India intensifies regional engagements to regain space

Hosting back-to-back meetings and inviting Central Asian leaders to attend Republic Day parade shows India’s bid to regain position in region.

India intensifies regional engagements to regain space

After an initial shock and wait and watch policy after the Taliban took over Kabul in August, India is calibrating to regain space in Afghanistan and its neighborhood by trying to evolve a “regional consensus”.

A month after it hosted a regional summit of national security advisors of Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, India arranged a meeting of five Central Asian countries on Afghanistan in New Delhi on Sunday. The situation in Afghanistan and the mounting economic and humanitarian crisis took center stage at the meet.

Addressing the meeting, Indian Foreign Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar said India was pursuing 4Cs -- commerce, capacity enhancement, connectivity, and contact for taking its diplomatic relations with Central Asian states to the next level.

Significantly, India has invited leaders of five Central Asian nations to attend its Republic Day parade on Jan. 26 as chief guests.

According to Kazakh scholar Bibigul Dosova, India’s present leadership is persistently pursuing to consolidate its position in the extended neighborhood.

“While it is not the region’s leading player, especially when Chinese partnership in the region is on the ascendency, it (India) is taking steps that may enable it to acquire a significant position,” said the scholar.

The escape of President Ashraf Ghani and the takeover of the Taliban had created anxious moments for India, as it had invested heavily in the Kabul government. India has found common interests with Central Asian states as both are concerned about the threats of terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking. India seeks an increased alignment in the region to dilute and deter any consequences which are deemed unexpected or undesired.

India’s interest in Afghanistan

While Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rasit Meredow tried to highlight the significance of
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, not enough enthusiasm was noticeable among the Indian officials.

This suggests that in the short-term New Delhi is satisfied with the present arrangement that it has with the fuel suppliers.

Uzbek analyst Ildar Yakubov believed that the interest taken by India in Afghanistan’s affairs remains far greater than the cooperation it pursues with Central Asian states. He said this shows that India’s interests are more guided by geopolitics than geoeconomics.

Kazakh scholar Yerlan Syzdykbekov said India was trying its best to use spheres of its strength to reach out to the region. India has offered that its technical and economic cooperation program can build capacity and develop human resources in Central Asian countries, focusing on information technology and communication skills in the English language.

The participants agreed to continue engagement for further developing the transit and transport potential, improving the logistics network of the region, and promoting joint initiatives to create regional and international transport corridors.

For enhancing connectivity between India and the Central Asian countries, participants expressed a collective desire to make optimum usage of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor. By pursuing transportation with Central Asia, India seeks to carve out a space in the regional logistic landscape.

Linkages to rival Chinese’s BRI

Yakubov says that India has been pursuing linkages between its commercial capital Mumbai and the Russian port city of Saint Petersburg as part of plans to rival the East-West corridors developed by China under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The declaration issued at the end of the conference sought the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of which all six participating nations are members to play a more constructive role in securing peace and sustainable development, advancing regional cooperation, and consolidating good neighborly relations and mutual trust.

Yakubov said while all Central Asian states support the Chinese BRI, India has taken a different position. He said that resorting to a zero-sum by India as well as China would only increase uncertainty in the region.

The declaration reiterated support for permanent membership of India in an expanded and reformed UN Security Council. This is in line with New Delhi’s long-held desire to acquire a permanent seat at the UNSC.

The Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev sought the support of other participants to declare 2022 as the International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development. His Uzbek counterpart offered to host a high-level UN-led International Forum on green energy in 2022 in the Nukus town of Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan province.

India looked forward to Central Asian countries joining the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure to enable participating countries to handle natural calamities with better measures.

Tajikistan also proposed to convene an International Conference on Water for Sustainable Development, from June 6-9, 2022, in Dushanbe. The country also solicited support for their proposal to declare 2025 the International Year of Glacier Conservation and the creation of an international foundation for the protection of glaciers.

AA/Zaki Shaikh

Hüseyin Demir