Ambassador of Kazakhstan
Ambassador of Tajikistan
DG ICWA, Amb. Vijay Thakur Singh,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank Director General ICWA, Amb. Smt. Vijay Thakur Singh, for this privileged opportunity to speak to a galaxy of experts on Central Asia. My remarks will be those of a practitioner of India’s policy in the Central Asia.
India and several parts of Central Asia, or should I say regions of India share a connection, a historical connect. This association needed re-imagination and a retro fit informed by the fast changing realities of our times. Over three decades we have worked with each other largely on the bilateral track. Our engagement today benefits from its own C5+India mechanism of consultations that began in 2019 at a Foreign Ministers’ level and which we raised to our highest Summit-level in January this year with a virtual Summit attend by your Five Presidents and hosted by my Prime Minister.
Friends, the context of our ties with Central Asian countries is a given, but constraints and opportunities of India-Central Asia ties can and must change for our mutual advantage. The context is your geographical location. Central Asia, strategically located at the centre of the Eurasian landmass, is not a distant region from India. It is very much a part of India’s ‘Extended Neighbourhood’. However, lack of convenient overland connectivity between India and Central Asian countries, thanks to gatekeepers who will cut their nose to spite their face, makes us appear further removed from each other.
Millenia-old historical and cultural linkages of the northern parts of India with Central Asian countries witnessed continuous exchange of people, goods, ideas and traditions, except during the brief colonial era in the 19th century. The common imprint on our languages, aesthetics and traditions are living testimony of these linkages. It is appropriate to mention here the need to trace our historic linkages with Central Asia in the contemporary context. The ongoing initiative of compiling a dictionary of common words between Hindi and Central Asian languages under the India-Central Asia Summit framework serves that purpose.
Central Asia’s proximity to Afghanistan has direct implications for both of our strategic and security interests. The increasing presence of other major players in your region also comes with its own set of persuasions and pressures.
Central Asia is a region rich in terms of natural resources including energy resources; while three countries are rich in hydrocarbon resources, two are rich in their potential for hydroelectricity. It is a bridge between Asia and Europe. Economically, it offers a range of opportunities. India and Central Asian countries face similar challenges in the form of terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, transnational crime etc in the region.
Three decades ago, India was one of the first countries to recognize the newly independent Central Asian countries. Over these years our relations have strengthened. India has strategic partnerships with four of the Central Asian countries (except Turkmenistan). Bilateral mechanisms in the form of Inter-Governmental Commissions, Foreign Office Consultations and Joint Working Groups service our relations at a functional level.
The emerging India is committed to the ethos of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" that today means – One Earth, One Family, One Future. It is in this spirit that India is sharing its experiences and growth story with all the Central Asian countries while standing with them as a trusted partner. We have long been involved in the capacity building and human resource development of the Central Asian countries. India has set up IT Centers in all the Central Asian Countries. India’s major grant projects include – the Mountain Bio-medical Research Center and Tele-medicine Centers in the Kyrgyz Republic, setting up of Modern Engineering Workshop, Computer Labs in 37 schools and renovation of Varzob-1 Hydro Power Plant in Tajikistan, Entrepreneurship Development Center in Uzbekistan and an Industrial Training Center in Turkmenistan. India’s ongoing grant projects include construction of Phase-I of an 8-lane Dushanbe-Chortut Highway in Tajikistan. I am pleased to share that more than 6200 professionals and 1500 students from Central Asia have been trained in India under our ITEC programme and ICCR scholarships. India recently announced a US$ 1 bn Line of Credit for infrastructure projects in Central Asia and we are in the process of implementing several High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) in all Central Asian countries.
In order to give further impetus to our engagement with Central Asia, at the India-Central Asia Summit in January this year, we agreed to hold regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Trade Ministers, Culture Ministers, Secretaries of National Security Councils, and set up an India-Central Asia Parliamentary Forum. It was also decided to establish an "India-Central Asia Secretariat” in New Delhi, to further institutionalize our partnership.
