Forging Synergies: India’s Strategic Engagement with Central Asia

India has been committed to re-energising its efforts in Central Asia since 2012, when it launched its ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative with the aim of strengthening ties.

India’s Strategic Pivot: Prioritizing Central Asia

Over the last decade, India has developed a strategy of heightened engagement and active diplomacy in Central Asia, viewing the region as an important economic and geopolitical partner.

This year represents a critical moment for this fast-growing partnership, as India and the Central Asian five – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyz Republic – will have a number of premium opportunities to expand their relationship and identify new avenues for cooperation, including the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the biannual India-Central Asia Summit, and the second edition of the Astana International Forum. With such agenda-setting events in sight, India must build on its recent progress and establish itself as a key partner for the region.

India has been committed to re-energising its efforts in Central Asia since 2012, when it launched its ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative with the aim of strengthening ties in key areas such as security, energy, and economic development. The significance of India’s commitment to the region was further underscored when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a visit to the region and met with the leadership of each Central Asian country, resulting in the signing of over 20 agreements spanning defence, military, trade, tourism, culture, and technical cooperation.

In the years following, India and the Central Asian five have taken various steps to engage positively with one another, fortifying their political, security, economic, and cultural connections. Arguably the most important of these has been the creation of the India-Central Asia Summit, which had its inaugural meeting in January 2022. Uniting the heads of state from India and all Central Asian countries, the Summit offers a concrete example of increased diplomacy at the highest level of government, and provides an invaluable opportunity to build further ties.

Within this context, we must continue to prioritise its relationship with key Central Asian partners throughout 2024 and beyond, as the vast economic and strategic potential of countries like Kazakhstan can help play a key role in helping India realise its global ambitions.

For one, Central Asia’s abundant energy resources, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and critical minerals, represents a significant opportunity for India, particularly as the country faces ever-increasing energy demand. While Prime Minister Modi and his government have made great strides to secure India’s energy independence and expand our domestic operations, there is still an unquestionable need to form long-term diversified energy partnerships with stable and reliable partners. Some of these initiatives have in the past been stunted due to unavailability of trusted, secured and seamless connectivity through Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The region presents similar promise in terms of renewable energy capacity, production and transportation, an area which India has itself been strongly committed to developing. The wide and sprawling plains that characterise countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offer an ideal setting for modern energy solutions such as wind and solar, while the region’s strategic location between East and West enable the Central Asian five to play a central role in the creation and implementation of any future interconnected energy system.

Therefore, continued investment and engagement from today could very reap groundbreaking results tomorrow. Nuclear energy is yet another major area for cooperation.

Beyond energy, India is also well suited to position itself as a key enabler of entrepreneurship in Central Asia. Boasting the third-largest startup ecosystem in the world, with nearly 40,000 officially recognised startups, India has quickly established itself as an empowering force for innovation, helping forward thinkers across industries and social settings implement game-changing ideas and projects. Countries such as Kazakhstan are primed and ready for such support, as recent education reforms and investment have kickstarted a transformation of the domestic business and internship landscape.

Cutting-edge institutions, including the new High-Tech Academy in Almaty, are encouraging the country’s younger generation to take on the challenges and opportunities emerging across the modern world, and India would do well to elevate their involvement and capitalise on the region’s growing ambitions. Creating a digital bridge and provisioning for Digital Public Goods and Infrastructure for the Central Asian region and others is a variable way forward while other issues get resolved.

On a larger scale, connecting innovators and investors from India and Central Asia will provide the foundation for deeper collaboration across a wide variety of sectors, including trade, finance, energy, and even security. Fortunately, such an expansion of diplomatic ties is already in motion, and is likely to produce visible results in the coming months. Conferences and Trade Fairs play a critical part in understanding the regional dynamic and opportunities.

The upcoming Astana International Forum, set to unfold on June 13-14 in Kazakhstan, is one promising example, as leaders from Central Asia, India, and the rest of the world will unite to galvanize the international community and encourage policy and business leaders to explore new avenues for cross-border collaboration.

Moving into the future, the India-Central Asia partnership can play a crucial role in further establishing India as an energy and innovation leader, while simultaneously creating new opportunities for growth in other sectors, including cybersecurity, conservation, and transportation. While building such a multifaceted relationship with the Central Asian five will require a significant commitment of resources and diplomatic capital, India’s global ambitions will only be realized through productive relationships with all kinds of partners.

Anil Trigunayat, is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta, and currently heads the West Asia Experts Group at Vivekananda International Foundation.

The article was first published in Financial Express as ‘India and Central Asia connecting for mutual benefit’ on February 19, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article is posted by Mansi Garg , a researcher at IMPRI.