Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the middle of a five-nation tour of Central Asia designed to ramp up New Delhi’s regional influence.
The visit “reflects our resolve to start a new era in our relations with Central Asian republics,” Modi said, after meeting with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov on July 6, the first day of his weeklong trip. Modi is currently in the Russian provincial city of Ufa, attending two international summits.
“India is the new frontier of opportunities for the world. Central Asia is a vast region of immense resources, talented people, rapid growth and a strategic location,” Modi noted during a visit to Kazakhstan on July 7. “India is prepared to invest more in a new partnership of prosperity.”
Modi’s sweep through Central Asia covers a broad agenda, including everything from pipeline politics, energy ties and transport links to security and counterterrorism cooperation. Underlying the Indian mission is a desire to challenge the ascendancy of archrival China, whose deep pockets have been winning hearts and minds in the region in recent years.
“India is trying to become a more important player in Central Asia,” Kazakhstani political analyst Aidos Sarym said of Modi’s trip. “Russia and China will probably not be altogether glad to see India here.”
In a nod to the Great Game-style rivalries that have pitted Moscow, Beijing, and the West against each other in a struggle over Central Asian resources and geopolitical influence in recent years, Modi urged “a climate of cooperation and collaboration, not competition and exclusion.”
So far during his tour, Modi has played up the concept of “connectivity,” saying that Central Asia should serve as a global link between north and south. “This whirlwind regional trip is about putting more meat on the bones of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which was launched back in 2012,” Rico Isaacs, Reader in Politics at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University and expert on Central Asia, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Modi is interested in taking advantage of India’s close neighbors’ abundance of natural resources, such as uranium and hydrocarbons. These are seen by the Indian government as crucial for [the country’s] future energy security,” Isaacs said.
Modi scored a couple of coups during his stop in the Kazakhstani capital Astana. The two countries launched joint exploratory drilling for oil in the Caspian Sea, signaling India’s intention to boost its hitherto limited presence in Kazakhstan’s energy sector.
In addition, Kazakhstan pledged to more than double uranium supplies to power India’s nuclear plants over the next five years. The two states also signed an agreement to explore 26 investment projects in areas ranging from energy and engineering to IT and pharmaceuticals.
Modi had less to show from his visit to Uzbekistan, where he urged President Karimov to make the economic climate “smoother” for Indian investors and to make good on a deal agreed to last year in which Tashkent was supposed to supply India with uranium. That project has not gotten off the drawing board.
On July 10, Modi will move on from Ufa to resume his Central Asia tour, heading to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (where security and counterterrorism cooperation will feature strongly) and Turkmenistan (where advancing the long-mooted TAPI pipeline to connect India to Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields via Afghanistan and Pakistan will top the agenda).
Analysts say Moscow and Beijing are keeping a jealous eye out as Modi woos Central Asia’s leaders, urging them to look south to India as well as north to Russia and east to China for trade and cooperation.
While the Kremlin still considers Central Asia to be “a zone of its exclusive interests,” Russian leader Vladimir Putin may be reluctant to antagonize India at this time, Sarym said. The Kremlin is seeking India’s support to create a geopolitical counterbalance to the West, amid Russia’s deep freeze in relations with the United States and European Union.
China, meanwhile, “is well ahead of the game in terms of the trade, energy, transport, and infrastructural links that it has already developed in Central Asia since 1991,” said Isaacs.
While New Delhi faces a daunting task in trying to catch up to Beijing, India’s potential emergence as a serious regional actor “does pose a challenge to China’s ever rising dominance,” added Isaacs.
As for the Central Asian states, they can only stand to gain from New Delhi’s attention. “Of course, the Central Asian republics will benefit in material terms through the potential of increased trade, investment, and deals with Indian companies, but it is how India’s interest in the region empowers Central Asian states in dealing with their traditional trading partners that is most intriguing,” Isaacs said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.