This year India is also the Chair of SCO. This will give us a multitude of opportunities to meet with our Central Asian friends. The SCO Summit in Delhi in June 2023 will bring together leaders of Central Asian and other countries. This will surely impart fresh momentum to our interaction with Central Asia. To give further impetus to our trade, India has proposed setting up of two new mechanisms under the SCO Framework - a Special Working Group on Start-ups & Innovation and Traditional Medicine. During the course of our Chairmanship of SCO, we also intend to engage with our Central Asian neighbours in further strengthening cooperation in the field of tourism, culture, science and technology and MSMEs.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With India being the 5th largest economy in the world and growing at the rate of nearly 7% and with an unfolding digital revolution, India provides several opportunities for our Central Asian partners, particularly because we begin from a relatively low base. Kazakhstan is our largest trade partner in Central Asia with a trade turnover of US$ 2 bn, followed by Uzbekistan (US$ 442 mn), Turkmenistan (US$ 114 Million), Tajikistan (US$ 45 mn) and Kyrgyz Republic (US$ 35 mn). India’s major imports from Central Asia are energy resources and India’s major exports are pharmaceuticals. Our bilateral investments are also low. We count on the India Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) established in February 2020 to foster the economic linkages between our countries.
The International North-South Transport Corridor and promoting the Chabahar Port, the Ashgabat Agreement and the International Road Transports Convention are some ongoing efforts to improve connectivity. We are also making efforts to include the Chabahar port into the INSTC. We would like all the Central Asian Countries to benefit from the Chabahar port.
During the visit of Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Iran in 2016, a Trilateral Agreement to establish an International Transport and Transit Corridor was signed by India, Iran and Afghanistan that intended to create a safe, secure and reliable route to trade initially with Afghanistan, and thereafter with Central Asia as a whole. There are other connectivity initiatives which cross this region but we maintain that these initiatives must respect territorial integrity and sovereignty.
India’s air connectivity with Central Asian capitals is gradually improving with direct flights to four of the Central Asian Countries (except Turkmenistan) and restarting of e-visa facilities. This will help two-way movement of people, tourism and business contacts.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the security aspect of our relationship, I am pleased to share that we are engaging with the Secretaries of the Security Councils of the Central Asian countries. The inaugural meeting of NSA/ Secretaries of the Security Council of India and Central Asian Countries was held on 6 December 2022. It is an effort towards developing a coordinated response of the participating countries towards the common challenges in the region.
Afghanistan remains an area of our common concern. While there is a need to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terror outfits, we also have to ensure that Afghanistan does not plunge into a humanitarian crisis. India is also planning to host the India-Central Asia Joint Working Group on Afghanistan shortly.
The SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent is an example of our joint commitment to fight against Terrorism. India's recently concluded Chairmanship of the SCO RATS in 2021-22 witnessed further progress in regional cooperation through exchange of information between the security agencies of SCO Member States to apprehend terrorists and terror groups, drug -traffickers, enhance cyber security and illicit arms trafficking.
The modern Indian state is 75. There is unprecedented socio-economic change happening in the country and in how we see the world, and our place in it. Today, we are building stronger bridges with both developing countries and advanced economies. Apart from our G20 Presidency, we are members of a growing number of groups and mechanisms. Some of them are relatively established like the BRICS and Commonwealth. Others have been more recent like the Quad and SCO. Our growing collaboration with the European Union is of particular importance. And still others are emerging like the I2U2 and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. We are also increasingly engaging the world in group formats, reflecting the growing interest on their part to cooperating with India. This could be with the ASEAN, Africa or the Pacific Islands, or indeed the Nordic nations, Caricom, CELAC or Central Asia.
I am sure the deliberations today will focus on the impediments in furthering India-Central Asia ties and would propose ways and means to address them. We are your closest and biggest free economy and market. India is also home to a development model riding on a digital backbone, which is globally without parallel. India affords greater possibilities of economic cooperation and development partnership. But the opportunities have to be identified, and this time has to be ceased. There is an opportunity cost to the delay in physical connectivity for the Central Asian region.
In closing, I would like to express my thanks to ICWA for today’s conference and bringing together such expertise in the year when India and the Central Asian countries are celebrating 30th anniversary of their diplomatic ties. I look forward to receiving a report of this conference in the form of actionable recommendations for practitioners like me.
I wish the conference all success.