Central Asia have its doors thrown open wide for India

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Central Asia have its doors thrown open wide for India

India is providing $3 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and expanding its presence in Central Asia. This is the result of the first meeting between the foreign ministers of the 'India - Central Asia' Dialogue, which was held in Samarkand on January 13 with the participation of Afghanistan. India's plans were supported by the United States. New Delhi has emerged as an alternative to China in the Central Asian direction, but at the same time it is strengthening its position in the dialogue with Pakistan.

A meeting of the foreign ministers of Central Asian countries, India and Afghanistan was held in Samarkand on Sunday. Its goal was to present the Central Asian direction of foreign policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party). New Delhi is eyeing new promising markets for its products. Central Asia is perfectly suited for this purpose. But as director of the Tashkent Center for Research Initiatives "Ma'no" Bakhtiyor Ergashev, told Vestnik Kavkaza earlier, a road connecting the countries is needed. Therefore, India is developing its transport corridors, in particular North-South, which will open a competitive and fast route from Eurasia to India and unite the Indian port of Mumbai with Iranian seaports in the Persian Gulf. Uzbekistan also plans to get access to Iran's Chabahar Port. Earlier, India promised to invest $3 billion in Uzbekistan.

At a conference in Samarkand, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj promised to invest another $3 billion to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. It is possible that these plans were coordinated with the U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. According to the Indian media reports, he visited New Delhi the day before, where he discussed the Afghan peace process with the Indian authorities and supported India’s intention to support Kabul. However, India has been pursuing a rather active economic policy in Afghanistan for several years. In particular, New Delhi pledged to participate in the reconstruction of transport infrastructure and water supply, construction of housing and medical facilities - a total of 116 projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan. India also plans to build several new hydropower plants and solar power plants in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan, having recently become involved in the process of the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan, has already managed to make significant progress in this direction with the novelty of its approach. The Indian side, in cooperation with Tashkent, is also seeking to improve its status as a co-sponsor of this process. Especially since the TAPI project, the implementation of which without the active participation of the Uzbek side is rather difficult, is of fundamental importance for New Delhi.

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, speaking at a conference in Samarkand, said that Afghanistan would receive some $1 billion annually in transit fees from TAPI. Another important component of the project is its social component - the gas pipeline will create 12,000 jobs in Afghanistan.

"For New Delhi, Afghanistan is not just a transit territory for some economic routes. Among other things, the partnership with Kabul is the strategic depth, the conquest of which would allow India to seriously strengthen its positions in any scenario of dialogue with Pakistan," Deputy Director General of the Center for Strategic Estimations and Forecasts Igor Pankratenko told Vestnik Kavkaza.

On the other hand, according to an orientalist, while expanding its presence in Central Asia, India creates another competitive to Beijing direction. "But it’s extremely difficult for New Delhi to compete with the positions already staked by China, the Indians were really late here - but they say it’s better late than never. It's better now, when the Central Asian Belt and Road Initiative's nodal points have not yet closed in a continuous line. Because the only thing New Delhi is left to do then is to wave colored dupattas as high-speed express trains pass by them, wonder at the pipelines going beyond the horizon and humming some optimistic tunes, encouraging each other, for example Mukesh Mera Joota Hai Japani by Raj Kapoor. And before they are late - the Indians are actively trying to throw the bridge into Central Asia, across which "elephants will go northward" after some time, that is, along the South-North international transport corridor to Europe. Scornfully ignoring the routes of the Chinese Belt and Road," Pankratenko said.

According to him, Central Asia represents new markets for Indian goods and a source of resources, Afghanistan represents the road to these markets and access to these resources. For New Delhi, things are quite good with Kabul. "But they need peace. And it can only be provided by partnership with Tashkent, which is reanimating the "peace settlement in Afghanistan" project, speaking simultaneously as an intermediary in negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban ( banned in Russia), and the initiator of reconciliation strategies, and a party which is trying to work out a common ground to suit all external players tied to Afghanistan, from Tehran to Washington, from New Delhi to Beijing. Now it is absolutely necessary for India to become active the participant of this party, having agreed with Uzbekistan," the orientalist noted.

And Tashkent has no problem with New Delhi investing in a process, which is not just military-political, but also financial and economic. The benefit of this partnership to both parties are clear. Including those related to the development of bilateral Uzbek-Indian trade and economic relations. Since the next item on the Indian foreign policy agenda after the Afghan settlement is Central Asia, it was quite logical to arrange some inspection of the top Indian diplomat in Samarkand. In turn, there was a convenient situation for Sushma Swaraj to present Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Central Asian foreign policy direction to the participants and explain the benefit coming from the Indian project for each regional country. Without requiring a quick response - one should not hurry in a foreign-policy intrigue of such a level, no matter how hard the external circumstances, mainly Chinese-made, are.

A joint statement was adopted following the first meeting between the foreign ministers of the 'India - Central Asia' Dialogue with the participation of Afghanistan, according to the website of the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The parties referred to civilizational, cultural, trade and humanitarian ties between India and Central Asia, expressed their commitment to developing dynamic and fruitful friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation between India and the Central Asian countries at bilateral and multilateral formats," the document reads. The ministers emphasized the importance of developing and implementing projects, which provide a concerted solution to the problems and issues of economic growth of  Central Asian countries based on the principles of equality, mutual benefit and respect for their interests. The parties expressed their intention to strengthen cooperation in order to create real opportunities for expanding economic cooperation, ensuring favorable conditions for mutual free trade.

The heads of foreign ministries welcomed "the participation of Afghanistan as an important link in the regional cooperation, transit of goods and energy resources, as well as expressed support for Central Asian countries and India's commitment for peace, security and stability in Afghanistan, assistance in establishing an inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, assistance in economic reconstruction of Afghanistan through the implementation of joint infrastructure, transit and transport, energy projects including regional cooperation and investment projects. The next meeting of foreign ministers will be held in New Delhi in 2020.