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Looking North Towards Eurasia

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • January 27, 2022

    India’s engagement with the Central Asian Republics (CARs), a region which India considers part of its “extended neighbourhood”, is likely to receive a renewed momentum when the first India–Central Asia Heads of Government meeting takes place on 27 January 2022.1 While the event will ostensibly celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations between India and CARs, the scope and importance of the summit extend beyond mere diplomatic symbolism. This is particularly relevant at a time when India has sought to reconnect with the ‘Heart of Asia’ amidst tumultuous geo-political churnings in the region.

    Geopolitical Tussle in Eurasian Heartland

    The salience of Central Asia lies in its geostrategic location comprising the Eurasian Heartland. Straddling a space the size of a continent, it connects Asia with Europe. And along with its vast reserves of natural resources, it blends in with the central position accorded to it by Halford Mackinder in his Heartland thesis.2 Crucially, it provides a ringside view of developments taking place in the countries that it flanks, namely, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

    Today, a new geopolitical contestation appears to be underway in Eurasia. This is reflected in shifting great power rivalries and new strategic equations and alignments. A key driving force behind this transition is the Russia–West confrontation, with the latter seemingly seeking to contain the Kremlin in its immediate neighbourhood. This has led Moscow to reinvent itself in the region. Its “Greater Eurasia” project inherently seeks to preserve its “sphere of influence”.3 However, Russia has been forced to accommodate China in its “near abroad” as a quid pro quo for relying on Beijing to withstand the Western geopolitical pressure. Pertinently, this Russian concession could facilitate China’s rise as a Eurasian powerhouse, potentially altering the regional balance of power. Interestingly, Russia’s latent competition with China runs parallel to their bilateral cooperation against a common adversary. The two countries have closed ranks to insulate the region from the United States (US), given their shared mistrust of Western manoeuvrings in the region.4

    In the midst of this Great Power contestation, other regional and extra-regional powers5 including Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and the European Union too have courted the CARs.

    Meanwhile, CARs geographical proximity to Afghanistan places them in the frontline of developments taking place on the Afghan chessboard. Crucially, given the linkages between drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime6 , instability emanating from Kabul could create an arc of instability across the entire Eurasian region.

    New pressure points also appear to have emerged in the CARs. Prolonged economic slowdown, lack of political freedom, ethnic tensions and rise of radicalisation7 have bred conditions similar to the Arab Spring. If the recent uprising in Kazakhstan is an indication, the region could face more upheavals in the future. Amidst these churnings, Central Asian countries appear to be readjusting their policies. They seem to be looking to strike a balance in maximising their political and economic gains from each actor while preserving their strategic autonomy. A key vector of this strategy has been their focus on both intra-Central Asian as well as broader Eurasian collaborations.

    India’s Congruence with CARs

    Amidst the ongoing flux in Eurasia, overlapping interests in the economic, energy, health, connectivity, security and defence realms appear to drive India’s engagement with the CARs. In fact, the 4Cs–commerce, capacity enhancement, connectivity and contact–aptly highlight India’s endeavour to establish mutually beneficial long-term economic partnerships.8

    Arguably, India fits in well with the CARs quest for strategic autonomy. India’s benign and friendly image anchored in civilisational linkages with the region, its achievements in nation building, and positive economic outlook in an era of slowing global growth are viewed favourably by the Central Asian regimes. Similarly, India’s calibration of a regional cooperative approach, rooted in the resolve to jointly address festering issues, carries a strong resonance among CARs. The Central Asian countries had connected with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2018 articulation of the foundational dimension of Eurasia being ‘SECURE’, wherein S stood  for Security of citizens, E for Economic development for all, C for Connecting the region, U for Uniting our people, R for Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and E for Environment protection.9

    In this context, the regional connectivity initiatives that India has sought to promote through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Ashgabat Agreement potentially provide the landlocked Eurasian countries an option beyond the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). CARs inherently remain suspicious of China’s “infrastructure imperialism” that has cast a shadow on their local economies. In contrast, India has insisted that connectivity projects imbibe inclusivity, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and fiscal prudence.10 These projects could help unlock the India–Central Asia trade potential which is constrained by the lack of direct physical access. Notably, Central Asian trade accounts for less than 1 per cent of India’s overall global trade.11

    India also has a good track record of developmental partnerships in the region. And the new US$ 1 billion line of credit should augment this image.12 There exist comparative economic advantages that can be leveraged. Central Asia is a big consumer market, with substantial demand for a range of goods and services, in which India has niche capabilities. These include information technology (IT), capacity building, pharma, agriculture, food processing, health, tourism, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), disaster management, heritage conservation and technical education.

    Meanwhile, Central Asia retains its potential to be an important resource base for diversifying India’s energy imports. Indo-Central Asian discussions have, unsurprisingly, centred on the acquisition of energy stakes, joint ventures and swap agreements to overcome the problem of routing hydrocarbons. Today, the region’s rich pool of resources could also play a role in the global efforts to build resilient supply chains in a post-pandemic world.

    Crucially, India and CARs have a shared interest in regional stability. The security threat emanating from Afghanistan as well as the challenges posed by an uptick in radicalisation and terrorism affect both sides. Their defence and security collaboration, therefore, assumes significance. As a survivor of terrorism, India has developed specific combat skills that can be tapped by CARs. These include counterterror operations, intelligence gathering, training and border protection. In fact, intelligence gathering mechanisms depend, to a large extent, on satellite and information technology tools. India has strong expertise in both these areas.

    CARs also remain key pillars of India’s engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This pan-Eurasian organisation has gained traction in the last few years. This includes exploring a regional consensus on issues of security, economic cooperation and connectivity.13 Meanwhile, the support of CARs in this multilateral grouping could be pivotal to tackle the anti-India advocacy promoted by China–Pakistan tandem in Eurasia.

    Trilateral cooperation with Russia for the region holds promise.14 Notably, as recent events in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan indicate, Russia retains its key linkages with the region. India and Russia also have a shared concern about China’s rise. Similarly, trilateral cooperation with countries like South Korea and Japan, which enjoy significant goodwill in CARs and have a robust track record of providing regional public goods, could be explored to meet the region’s infrastructure requirements.


    The India–Central Asia Summit, being held on 27 January, is a timely event. It is an acknowledgement of India’s continental interests. While India may not be a major actor in Central Asia yet it remains an important vector in the regional calculus of CARs. India’s multi-alignment should hold it in good stead in navigating the opportunities and challenges in a region which lies at a proverbial stone’s throw from New Delhi. Sustaining the ongoing momentum and not reverting to the episodic engagement of the past would be crucial. An Act North Eurasian Policy is perhaps more relevant than ever before.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MP-IDSA or of the Government of India.