India would seem to have built-in advantages in trying to forge close relations with Central Asian states. It has a huge, growing economy, and, geographically, it is a neighbor. It also has historic ties dating back centuries; the Mughal Empire originated in what is today Uzbekistan. And yet, India has made relatively few inroads into the Central Asian republics since they gained independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, as Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse, two French scholars of the region now working in Washington, write in a new book “Mapping Central Asia: Indian Perceptions and Strategies.” “Not only can India not place itself alongside the four biggest players, Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union, but it cannot rival the multiform presence of Turkey or Iran, or even equal the aid given by Japan or South Korea,” they write. “It is even less present, economically speaking, than Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates.” India, the authors add, has quietly abandoned its attempt to establish a strategic foothold in the region, via an air base in Tajikistan, the apparent victim of Russian pressure. Why have Indian relations with Central Asia seemingly failed to realize their potential? Mapping Central Asia offers several explanations. One is political: India is a democracy, which makes the rulers of the region suspicious. At the same time, New Delhi doesn't promote its democracy abroad, which means it can't count on opposition groups as allies. “Delhi loses both ways,” Peyrouse writes. “It cannot play the democratization card that would attract the sympathy of the Central Asian opposition community and does not put forward a normative model, even criticized, like the EU. Neither can India benefit from the authoritarian logic in place, which primarily serves China and Russia.” Geography, too, has impeded better India-Central Asia relations. “In itself, Central Asia is only separated from Kashmir by a very few hundred kilometers. These kilometers, however, are full of problems,” they write. Those problems include Xinjiang and Iran, but most significantly Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which make interaction difficult. And economically, India has proved an unattractive model for the modernizing Central Asian countries, with its failure to lift the majority of its citizens out of chronic poverty. And yet, India-Central Asian relations are the subject of a great deal of what Laruelle and Peyrouse call “mythmaking.” “Since the fall of the Soviet Union, several Western and Indian analysts have expressed their delight at New Delhi’s 're-engagement' in Central Asia, analyzing its arrival as a counterweight to Russia’s historical presence, to China’s strategies of economic domination, to the risk of Central Asian states falling under Islamic domination, and so on,” they write. They quote an Indian scholar saying of ancient ties like the Silk Road, “[t]his past affinity is the bridge to develop a close and a meaningful engagement with Central Asia.” That mythmaking has led to unrealistic expectations for regional integration schemes that attempt to tie South and Central Asia. While the book was completed before the United States announced its “New Silk Road” initiative, its warning for today's policymakers is clear: “The border divisions of the 20th century have transformed these ancient trans-continental routes into cul-de-sacs of nation-states and no simple political will to declare a zone a crossroads can suffice to influence the reality of being in the margins,” Laruelle and Peyrouse write. So, they conclude, plans to recreate the old Silk Road “on the pretext that, once upon a time, caravans used to travel along these routes, cannot be taken seriously.” However, the future of India-Central Asia relations still has potential, they conclude: “Its democratic political trajectory can be looked to when the authoritarianism of the Central Asian regimes that emerged from independence are no longer able to respond to the needs of their societies for modernization and stability. It offers an opportunity for opening up that is welcome for Central Asian states, which are probably going to try to slow down their absorption into the Chinese economic world. In addition, India’s balanced position on the international scene, its good relations with Russia as well as with the United States—which, one would imagine, will remain a key of the global architecture endorsed by New Delhi—also agree with Central Asia’s multi-vectorial strategies.” The book is organized into three parts, focusing on the history of Indian-Central Asian relations, the current state of the relations, and the role that various regional conflicts (like Xinjiang and Kashmir) play in the relationship. Laruelle and Peyrouse write a general introduction, introductions to each section and a conclusion, while Indian scholars write the individual chapters. For the most part, the Indian scholars miss opportunities to provide much-needed detailing of key elements of the India-Central Asia relationship; for example, there is no accounting of what happened with India's failed attempt to gain an air base in Tajikistan, or its more successful efforts to import uranium from Kazakhstan. Instead, the authors tend to fall back on speculative geopoliticking, much of which will seem rehashed and familiar to readers acquainted with Central Asia. But the editors' contributions, nevertheless, provide a sophisticated and critical interpretation of this understudied issue.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.