, soon China will be able to claim the region as another one of its backyards and India will have to struggle to make it relevant despite its long-standing cultural links.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London with a focus on Asian security.

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