External Affairs

A New Great Game is Afoot and India Must Join the Play

A great future in the pipeline. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A great future in the pipeline. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In deciding to visit all the Central Asian Republics (CARs) together, which none of his predecessors has done, Prime Minister Modi hopefully intends to take a holistic view of India’s relations with Central Asia. It is imperative that, beyond the usual bilateral discussions and agreements, he views the region from a strategic perspective, taking into account developments in the wider Eurasian space.

Eurasia is a ‘negative security space’ where major powers cannot afford to let competing powers or forces exercise a dominating influence, as that would threaten their own security. The Cold War period, when impermeable political borders during dulled strategic perceptions about Eurasia, was a geo-strategic aberration. Today, Eurasia is once again at the centre of global geopolitics.

The most noteworthy development in the CARs over the last quarter century is the decline of Russia’s influence and the concomitant rise of China’s.  Together with the United States, they are the principal outside players.  Other powers including India still play only marginal roles in the region. A new ‘Great Game’ is under way, only it is much more complicated.  Energy is a new, critical factor in strategic calculations. Road, rail and energy pipeline connectivity across Eurasia has dramatically improved. The flip side is that it has also made it easier for drug smugglers, terrorists and fundamentalists to move freely across borders.

Russia is taking purposeful steps to regain its preponderant influence in the CARs. It has enmeshed most of them in regional security and military arrangements like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as through bilateral military agreements. A Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has been set up; Tajikistan too may join it. Russia has many additional levers in Central Asia, such as a significant and influential Russian origin population; good networking; dependence of many CARs on remittances of migrants working in Russia; transit facilities for landlocked CARs and considerable economic interdependence of CARs with Russia. While wanting to reduce Russia’s strong grip that held them for seven decades, the CARs realize that they can neither ignore it nor do without it.

China’s concerns

A rising China is systematically and relentlessly sucking the CARs into its economic whirlpool.  Energy supplies for its fast-growing economy, a proximate market for its products, and a security buffer for Xinjiang – these are China’s main concerns vis-à-vis the CARs.  Having taken over Xinjiang, it now seeks to dominate the CARs.  This won’t be easy.  Uighur nationalism remains strong.  The fate of the Muslim Uighurs carries resonance among the Islamic ummah.  Some Uighur elements have developed linkages with al-Qaeda, Taliban and, more recently, the Islamic State.  Xinjiang’s security and stability could be compromised by turmoil or turbulence in the CARs, which share extensive ethnic, economic, social and other links with Xinjiang.

China realizes that Xinjiang could be its Achilles heel; its latest white-paper on defence mentions the dangers from separatist forces fighting for “East Turkestan independence”. Moreover, despite benefiting from China’s economic growth, the CARs remain wary of becoming economically too dependent on China, and worry about creeping Chinese demographic expansionism.  They have always viewed China as an expansionist and dominating power, and recent Chinese muscle flexing in Southeast Asia would have reinforced traditional suspicions about China’s attitude towards weak neighbours.

While its other global preoccupations have reduced US interest in Central Asia, US policy has always been to somehow detach the CARs from Russia’s sphere of influence.  The ongoing Russia-US standoff over Ukraine would have only reinforced US determination in this respect.  Central Asians welcome the United States as a check on both China and Russia, but they realize the fickleness of US policies and level of interest, and remain wary of US proclivity to work for regime change and exert pressure on human rights issues.

Where does India fit into this picture?  Central Asians have always had a romantic attraction towards India, reinforced by close and friendly relations during Soviet times.  Today, the CARs want a more active Indian presence to balance the other major players.  So far, however, the CARs and India haven’t been able to develop meaningful economic and people-to-people linkages principally because of the absence of easy and reliable connectivity.  Indian private entrepreneurs find CARs comparatively less attractive because of dodgy legal, taxation and regulatory provisions, poor air connectivity, visa difficulties, and unfamiliarity with local languages. India outlined a ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy three years ago.  This needs to be fleshed out and implemented earnestly.  Maybe economic relations will look up if India signs a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union.

