Monday, July 9, 2012

India’s Connect Central Asia Policy

The Central Asian Republics

“India is now looking intently at the region through the framework of its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which is based on pro-active political, economic and people-to –people engagement with Central Asian Countries, both individually and collectively”
MOS Shri E. Ahamed at First India-Central Asia Dialogue 12 June 2012

The “Connect Central Asia” policy of India was unveiled in a dialogue forum in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan by Indian MOS and elaborated upon some more by the visit of Mr SM Krishna, the Foreign Minister during his visit to Tajikistan on 02-03 July 2012- the first in nine years.

The geostrategic importance of Central Asian Republic (CAR) for India is primarily borne from the economic and security ramifications of the region. The region, also called the underbelly of Eurasia, is a rich resource of hydrocarbons and lies on the old silk route – connecting China and South Asia to West Asia and Europe. However, Indian connectivity is severely hampered by absence of any means of rail and road connectivity to Afghanistan or CAR due to the ongoing war on terror and the American belligerent stand towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Together these two have virtually isolated India. India’s only hope now lies in a reconciliation between the West and Iran which would provide a North South corridor to India from Chahabar and Bandar Abbas ports in Iran to Hajigak/Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea. The sea and land connectivity thereafter provide multiple options. Till this dream is fulfilled there is no succor for India to operationalise its foreign policy to Connect Central Asia meaningfully.

On the other hand China has made great inroads into the CAR, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fructify its Silk Road. As per Parag Khanna:-

China has built roads, railways and pipelines across resource-rich region which create an opportunity for others. Siberian timber, Mongolian iron ore, Kazakh oil, Turkmen natural gas and Afghan copper are already channelled directly to China through a newly built East-bound network that is fuelling the rapid development of the world’s largest population.Oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Kazakhstan, the recently opened gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and other planned roads and railways across Russia as well as down to the deep-sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan are all part of China’s effort to turn Central Asia from a region of buffer states into a transit corridor between East and West. Beijing’s leaders have rightfully looked to Eurasia as a rich source of natural resources to fuel their booming economy.

China has seized the opportunity and is willing to bankroll pipeline projects for the CAR oil. Turkmen gas supplies to China reached over 20 billion cubic metres in January , more than two-thirds the target volume for the end of 2012. The China-Turkmenistan runs over 2,000 Kilometers from Turkmen via Uzbekistan and Kazakstan to China, where it links up with the domestic network. At the moment, it mostly carries Turkmen gas, although Uzbekistan has committed to providing 25 billion cubic metres a year. Another ten billion cu m annually will come from Kazakstan’s gas fields. In China, the Central Asian countries have an investor that is willing to bankroll large-scale infrastructure projects – and not just in the energy sector – and that has proved effective in implementing them.

Europe is also planning the Nabucco pipeline route through Turkey, linking up to Azerbaijan and the Caspian. Turkmenistan – along with Azerbaijan and Iraq – would be one of the main sources of gas for that route.

While the West and China may see this as an opportunity the basic problem with India is North South connectivity because of which the resource rich region can serve no meaningful purpose. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) and Iran-Pakistan-India(IPI) pipelines are mere dreams as long as Pakistan and Afghanistan burn in violent fires of the War on Terror. Given the best and worst case scenarios emerging out of post 2014 Af Pak and the India Pak hostility there is little hope that these pipes and associated road and rail infrastructure would see light of the day any time soon.

Notwithstanding Parag Khanna’s oversimplification of geographical lines on maps being subservient to growth of economies, as is being proved by China, there is little evidence of the same happening to India’s advantage. His romanticism that the world stop playing great games in the region is at best utopian given the current geopolitical interests of NATO against the rest (SCO). In fact there are three grand strategies at work in CAR – American, Chinese and Russian, all at variance for meeting their own strategic goals. America has also unveiled its New Silk Road strategy excluding Iran from the network.

US also has long-term interests in collaborating with India to serve its post 2014 interests in the region to obviate vacuum created by the draw down. Whether US and India can cooperate in CAR is a big “if”.

Amidst such connectivity and geopolitical dogmas, India’s options in CAR get restricted to promoting limited commerce and soft power. The operative part of the 12 point “Connect Central Asia” policy thus is:-

9. As for land connectivity, we have reactivated the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). We need to join our efforts to discuss ways to bridge the missing links in the Corridor at the earliest and also work on other connecting spurs along the route.

It thus boils down to India promoting its interests in the region through exchange of high level visits, strengthening strategic and security cooperation including counter terrorism efforts, fructify proposal of Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement to integrate its markets with the unifying Eurasian space (Current cumulative trade with CAR stands at $500 Million), medicine, energy, agriculture, e networks, infrastructure, banking, air connectivity and people to people exchanges. It calls for close cooperation with Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan to make this policy reflective of a multi polar world.

India thus shall have to wait out the current geopolitical quagmire in Af Pak before any meaningful solution to the INSTC is found to manage connectivity. Unfortunately, there is no scope for Jugaad (improvisation) here. We can also argue that India has no such restrictions in improving connectivity to South East Asia through Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand and beyond. Delivery has been a major Indian weakness.

No amount of prodding the private sector to participate in India-CAR trade can be possible unless the connectivity issue is resolved. In the absence of that our investments would have to be restricted unless the government takes proactive unilateral initiatives with the optimism that one day the INSTC would fructify. Whether India transcends its risk aversion remains to be seen.

There is a new Great Game being played here. India will have to hedge its bets carefully with its long-term interests in mind.

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