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Central Asia: India Keen On Expanding Its Influence

  • Antoine Blua

India regularly organizes trade fairs in Central Asia to allow Indian companies to explore the economic potential existing in the region. RFE/RL looks at whether New Delhi's business interests in Central Asia are part of a broader policy aimed at positioning itself as a key economic, political, and military power in the region.

Prague, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An exhibition ended yesterday in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, during which 35 small and medium-sized Indian businesses representing such areas as electronics, textiles, food processing, and pharmaceuticals presented their products to potential Tajik customers.

Indian businesses had earlier signed 11 memoranda of understanding and generated business enquiries worth $28 million following an exhibition in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Similar shows are being planned for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, next week and the Afghan capital, Kabul, at the end of September.

Meanwhile, the Indian ambassador to Bishkek, Om Prakash, said recently his country is prepared to finance a software-development center in the Kyrgyz capital. The Kabar news agency reports that New Delhi also is likely to help Kyrgyzstan build a food-processing plant.

Tapan Bhaumik is a senior adviser for trade policy at the Confederation of Indian Industry. "[Trade] is an area where we see a lot of good potential. And also economically strategic linkages are very important for India with the Central Asian countries. We have been in touch with the business leaders of that [region]. We are now organizing some kind of 'Made in India' [shows] to build better understanding for better cooperation with the countries of the region," Bhaumik said.

Bhaumik told RFE/RL that such exhibitions and agreements are part of New Delhi's overall goal of building strategic partnerships with the countries of Central Asia. He said India is especially interested in the region's energy resources and its geographical position. "Energy is certainly going to be a very important area of concern for countries like India in the next 10 to 15 years. So energy is the most critical imperative, and the most critical link in these strategic linkages that we are trying to build there. And, of course, it can also be the gateway to Central and Eastern European countries, through Russia," Bhaumik said.

Analysts agree, saying India's renewed interest in Central Asia is part of a broader policy aimed at solidifying its position as a central player in the region, politically and militarily, as well as economically.

Stephen Blank is a professor of national-security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. He told RFE/RL that India is beginning to realize that it needs to have a strategy to deal with the region, which has grown in importance since the events of 11 September. "I think that the Indian government has awoken to the fact that it needs to have a strategic policy toward Central Asia and not just simply random activities that are not coordinated in some fashion. So I think you will now see further development of a coordinated economy-military strategy toward Central Asia," Blank said.

Blank pointed out that the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan is one of the major factors that is driving India's moves toward Central Asia. He said India believes it is in its interests to strengthen its ties to the region so that it cannot be used for attacks by Islamic extremists. "The Indians realize now that the Pakistani strategic effort to take over Afghanistan and make it a bastion for Pakistan's support to Islamic rebellion was a major threat to Indian interests, as well. [The Indians also realize] that India could not afford any longer to have a nonstrategy for Central Asia," Blank said.

Blank noted that India has benefited from China's strategic losses in Central Asia. Beijing, he said, has lost a lot of standing in Central Asia since 11 September because of what is perceived to be the failure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to fight terrorism effectively, which is one of its major goals. The SCO encompasses China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Rodger Baker is a senior analyst for Stratfor, a private U.S. provider of global intelligence. "Really since September 11, they've had that opportunity. Central Asia shifted a lot of its relations with the rest of the world when 11 September happened. They opened their doors to the United States. China lost a lot of influence in the area. Russia decided that its own security was best covered by letting the U.S. in, rather than trying to keep them out. And that pushed the Chinese out, but opened some space for the Indians to move in," Baker said.

Baker agrees that New Delhi is seeking to become a prominent player in Central Asia. "The Indian-Pakistan conflict obviously plays into India's moving into Central Asia. But I think India has some broader ideas in what they can gain out of Central Asia. India's operations in Afghanistan obviously are a lot [more closely] linked to what's going on in Pakistan. But by moving into Central Asia, they can be playing up their attempts to sort of expand their regional influence, and become a much greater regional power," Baker said.

In May, India and Afghanistan entered a new era of defense cooperation, with New Delhi deciding to train Afghan troops and help maintain Russian military equipment used by the Afghan military.

During Taliban rule in Afghanistan, India was part of an informal alliance with Russia and Tajikistan that extended assistance to the Northern Alliance in its campaign against the Taliban. Military equipment and other supplies were part of this aid.

Baker said India offers a ready market for Central Asian exports. India, he added, is also an influential country that the Central Asian states can use as diplomatic leverage.

August has been a particularly busy time for Indian diplomacy in Central Asia. Indian Deputy Foreign Minister Rajendra Abhayankar visited Dushanbe on 8-9 August for talks on economic cooperation, regional security, and the fight against terrorism. The parties also discussed a planned visit of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Tajikistan.

The trip followed the visit of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev to New Delhi on 7 August. Both sides agreed to increase the level of trade and economic cooperation and to set up an intergovernmental working group on terrorism. Akaev also expressed his support for India's interest in joining the SCO.

The Indian prime minister is expected to visit Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan later this year.

In February, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited India to set the agenda for future Indo-Kazakh cooperation on "bilateral, regional, and international issues." To that end, Nazarbaev advocated India's entry into the SCO.