As the joint statement at the end of the India-Central Asia virtual summit on Thursday noted, ties between India and the region have been historically close, with “civilisational, cultural, trade and people-to-people linkages”, but the lack of access to land routes, and the situation in Afghanistan are among the biggest challenges. Hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Presidents of the five Central Asian Republics (CARs), it was a first, building on years of dialogue. The summit also came after the meeting of NSAs in Delhi, where they built on several common themes of concern and priority. To begin with, there is the problem of routing trade — a paltry $2 billion, spent mostly on Kazakhstan’s energy exports to India. In comparison, China’s CAR trade figures have exceeded $41 billion — they could double by 2030 — apart from the billions of dollars invested in the Belt and Road Initiative. With Pakistan denying India transit trade, New Delhi’s other option is to smoothen the route through Iran’s Chabahar port, but that will involve greater investment in rail and road routes to Iran’s northern boundaries with the CARs, something India is hesitant to do in the face of U.S. sanctions. A third option is to use the Russia-Iran International North-South Transport Corridor via Bandar Abbas port, but this is not fully operational and at least two CARs (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) are not members. India too, has dragged its feet over TAPI gas pipeline plans (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), due to supply guarantees, given the tensions with Pakistan. Finally, there is Afghanistan: the tenuous link between Central Asia and South Asia, where after the Taliban takeover, there is no official government, a humanitarian crisis is building, and there are worries of terrorism and radicalism spilling over its boundaries. Each theme has been outlined in the summit joint statement as areas to work upon. They have also agreed to more structured engagement, including the setting up of joint working groups, on Afghanistan and Chabahar, and more educational and cultural opportunities.
While the attempt by India to institutionalise exchanges and press the pedal on trade, investment and development partnerships with the CARs is timely, it is by no means the only country strengthening its ties here. While Russia is the most strategic player, China is now the biggest development and infrastructure partner to the countries. The CAR Presidents held a similar virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier. Pakistan has also increased its outreach to the CARs, signing transit trade agreements, offering trade access to the Indian Ocean at Gwadar and Karachi. India will need to move nimbly to ensure it stays in step with the changes, and to make certain the future of ties more closely resembles the deep ties of the distant past.