On December 6, senior security officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan arrived in New Delhi for the first meeting of India-Central Asia national security advisers. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval highlighted India-Central Asia ties and stressed their common common interests, such as stabilizing the security situation in Afghanistan and strengthening territorial integrity.
The meeting came 10 months after the first-ever India-Central Asia Summit, which reignited momentum for the development of a burgeoning India-Central Asia relationship.
In January 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the India-Central Asia Summit, which was attended by all five Central Asian heads of state. The virtual meeting demonstrated India’s commitment to its “enlarged neighborhood policy,” which calls for New Delhi to diversify its geopolitical partners and diplomatic objectives, as well as its willingness to engage its Central Asian partners on a variety of fronts.
Despite the open-mindedness of Central Asian governments, crises such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, global inflation, food insecurity and strategic concerns have overshadowed India’s ambitions to bridge the geopolitical divide with Central Asia. As the recent NSA meeting between India and Central Asian states has demonstrated, security remains at the heart of India-Central Asia relations, but India needs to forge links with this dynamic region through transit, trade, investment and people-to-people connections around New Delhi amidst geopolitical turmoil to consolidate challenges as a reliable and lasting partner in Central Asia.
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India-Central Asia Relations: A Security Focus
Countering violent extremism has long been at the heart of India-Central Asia relations. In 1995, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon stated that Dushanbe and New Delhi needed to coordinate to protect their institutions from malicious terrorist groups. Since then, bilateral relations have been characterized by joint counter-terrorism initiatives such as the Tajikistan-India Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism.
In addition, India has sought to increase its security presence in the region by renovating military bases in Tajikistan. During the Northern Alliance era, India operated a military hospital in Farkhor district of Tajikistan to care for opposition fighters against the Taliban. It was shut down after the Northern Alliance was dissolved, but rumors circulated – albeit without evidence – that India maintained an air force presence in Farkhor. India spent about US$70 million to refurbish Tajikistan’s Ayni Air Base between 2002 and 2010. There have been no reports of India having any aircraft stationed at the base and experts say it remains unused. If operational, the air bases would give India a strategic advantage over its two adversaries: China and Pakistan. Tajikistan is close to the Wakhan Corridor, which connects Afghanistan and China and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
India joined the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – as a full member in 2017. The grouping provides a forum for New Delhi to develop security ties with Astana, Bishkek and Tashkent, contributing to robust relations with Dushanbe. For example, India hosted the SCO’s Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure (RATS) joint counter-terrorism exercise, in which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia participated. The joint exercise reaffirms the security partnership between India and Central Asia and helps India forge comprehensive partnerships across Central Asia.
Geopolitical pressures are changing relationships
Changing perceptions of critical security threats are affecting India-Central Asia relations. While the SCO aims to address regional security concerns, its expansion to include India, Pakistan and most recently Iran has somewhat reshaped security discussions within the organization. At the safety-focused organization’s recent summit, India identified trade cooperation amid pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and rising energy and food import costs as critical areas of concern.
India will serve as the rotating chair of the organization and will host the 2023 summit. His position as SCO President could give New Delhi the opportunity to shape next year’s agenda to prioritize inter-regional connectivity and shared economic issues.
Modi has previously advocated strengthening connectivity with Central Asia. Modi met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the 22nd SCO Summit, held in Samarkand in September, to highlight the expansion of their countries’ bilateral ties.
Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan have exposed the geopolitical vulnerability of landlocked Central Asia. India should seize the opportunity to strengthen itself as a steadfast partner of Central Asia. Joint counter-terrorism efforts are allowing New Delhi to deploy its security capabilities in the region and keep close surveillance on its adversaries. However, without resolute coordination on other issues to complement the security aspect, India-Central Asia relations are vulnerable to geopolitical, economic and domestic pressures.
This year’s series of geopolitical crises has severely strained existing bilateral ties and tested the resilience of cooperation through multilateral engagements. Both India and the Central Asian states are looking for partners alongside their traditional allies to counteract these geopolitical pressures and expand their reach beyond their immediate neighbourhood. India and the Central Asian states would benefit from a burgeoning relationship supported by multi-sector initiatives.
Security concerns remain at the heart of bilateral relations between India and Tajikistan. Extending this relationship to other Central Asian countries would demonstrate New Delhi’s willingness to include the entire region on its foreign policy agenda. The United States works regularly with Central Asian countries through its C5+1 multilateral format. Similarly, Japan launched the Central Asia plus Japan dialogue in 2004 to strengthen its diplomatic and economic cooperation with the region. Establishing a similar multilateral format – building on the 2022 Summit – would provide India with a better starting point for further engagements with its Central Asian partners.
On the economic front, India should present itself as an entrepreneurial hub to its Central Asian counterparts. India has over 38,000 officially recognized startups and has risen to become the third largest source of tech startups in the world. New Delhi could use its position as a tech hub to link its burgeoning tech sector with that of Central Asian countries. In November, India hosted the UNESCO India-Africa Hackathon, which brought together like-minded people from India and the African continent to use computer programs to solve social problems. Similarly, students from 10 Southeast Asian countries along with Indians participated in the ASEAN-India hackathon, which was last held in 2021. Central Asian countries have launched several initiatives, such as the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Digital Strategy 2030, to scale up digital technology and improve digital literacy in the region. India’s technology sector can provide support and expertise to support Central Asian countries.
Although improving connectivity between India and Central Asian states is a goal for New Delhi and Central Asia, a hostile Pakistan and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan limit ambitions. Instead, India may encourage the establishment of air corridors with Central Asian countries to facilitate the movement of people and goods between the subcontinent and Central Asia. This method would increase the volume of trade and promote interpersonal relationships. Air Astana resumed direct flights between Almaty and New Delhi in December 2021. Likewise, in April, Tajikistan resumed air service between Dushanbe and New Delhi after an interruption due to the pandemic.
Improved connectivity would also streamline the process for thousands of Central Asians seeking medical treatment in India. At the India-Central Asia Business Forum, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar mentioned the importance of medical tourism and the need to expand it. The simplification of the medical tourism process would not only encourage greater connectivity between India and Central Asia, but also promote the exchange of medical information and education. For example, Uzbekistan offered 2,000 Indian medical students places at Uzbek universities after the students were forced to evacuate Ukraine due to the Russian invasion.
Security is the foundation of India’s relations with Central Asian countries and remains the most compelling factor connecting New Delhi to the region. Nonetheless, India and the Central Asian states need to diversify their relationship to include other sectors and means of cooperation in order to strengthen the resilience of the relationship and forge multi-pronged partnerships for the future.