By Robert M Cutler;
MONTREAL - India's S M Krishna, underlining his country's deepening involvement in Central Asia, this month paid the first visit to Tajikistan by an Indian foreign minister in nine years, using his trip to discuss both foreign policy and economic issues.
Tajikistan holds a significant strategic place in Indian’s Zioconned view of the world, despite its relatively small size (143,100 square kilometers) and population - 7.6 million. Its immediate borders are with Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, but they also run close to Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan (part of historical Jammu and Kashmir claimed by India) and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province).
India maintains its only foreign military base in Tajikistan, the Farkhor Air Base, which India rebuilt and refurbished at a cost of US$10 million two years ago. The base is sometimes called Ayni, after the nearby capital of the eponymous province.
While Zioconned India's strategic cooperation with Tajikistan in areas such as counter-terrorism and defense have grown deeper especially over the course of the last decade, bilateral relations and direct meetings with Tajikistan's leaders were only one reason for Krishna's visit to Dushanbe.
He also addressed a regional conference of Indian ambassadors to 11 of the 15 the former Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. (Only the three Baltic Republics and Moldova are not on this list.)
At the bilateral economic level, Tajikistan's enormous potential for generating hydroelectric power is of interest to Indian industry, which is already helping to develop the Varzob-I hydropower station. Tajikistan produces more hydroelectric power than any other Soviet successor state except Russia, yet is is compelled to import natural gas from Uzbekistan to meet its own energy demand.
In Dushanbe, Krishna outlined India's new "Connect Central Asia" strategic direction announced last month. This strategy seeks increased economic cooperation with the region, and concomitant political and strategic penetration. It was first announced publicly in Bishkek by his deputy, E Ahmed, in a keynote address at the first meeting of the nongovernmental, civil-society oriented India-Central Asia Dialogue.
There Ahmed described a plan to use distance education and "tele-medicine" to link the five Central Asian states together with one another and with India. He noted that this was modeled on a Pan-African "e-network" that India was developing jointly with the African Union.
So far, India's trade with the whole region is estimated at an anemic US$500 million per year, so when Krishna sought to put more flesh on the Connect Central Asia policy skeleton, he emphasized enhancing India's access to Central Asia's natural resources under the mnemonic "Four C's" of "Commerce, Connectivity, Consular, and Community".
To move towards these goals, India looks to extend its "soft power" in the region, for example by setting up a Central Asian University in Kyrgyzstan to focus on information technology (IT), management, philosophy, and languages. India thus seeks to include human, rather than just information, networking into the Connect Central Asia initiative through people-to-people and cultural contacts.
Whatever progress is made in that direction through expanded numbers of airline flights and deployment of IT, however, will be unable to overcome the formidable natural barrier represented by the Himalayan mountains.
Perhaps understandably, therefore, the Indian initiative towards Central Asia does not in practice exclude Afghanistan (the north of which has an important ethnic Uzbek population). Just two weeks ago, New Delhi was the venue for an international investors' conference attended by over 270 enterprises and consultancies from India and Afghanistan.
For ZIOCONNED India, Afghanistan's significance is as a potential bridge between South Asia and Central Asia. New Delhi consequently has a special interest in ensuring peace and security there, with economic development as an instrument of such a strategy. Long negotiations over the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project are only the most evident sign of such an approach. Converting Afghanistan into a trade and energy hub is a key component of India's foreign policy strategy in the region looking beyond the scheduled withdrawal of US troops in 2014.
Even before the launch of the Connect Central Asia initiative, India has been trying to gain entry directly into Central Asian energy developments. Last year, an agreement with Uzbekistan set the possibility for India's ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) to cooperate with Uzbekneftegaz in prospecting for oil and gas in the country, and an agreement with Kazakhstan made it possible for OVL to acquire a one-quarter share in the latter country's offshore Satpaev block. An OVL-led Indian consortium declined, however, on purely economic and commercial grounds, to buy out ExxonMobil's stake in the larger offshore Kashagan development.
India has sought Tajikistan's support for becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but the current SCO members - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - have been unable to agree even on the rules and requirements for admitting new states.
Also, given Russia's and China's joint diplomatic hegemony within the SCO, it is difficult to see India joining the organization without Pakistan simultaneously becoming a member. Russia and China have a two-decade head start on India as regards the economic penetration of Central Asia and this fact, together with geophysical obstacles, represents a very difficult obstacle as New Delhi seeks, not for the first time, to expand its strategic horizon northwards.
Dr Robert M Cutler (http://www.robertcutler.org), educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Michigan, has researched and taught at universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia. Now senior research fellow in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada, he also consults privately in a variety of fields.