Modi’s trip to Central Asia, Russia have boosted India’s multi-directional strategy

Indo Pakistan BorderIf prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy were to be measured on a compass, the pointer towards the northern direction had until recently been looking empty. But this deficit has now been filled. After ‘Act East’, ‘Link West’ and proactive Indian Ocean diplomacy to the South of India’s landmass, he has turned attention to Eurasia in order to connect North.

His trips to all five countries of Central Asia in one go, as well as Russia, from July 6 to 13, have boosted India’s multi-directional strategy. They have strengthened our presence in a geopolitically vital region labelled historically as the ‘heartland’ determining the fate of the world.

A Three-horse Race

Following the ‘Great Game’ of the 19th century, when the Russian and British empires contended over Central Asia, and the Cold War era when the Soviet Union and America locked horns, the last two decades have witnessed China entering as a formidable player in energy and infrastructural development in the five Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Beijing’s inroads in Central Asia have taken the familiar route of targeted economic penetration that binds these nations in a web of dependence marked by modernisation projects and captive energy deals.

Despite the advancing strategic partnership between Russia and China, the fact that the latter has stolen a march on the former in Central Asia is not lost on any observer. In the words of Paul Coyer of Forbes magazine, the post-Soviet Central Asian space is “stuck between the dominant power of yesterday, Russia, and the dominant power of tomorrow, China.”

Since the most recent war in Afghanistan (geographically more a Central Asian state, although a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC), American military operations have meant that the region has been subjected to essentially a three-horse race.

Modi’s energetic diplomacy last week demonstrated that India can be the fourth seeker of influence there.

Speaking at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, he enjoined governments and peoples in the region to remember that “as Central Asia links to the East and the West, it must also connect to the South, for that is how it always was.” His pointed reference to the ‘South’ is to India and the subcontinent, which offer a way out of the dilemma that Central Asians confront after becoming sandwiched between Russia and China.

The palpitation that countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have been undergoing under the looming Chinese shadow over their energy sectors has generated an opening that Modi is trying to exploit.

His push for India to be admitted into the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Oman-Iran transport corridor for natural gas was welcomed by the nations concerned which realise how valuable the Indian market is at a time when energy prices have touched bottom.

The setback to in Kazakhstan, which blocked Indian acquisition of a prized oil well, has been made up via a new oil concession in the north Caspian sea where our energy major holds minority stakes. Modi has also extracted commitments from Kazakhstan for “additional mature blocks for Indian investment”, besides fresh contracts for uranium supply.

Need for Diversification

The reason why Central Asians are eagerly letting India in is because of their widely perceived need for diversification away from the big two — China and Russia. India would like to project that it is not replaying the harmful ‘Great Game’ but providing greater freedom to Central Asia, which treasures its independence.

As a relatively declining power in Central Asia vis-a-vis ascendant China, Russia deems a growing Indian footprint there as desirable.

Modi specially thanked Russian president Vladimir Putin for facilitating India’s admission into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a security-focussed group that includes four Central Asian states, China and Russia. If not for Russia’s persuasion, the Chinese could have stymied our access to SCO out of fear that New Delhi may compete with Beijing in Central Asia.

Pakistan’s full membership of SCO is a Chinese ploy to ‘balance’ the reshuffled makeup of this important multilateral body. But ironically, the fact that both Pakistan and India are now going to be SCO members raises possibilities of improved bilateral relations between the two South Asian neighbours, igniting hopes of a regional solution to the war in Afghanistan.

During this marathon six-nation tour, Modi invoked India’s heritage of moderate Islam and its complementarity with the Sovietised Islam of Central Asia. The real challenge for Indian diplomacy after the PM has done the spade work is to ensure that the SCO and BRICS, whose members issue communiques denouncing religious extremism, walk the talk.

China’s repeated siding with Pakistan on the issue of letting internationally proscribed jihadists like Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks, off the hook is an indicator of the obstacles that lie ahead. The only satisfaction is that as a full member, India can rally SCO for action against all shades of terrorism, thereby exposing countries which practise double standards. Modi’s Northern voyage has equipped India with several agenda-shaping levers in the ‘heartland’. (Economic Times)

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