Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, left New Delhi on 15 February following a five-day official visit to India. In addition to discussing trade and economic relations, the two sides held talks on important regional issues in light of the global fight against terrorism. With strategic stakes in the region mounting, New Delhi seems to be working overtime to strengthen bilateral ties with the Central Asian nations, with a number of visits both there and in India.
Prague, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, President Nazarbaev led a 43-person delegation on a five-day mission to India, holding meetings with Indian President K.R. Narayanan, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, main opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, and other officials in a series of cities.
"The Times" of India reported Nazarbaev and Vajpayee signed a protocol to facilitate closer cooperation in such fields as trade, economics, science, industry, and culture. The leaders hope the agreement will help boost bilateral commerce from existing levels of $70 million a year.
Kazakh officials have notably called on Indian entrepreneurs to invest money in Kazakhstan's oil and gas industry. The protocol notes that the Central Asian nation could be an "important source of energy to India."
News reports cite Indian Petroleum Minister Ram Naik as saying Kazakh officials have invited Indian petroleum companies to join Kazakh efforts to step up "exploitation of offshore oil and gas fields." Both sides agreed that Indian energy companies have the experience necessary to help modernize Kazakh refineries.
India -- whose oil consumption is expected to skyrocket over the next decade, from 1.9 million barrels a day in 2001 to some 3.4 million barrels by 2010 -- is understandably interested in gaining access to Kazakhstan's energy resources, including participation in prospecting, developing, and processing oil and gas deposits. According to a report released in July by the Washington-based Energy Information Administration, Kazakhstan has proven oil reserves of 13.8 billion barrels, and 68.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits.
The global economic slowdown and the drop in oil prices are likely to derail the Kazakh government's current plans to press foreign investors for larger outlays of cash. The London-based "Economist Intelligence Report" also noted recently that in order for Kazakhstan to maintain high levels of foreign direct investment, it needs "to attract new investments that in five or so years can take over as engines for economic growth when investments in current projects reach their peak."
India's achievements in information technologies (IT) has also aroused considerable interest in Kazakhstan. Speaking to reporters in the southern computer-software hub of Bangalore, Nazarbaev urged India to pursue joint ventures in the IT and pharmaceutical industries with firms from his country. He also invited Indian companies to tap into Kazakhstan's rich human-resources potential.
Sumit Ganguly is a professor of Asian studies and government at the Austin-based University of Texas. He told RFE/RL that an oil-for-IT exchange makes sense for Kazakhstan.
"It makes perfect sense to let the Indians have access to oil and in return obtain something like information technologies in which the Indians are extraordinary advanced," Ganguly said. "And you can get Indian software engineers to work at a fraction of the cost that American engineers would cost or European engineers would cost."
In yet another indication of the growing cooperation between New Delhi and Astana, both Nazarbaev and Vajpayee called for sustained efforts to fight terrorism in all its manifestations. In the agreement signed during last week's visit, the leaders expressed a common resolve for their two countries to further enhance their cooperation and mutual consultations on "bilateral, regional, and international issues."
To that end, Nazarbaev has advocated India's entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Kazakh leader says the organization will be made stronger by India's participation. Mongolia, Pakistan, and India have all expressed interest in joining.
The SCO member states -- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- have clearly indicated that fighting terrorism and extremism is one of the organization's most important objectives.
Ganguly says gaining any international recognition of what India has defined as a struggle with Pakistani separatists in the disputed region of Kashmir would be a "diplomatic triumph" for New Delhi.
"It basically means India is trying to enlist the support of the Shanghai cooperation council and Kazakhstan in its continuing quest to isolate the insurgents in Kashmir," Ganguly said. "The government of India considers the insurgency in Kashmir to be a form of terrorism."
For its part, Kazakhstan considers recent (1999 and 2000) incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a threat to its national security.
With stakes in Central Asia mounting as the war on terrorism fundamentally alters political equations in the region, New Delhi has gone into diplomatic overdrive with a series of visits to strengthen bilateral ties, notably with Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The stepped-up activity has the strong backing of Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who recently claimed his country holds a strategic vision for the region.
Ganguly told RFE/RL: "Certainly the states of Central Asia are a strategic region for India for the simple reason that many of them have significant Muslim populations. And one of the things that India's concerned acutely about is that the form of radical Islam that we have recently seen in parts of Pakistan and in Afghanistan does not find its way into Central Asia, because this could have adverse consequences for India because India itself has a substantial Muslim population."
Many analysts see India and the Central Asian states as having growing cooperation in areas such as secular traditions and the exchange of goods and services. Ganguly stressed, however, that the Central Asian states are also pursuing India's support for strategic reasons, because New Delhi has had "plenty of experience in combating insurgencies, and even Islamic insurgencies as in Kashmir."
According to some analysts, India is also willing to balance Pakistan's influence in Central Asia, especially at a moment when the two nuclear powers are locked in a dangerous military standoff over New Delhi's accusation that Islamabad promotes cross-border terrorism.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a noted defense and political analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. He believes that the Indian government is trying to "scuttle" Islamabad's efforts to create a transit route from Central Asia to world markets via Pakistan territory.
"Pakistan provides a natural outlet to Central Asia, especially to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There is a shorter route that is from these Central Asian states to Afghanistan and from Afghanistan to Pakistan for trade, for transit, and for gas and oil," he said. "Pakistan's interest is that this channel should be used, and that now it is possible [since] the situation [in Afghanistan] has changed. And Pakistan feels that India would like to somehow disrupt these efforts to produce a new channel of communication between this region and Pakistan."