6 June 2023

Central Asia Needs Greater Attention from Indian Policymakers

India’s hosting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings of defence and foreign ministers in April and in May as part of its presidency of the grouping is an occasion to consider afresh India’s influence in the region. Naturally, this influence must be measured against that of Russia and China, the two other big powers and founding members of the SCO. While Russia remains an important player, its influence in the region will be dented over time by its actions in Ukraine and its political, economic, and diplomatic costs. 

China is the country most well-placed to fill the resulting vacuum. 

The recently concluded China-Central Asia Summit provides fresh evidence of how Beijing seeks to exercise this influence or leverage over the region. In this process, it follows both the regular playbook of great powers as well as its own unique approaches that it thinks might obviate opposition to its influence.

What ties together these latter approaches is the Chinese framing of them in terms of development, security, and culture or history. In fact, these three elements form the crux of individual projects launched in the past few years — the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). Together, these represent a scaling up of China’s earlier Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The BRI has for its main prongs, infrastructure development and connectivity in host countries. Under the GDI, this approach continues. While China has a physical border with Central Asia through Xinjiang and India’s physical links are broken because of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, connectivity today is not just about physical proximity. While Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi has for long had direct flights to each of the five Central Asian capitals, Xian in central China has also now achieved this distinction with the launch of flights to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan earlier this month. By contrast, there is not a single Indian carrier that has direct flights to all Central Asian countries even from New Delhi, let alone from a state capital. 

While it is true that such air connectivity also involves economic or commercial calculations, in areas of strategic interest such as Central Asia, the flag must sometimes precede trade. It is the responsibility of the Government of India to subsidise or incentivise air connectivity to this end. In fact, since competition with China can now no longer be limited to India’s near neighbourhood but will extend across the globe, such choices will have to be increasingly made in more geographies. The use of Indian carriers is both a security and commercial need.

Under the GSI, China appears to have become more vocal and visible in terms of its security interests in Central Asia. Beijing gave one indication when China’s President Xi Jinping declared in Kazakhstan on a stopover before the SCO Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September that his country stood ready to defend Kazakh sovereignty and territorial independence. At once, this was both a direct challenge to the Russians who had just undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial independence through their invasion, as well as a clear message to the Central Asian Republics themselves that they should not hope for a lessening of hegemonic influence over them. 

As far as the GCI is concerned, the fact that the latest China-Central Asia summit was held in Xian is noteworthy. Xian is the cultural capital of China, and was in April, the site of an eponymous declaration. This document is ostensibly a call for ‘worldwide cultural heritage protection from the perspective of Asian countries’. But in the context of the ruling Communist Party of China’s (CPC) worldviews, and what the GCI document says, the choice of Xian — also seen as the start of the silk roads — is intended to convey a strong sense of Chinese cultural centrality and superiority to its neighbours, and the watching world. 

Indeed, the very idea that China can conduct collective political summits such as the China-Central Asia summit conveys not just a sense of the differential in the sizes of the Chinese economy vis-à-vis its smaller partners, but also a sense of its position at the top of the political and cultural hierarchy. While India too has engaged in such collective summitry and has begun advocating pride in its own civilisational heritage globally, its efforts have not achieved the scale or the sophistication of the Chinese but nor can they be seen in the same light given its democratic identity.

It is evident that China’s engagement in the region involves both symbolism as well as concrete actions. India, by contrast, is found wanting on both fronts. After his first whirlwind bilateral visits to all the capitals of the Central Asian Republics in July 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made only four other visits to the region, and each time for SCO multilateral engagements. While the first India-Central Asia summit was held — in virtual mode — only in January 2022, New Delhi has so far not managed to pull of what it did in 2018 of getting all the ASEAN heads of government as chief guests in 2018. In fact, India has so far only had a single chief guest from the region – the Kazakhstan President in 2009.

There is no doubt that Modi has energised Indian diplomacy and infused it with greater purpose and direction over the past nine years. He and his minsters along with successive Presidents and Vice-Presidents have kept up a punishing schedule of travel across the globe in the service of Indian foreign policy. But the distance India needs to cover in this region to catch up with China, if not simply to keep its historical linkages alive and relevant, remains vast.


Originally published in Deccan Herald on 02 June 2023