However, India’s interests in Eurasia are fundamentally strategic. The CARs are superficially stable but inherently fragile states, with incomplete nation building, underdeveloped political institutions and traditions, and no accepted mechanism for periodic transfer of political power.  Instability could make them a haven for terrorists, separatists and fundamentalists.  Since developments in Xinjiang, geographically contiguous to both India and the CARs, have direct and far-reaching implications for India’s security, India needs to carefully study and anticipate various scenarios in Xinjiang.  China’s strong strategic partnership with Pakistan, and physical connectivity via Xinjiang, has been reinforced by the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

If, in addition, China gets to dominate the CARs and Afghanistan (where it is making significant investments and is also trying to play a political role), this would constitute a tectonic geopolitical shift that India cannot countenance with equanimity.  Thus India’s approach to this region cannot be passive.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a red herring – China approach to India’s membership remains ambivalent, and while joining it may raise India’s profile, the China-dominated SCO is unlikely to help India achieve its core interests in Central Asia.

India can become relevant to the CARs only if it remains integral to Eurasian energy politics through a big project that creates long-term mutually beneficial linkages between India and the CARs and, equally important, is in conformity with the strategic interest of the concerned parties.  In this context, Iran’s strategic relevance to India has gone up.   It is reassuring that after submitting to US pressure over Iran for a decade, India is now repairing its disrupted ties with Iran.  The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding on the development of Chabahar port as a strategic, not merely economic, project, and the reactivation of the North-South Corridor are long overdue steps.  These need to be followed up urgently with high-level exchanges, including at the Prime Minister’s level.

Since Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran and Qatar have about two-thirds of the world’s exportable surplus of natural gas, Eurasia should be at the centre of India’s gas import strategy.  For all these countries too, India is a proximate and attractive long-term market.  Russia can no longer count on the long-term loyalty and dependence of its traditional European customers, the more so after the Ukraine crisis.  Turkmenistan is already pushing the TAPI pipeline project. Iran will definitely want to tap large gas markets like India once sanctions are removed, hopefully quite soon.  Qatar’s future as a major gas exporter is linked with Iran, with which it shares the same principal gas field (South Pars/ North Dome).  With both Russia and Kazakhstan, India has energy projects and agreement to explore energy pipeline projects to India.  If the Central Asian countries work with Russia and Iran, Eurasia can be hard-wired with India in a web of interdependence.

In the pipelines

Getting Russia, Iran and the CARs to allocate some promising gas fields would be the first step. The greater challenge lies in transporting Eurasian gas to India. The LNG route is uneconomical. Purely land routes from Eurasia to India are problematic.  Given the continuing lack of trust between India and Pakistan, and the uncertainties surrounding Afghanistan, it is doubtful if either the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) or the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline projects will actually fructify. Under these circumstances, the only feasible alternative is a land-cum-sea pipeline from Eurasia to India via Iran’s Chabahar port.

Two routes are possible.  One is from West Siberia to India via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Chabahar.  An alternative or supplementary route, admittedly more complicated, is from eastern Siberia via Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan to Chabahar.  From Chabahar, there would be an undersea pipeline via Oman to ports in Gujarat.  Two gas hubs would come up.  One would be in Chabahar, fed by Russian, Turkmen and possibly also Kazakh gas from the north, together with Iran’s own gas from South Pars.

Another hub would be in Oman where the gas piped from Chabahar under the sea would meet up with Qatar gas piped across the UAE.  An Indian company, South Asia Gas Enterprise (SAGE), has done a study on the commercial and technical viability of such undersea pipelines between Iran/Oman and India, and is in touch with the concerned governments to take it forward.

If his visit to Central Asia is to have an enduring impact, Prime Minister Modi must try to get the endorsement of the CARs for a major Eurasian strategic project of the kind suggested above.

Rajiv Sikri is a former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.