Indian Prime Minister Modi organized the first India-Central Asia Summit on Thursday that the latter’s heads of the state attended virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian leader declared in his opening remarks that the meeting had three objectives:
- Expanding cooperation in the interests of regional security and prosperity
- Establishing effective structures for facilitating further cooperation
- Creating a roadmap for cooperation
Judging by reports, all three of these goals were achieved.
The Hindu reported that “PM Modi also proposed a number of high-level exchanges between the two sides, including bi-annual summits, and annual meetings of the Foreign, Trade and Cultural Ministers and Secretaries of Security (National Security Advisors) to ‘strengthen cooperation in the areas of political and development, partnership, trade and connectivity, culture and tourism and security”. They also claimed that joint working groups on Afghanistan and Chabahar would be established.
These outcomes suggest that both sides decided to make their relations strategic. This also importantly aligns with the joint vision articulated in the 99-paragraph strategic partnership deal that was agreed to between Russia and India during President Putin’s visit in early December. The 93rd paragraph specifically states that “The sides agreed to explore mutually acceptable and beneficial areas of cooperation in third countries especially in Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa.”
Therefore, it can be assumed that India’s proactive strategic engagement with Central Asia has Russia’s blessing. This observation conforms with reports in early January that the two sides exchanged a white paper about cooperation in Central Asia. All of this suggests that their unstated desire to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”) is swiftly proceeding, with Central Asia chosen as the pilot region for experimenting with this new model of Russian-Indian cooperation.
This is being done because Russia already enjoys enormous influence there while the local population has lots of goodwill towards India. The Central Asian states also want to preemptively avert any potentially disproportionate dependence on their new Chinese economic partner investing in cross-continental connectivity projects in their territories. These include the Eurasian Land-Bridge to the EU, the Middle Corridor to Turkey, and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor to Iran.
With this in mind, it makes sense for Russia to endorse India’s geo-economically driven outreaches to Central Asia tacitly. The vision seems to engage with the Central Asian Republics via Iran’s Chabahar port project. From there, connectivity will be achieved via Turkmenistan and/or Afghanistan. The challenge, however, is that it’s much quicker and more efficient for the Central Asian countries to utilize February 2021’s plan to create a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway.
That project will arguably take away from Chabahar’s lustre, but that doesn’t mean that this joint Indo-Iranian project is doomed. Instead, it just means that expectations on its use must be tempered in order to not become unrealistic and thus lead to disappointment. Furthermore, India can economically engage with Central Asia more than just via trade. For instance, Indian companies can invest more in Central Asia and help develop those countries. That would be a mutually beneficial form of cooperation.
Vaccine diplomacy and other healthcare-related outreaches could lead to India obtaining more visibility in the region, too, as could the continued export of Bollywood films and other forms of soft power engagement. India cannot economically compete with China due to how deeply entrenched the People’s Republic already is in Central Asia and its much more grandiose geo-economic engagement there, but the South Asian state can brainstorm creative means of improving bilateral ties.
Whatever form this takes must be seen as equally alluring to whatever China’s doing, if not more. This second-mentioned suggestion is influenced by the expectation that those countries’ utilization of Chabahar will carry higher costs than PAKAFUZ, so they need to have a reason to rely on it, even if only to a limited extent. One possibility could be partial subsidizations of the companies that employ this route initially to help them achieve some momentum.
With time, India hopes to create a new geo-economic corridor between itself, Iran, and Central Asia that’ll mutually benefit all of them, but the key qualifier is that this will indeed take some time to materialize. Nevertheless, it’s laudable that India has begun proactively engaging the region with this vision in mind, which is tacitly endorsed by its special and privileged Russian strategic partner. If successful, Central Asia will prove that the Neo-NAM is strategically viable and beneficial.