Monday, June 18, 2012

India unveils ambitious 'Connect' with Central Asia

By C. Uday Bhaskar
A little noticed but major Indian policy initiative was unveiled in distant Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, last week.

Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed announced a new policy initiative for the Central Asian Region (CAR) appropriately packaged as 'Connect Central Asia'. He was inaugurating the first India-Central Asia Dialogue under the joint aegis of the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) and the World Diplomatic Academy, Bishkek.

Just as India's 'Look East Policy' formulated during Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's tenure paved the way for a deeper engagement with Southeast Asia and East Asia with attendant strategic implications, it may be averred that the 'Connect Central Asia' policy has the potential to be a game-changer regarding Delhi's profile in the central heartland of Asia.

This initiative is commendable and is illustrative of the manner in which India's foreign ministry and a dynamic Indian ambassador in a remote capital can put in place strategically significant policies. While the final outcome will be dependent on Delhi's ability to translate word into deed, the scope of this 'Connect' initiative is innovative and plays to India's traditional strengths.

Outlining the policy, Minister Ahmed noted: "India is now looking intently at the region through the framework of its 'Connect Central Asia' policy, which is based on pro-active political, economic and people-to-people engagement with Central Asian countries, individually and collectively."

This has been further disaggregated into a 12-point formula which includes: building on strong political relations through the exchange of high level visits; strengthening India's strategic and security cooperation with Central Asian countries, wherein the focus will be military training, joint research, counter-terrorism coordination and close consultations on Afghanistan; stepping up multilateral engagement with Central Asian partners using the synergy of joint efforts through existing fora like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisastion (SCO), Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and the Custom Union; harnessing Central Asia's energy, agriculture and natural resource potential; and enhancing medical and pharmaceutical engagement through greater investment and joint production in this sector.

Furthermore, higher education including setting up of a Central Asian University in Bishkek that could evolve as a centre of excellence to impart world class education in areas like IT, management, philosophy and languages; setting up a Central Asian e-network with its hub in India to deliver tele-education and tele-medicine connectivity, linking all the five Central Asian states; and showcasing India's capability in the construction sector to build world class structures at competitive rates, since Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, have almost limitless reserves of iron ore and coal as well as abundant cheap electricity. India can help set up several medium size steel rolling mills.

Poor transport links to the CAR from India are a major constraint. Hence increasing land connectivity, through the reactivated International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC); creating a viable banking infrastructure in the region (whose absence remains a major barrier to trade and investment) wherein Indian banks can expand their presence if they see a favourable policy environment; jointly working to improve air connectivity between India and CAR countries, given that India is one of the biggest markets for outbound travellers estimated at $21 billion in 2011 and encouraging Indian tourists to visit Central Asia as attractive holiday destinations; exploring the potential for the Indian film industry; and finally building on the people-to-people contact which will remain the most vital linkages to sustain deeper India-Central Asia engagement.

Kyrgyzstan, while being amongst the smallest of the CAR states with a population of under six million people, has one unique feature. It is the first CAR state to move tentatively towards democracy and has the distinction of electing the first woman president in the region, Madame Roza Otunbayeva, after ethnic clashes led to the removal of the previous regime.

Holding charge as caretaker president from April 2010 till December 2011, Madame Roza oversaw the first parliamentary elections. Kyrgyzstan has emerged as a role model for the smooth transition of power in a region that is better known for authoritarian regimes that have lasted decades.

China, Russia and the US are engaged in a complex contestation to establish their presence in Central Asia. The post-2014 Afghan scenario is to have significant implications for India. Thus it is timely that Delhi has put in place a long-term policy with a comprehensive agenda to engage with Central Asian states.

Central Asia represents the confluence where energy, water and food will emerge as determinants of the new 'Great Game'. India has to position itself innovatively - and this hopefully is what 'Connect Central Asia' will enable.

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