Central Asia: India’s New Strategic Neighborhood

India’s booming economy needs the oil and gas reserves of the former Soviet republics.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India inspect an honor guard in Astana, April 16, 2011
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India inspect an honor guard in Astana, April 16, 2011 (Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)

Indian foreign policy has started to morph in recent years from the idealistic and sometimes naive notions of Cold War nonalignment into a more realistic strategy that recognizes the country’s changing interests. India’s alliance building in Central Asia is emblematic of this policy shift.

Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that in the past, Indian policymakers would list three enemies: Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan. But the old rivalry of South Asia now only has an emotional, not a rational connection with either the present or the future. India and Pakistan are working to improve their bilateral relationship. During his second visit to Islamabad last week, India’s foreign minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna reiterated his country’s wish to see a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.

One of the reasons for India’s continuous engagement with Pakistan is that it is on the road to Central Asia. The former Soviet satellite states in the region possess vast energy reserves and have attracted the attention of nearby great powers.

India cannot afford to lag behind. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has sought an influence in Central Asia. The levels of engagement have been economical and political.

As an emerging “global economic powerhouse,” India will require huge quantities of oil and natural gas to support its industrial production. At present, India is the sixth largest energy consumer in the world. Its oil demand is expected to increase to two hundred million tonnes in 2025. To meet this rising demand, India cannot rely exclusively on petroleum exporting nations in the Middle East.

Indian companies are already active in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, India’s ONGC Videsh Limited is engaged in the exploration of oilfields. AcelorMittal owns metallurgical plant and coal mines in the same country.

In May, Turkmenistan finally agreed to the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or TAPI gas pipeline. India is also invested in Afghanistan which similarly contains huge natural resources.

Besides their economic value, countries in Central Asia are of strategic significance. If India is to sustain its relationship with the government in Kabul after the NATO withdrawal in 2014, stable relations with the republics to the north will be vital given the ethnic overlap between the countries.

Mead points out that China, which also eyes Central Asia’s energy and minerals, “has a big head start over Delhi when it comes to building roads, revamping public transport networks and goodwill gestures like doling out scholarships to Kazakhs, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.” Indian trade with the region is also very limited at present.

It’s no wonder, then, that Indian policy planners are looking for ways to expand India’s presence in the region — especially in countries, like Tajikistan, that fear a Taliban revival just as much as India does, if not more.

Afghan warlords belonging to powerful Tajik ethnic groups have close ties with Tajikstan. They constituted a major part of the Northern Alliance that fought against the Taliban before these Sunni Islamist fanatics managed to take Kabul in 1996, with Pakistani support.

The Tajik are now an integral part of the Afghan army. Once foreign troops pull out, India’s fate in Afghanistan will depend on the support it can extract from one or more of the main ethnic and interest groups in the country as well as its alliances with neighboring countries.

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