The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi drive to map new route to Central Asia

New Delhi, Aug. 27: Ten spanking new Tata Safaris will reach Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in October. A gift from the Indian Prime Minister, they will be used to ferry the various heads of state meeting there for a summit commemorating the Year of the Mountains.

The vehicles will be transported by sea to Bandar Abbas in Iran and then onwards by containers. Earlier, five million tonnes of wheat and sugar were sent from India using the sea route through Bandar Abbas to Tajikistan.

What, one might ask, is so significant about these developments' They represent India’s attempt to open a new “silk route” to Central Asia, overcoming physical and political barriers.

There was a time when, despite the barrier of the Hindukush mountains, there were two trade routes between India and Central Asia — one through Afghanistan and another through China.

Today, no Indian overflights through Pakistani airspace mean that even Afghanistan has become a distant neighbour.

Under these circumstances, India is following a two-pronged strategy to establish trade links with Central Asia: using the sea route through Bandar Abbas and attempting to set up small and medium scale industries in the area. These industrial units could then also be used for engaging Afghanistan commercially.

Officials admit that for the first two decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, India remained largely dormant in Central Asia. All this while the US had been establishing a new architecture of power in the region.

The American focus had gradually begun to shift from West Asia to Central Asia because of the geo-political and economic advantages it offered: the Central Asian countries are energy-rich; their regimes are not based on religious fundamentalism; they are not difficult to handle in a strategic sense unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq; and a presence there allows the US to keep a watch on China and put pressure on Russia.

Despite historical links with Central Asia, the physical barriers separating it from India over time became psychological barriers. There was no Indian gameplan of what to do even if these were crossed.

The shifting political dynamic of the region has, however, encouraged India over the last one year to step up its diplomatic efforts and see Central Asia as a key factor in its broader regional goals.

Strategically located between China, Russia and Iran, it is vital to India’s regional political, economic and military influence.

As an energy-deficient country, India sees Central Asia as a potential source of oil and gas. This region is also rich in water resources. As water deficiency increases in India, there might come a time when water-intensive agricultural products might have to be sourced from Central Asia. India in turn is offering investment in the field of information technology (IT), pharmaceuticals and small and medium industries.

The biggest Indian investment in Central Asia, however, is likely to be in the field of oil. New Delhi is on the verge of signing a joint venture agreement with Kazakhstan for exploiting two proven oil wells in the Caspian Basin — at Alibek Maula and Karzanbaz.

Indian industrial exhibitions have done brisk business in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Indian companies are likely to get the commission for computerising the banking sector in Uzbekistan. A software technology park is being set up by India in Kazakhstan.

However, the Central Asian countries do not see India only as an economic partner. They also view it as a stabilising factor at a time when the US, Russia, China, Japan and the European Union are busy jostling for influence in the region.

Thus, the Kazakh President invited India to be a partner in the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Central Asia in June this year. And Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has voiced support for India’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — originally known as the Shanghai Five when China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan founded it. This would help India extend its political influence farther north and balance China’s involvement in Central Asia.

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