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An Appraisal of the Indian Prime Minister's Visit to Uzbekistan

Dr. Ramakant Dwivedi was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 28, 2006

    Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded his two-day state visit to Uzbekistan on April 26, 2006. This was the second visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Tashkent since Uzbekistan's independence in August 1991. India and Uzbekistan signed seven agreements in the fields of energy, business, education, mineral prospecting and stepping up the joint fight against international terrorism, religious extremism and drug trafficking. This has undoubtedly increased Indian stakes in Central Asia.

    Dr. Singh's visit has been a historic one as far as cooperation in the energy sector is concerned. Of the seven new agreements signed on April 26, three agreements specifying India's role in Uzbekistan's energy and mineral sectors are of particular importance. These provide exploration acreages to Indian companies without bidding, in return for an equal share in the revenue from any discovery. The significance of these three agreements arises from the fact that Uzbekistan is estimated to have 594 million barrels of proven oil reserves and an estimated 65-70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Uzbekistan is the second largest natural gas producer in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after Russia.

    These agreements also mark a change in India's fortune in Central Asia. India's efforts to secure a niche for itself in Central Asian hydrocarbons have so far been unsuccessful. New Delhi had earlier tried to secure a share in the Kurmangazy field of Kazakhstan, but lost to China. The new agreements mark a breakthrough and will help ONGC Videsh and the Gas Authority of India Limited to put their plans of investment in Uzbekistan and Central Asia on the fast track. As far as increasing the share of nuclear energy in the Indian energy basket is concerned, one would like to see more cooperation between New Delhi and Tashkent. Uzbekistan is reported to have vast quantities of uranium. India needs to examine the option of buying uranium from Tashkent for its nuclear energy production requirements.

    Conventional wisdom in India does not consider Central Asian energy resources seriously, pointing to the difficulties associated with transportation. In this regard, the realization of a transport corridor has to be pursued vigorously. Uzbekistan could be an important connecting point in this transport corridor. The new route connecting India to Central Asia via Mumbai - Chah Bahar - Zaranj - Delaran - Heart - Naibabad - Khairaton - Termez and further has high potential for success. India's Border Road Organisation has been building roads on this route, which is likely to be operational sooner than later. However, the threats from terrorists and extremists are still looming large on this route given the fact that the Taliban and their counterparts in Pakistan would not like to see regional cooperation picking up between Central and South Asia.

    This brings in to focus the role of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Movement of Turkistan (IMT) in the current political space of the region. Both groups have been waging wars against secular governments. Their "struggle" is aimed at establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the region comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Xinjiang. There is credible information to indicate that some extremist elements from the Central Asian Republics have been found operating side-by-side with Pakistani militants in Jammu & Kashmir. There is a nexus between IMU-IMT and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is not in India's security interests to be a mute witness to the revival and growth of religious extremism in Central Asia. New Delhi and Tashkent share common concerns over threats from religious extremism and cross-border terrorism.

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Karimov identified drug trafficking, international terrorism, religious extremism and cross border terrorism as common threats faced by their nations. Opium production in Afghanistan accounts for 80 per cent of global output. And drug trafficking in Afghanistan has been the fountainhead of terrorist financing in the Central and South Asian regions. At the joint press conference on April 26, 2006 in Tashkent, President Karimov supported the Indian policy to eliminate these threats. Tashkent has been supportive of India's stance on various regional and international issues, like for instance the reconstruction programme in Afghanistan and the fight against international terrorism. The Indian experience in fighting terrorism and insurgencies could be of utility to Uzbekistan given the number of hot spots in the Ferghana Valley and other parts of Uzbekistan. In particular, the Indian experience with the use of Central Police Organisations and paramilitary forces is likely to be of considerable value to Tashkent.

    President Karimov once again reiterated his country's support to India's permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and to the resolution of the Jammu & Kashmir issue through bilateral talks between New Delhi and Islamabad. Tashkent completely ruled out a role for any third party either as mediator or facilitator for resolving the Jammu & Kashmir issue.

    There have been a few trend-setting developments in the Central Asian geo-political landscape such as 9/11, the "Tulip Revolution" of March 2004 in Kyrgyzstan and the May 2005 developments in Andijon, Uzbekistan. While 9/11 provided an opportunity to the United States to get a foothold in the Central Asian region, the other two events have put US policy towards Central Asia in jeopardy. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Astana in July last year gave a clear message to the United States to wind down its military bases from the territories of its member states. The US had had to consequently depart from the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan.

    It is against this backdrop that India needs to play a proactive role in the prevailing geo-political situation in Central Asia. The region has been termed as 'extended neighbourhood' in the Indian strategic calculus. New Delhi has tremendous goodwill compared to any other major player in the region and is considered a benign neighbour. The Indian PM's visit to Tashkent has been a step forward in the right direction.

    Another agreement signed on April 26, 2006 is for establishing the Uzbekistan-India Entrepreneurship Development Centre in Tashkent. This is a step forward in increasing economic ties between the two countries. The inauguration of the Jawaharlal Nehru Information Technology Centre in Tashkent by the Indian PM on April 26, 2006 is an important milestone as far as projecting Indian excellence in IT is concerned. Information Technology, hydrocarbons, North-South transport corridor, deepening of bilateral cooperation in the areas of small and medium scale business and tourism appear to be candidate areas in Indo-Uzbek economic cooperation with high potential for success.

    Other steps that need to be taken to facilitate the expansion and strengthening of economic cooperation between New Delhi and Tashkent include the re-opening of a branch of the State Bank of India or the Punjab National Bank in Tashkent for efficient and cost-effective commercial transactions. Secondly, there is a firm need to establish an office of the CII/FICCI/ASSOCHAM for liaison and facilitation functions. In the soft power arena, India could consider extending professional assistance to restore Uzbek films, which are now stored in Moscow. The production of films in Russian/Uzbek and Hindi through joint Indo-Uzbek endeavours is also worthy of serious support.