NEIGHBOURHOOD FIRST POLICY
The ‘Neighbourhood First approach’ adopted by the present Indian government is meant to indicate four things. The first is New Delhi’s willingness to give political and diplomatic priority to its immediate neighbours and the Indian Ocean island states. The second is to provide neighbours with support, as needed, in the form of resources, equipment, and training. The third, and perhaps most important, is greater connectivity and integration, so as to improve the free flow of goods, people, energy, capital, and information. The fourth is to promote a model of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable.
The newfound diplomatic priority on the region is evident in Modi’s visits to all of India’s neighbours except Maldives, as well as regular leadership meetings in India and on the sidelines of multilateral summits. India has also become more forthcoming in providing support and in capacity building, whether concluding its biggest ever defence sale to Mauritius, or in providing humanitarian assistance to Nepal or Sri Lanka. With Bangladesh, the completion of the Land Boundary Agreement, improvements in energy connectivity, and steps taken towards accessing the port of Chittagong have all been crucial developments that help to set a positive tone for a region long defined by cross-border suspicion and animosity. India’s focus on connectivity is also gradually extending outward, whether to Chabahar in Iran or Kaladan in Myanmar. Although India will continue investing in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an institutional vehicle, it has also expressed a willingness to develop issue-specific groupings that are not held hostage to consensus: a “SAARC minus Pakistan” approach. Two examples of this are the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping – meant to advance motor vehicle movement, water power management, and inter-grid connectivity; and the common SAARC Satellite, which India has decided to proceed with despite Pakistan’s objections.
These concerted efforts have so far had mixed results. Bangladesh and Bhutan have clearly been positive stories for India. Ties with Sri Lanka have proved a mixed bag. The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena remains positive and personally invested in better relations with India, despite the electoral loss of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had testy relations with New Delhi. The Maldives has proved more difficult. India has continuing concerns about the fate of former president Mohamed Nasheed, although several defence agreements were concluded during incumbent President Abdulla Yameen’s visit to India.
The obvious regional outlier has been Nepal, which has been the most frustrating foreign policy problem facing the Indian government over the past year. Despite considerable Indian assistance in the aftermath of last year’s devastating earthquake that reportedly included over 1,700 tonnes of relief material and medical assistance to thousands, Nepal’s constitutional crisis severely set back relations. The crisis was not of India’s making – it was primarily the product of differences between Nepal’s hill elites and the Madhesis. But New Delhi was confronted with a tough choice. Either it could have welcomed a flawed Nepal constitution, knowing that months, perhaps years of Madhesi agitation would follow, risking escalation that could have damaged Indian interests. Or it had to take some form of action to urge Kathmandu to revisit the more contentious aspects of the constitution, risking the immense goodwill that it had built up over the previous year. After Indian diplomatic requests were dismissed, it opted for the latter. New Delhi was guilty of responding late to fast moving developments, and despite successfully pressuring Kathmandu to amend some aspects of the contentious constitution, it has not been able to overcome continuing mistrust or resolve the remaining constitutional differences.
With respect to all of its neighbours, including Nepal, India has taken concrete steps over the past two years to promote goodwill and deepen economic and social connectivity. But nationalist sentiments in all these countries often directed against India as the region’s predominant power will continue to present a challenge. Anti-Indian sentiments will also, paradoxically, drag India further into these countries’ domestic politics, suggesting that undulating highs and lows in its neighbourhood relationships will now be the norm. Furthermore, for all of India’s neighbours, China is now prepared to step in to provide financial, military, infrastructural, and even political assistance, and act as a potential alternative to India. This new development is something India will have to carefully monitor and appropriately respond to, as it has in recent years; particularly if Indian security interests are seriously compromised. As the status quo power in its neighbourhood, India will have to constantly play defence in its own backyard.
LOOK EAST POLICY
The Look East policy has emerged as a major thrust area of India’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. It was launched in 1991 by the then Narasimha Rao government to renew political contacts, increase economic integration and forge security cooperation with several countries of Southeast Asia as a means to strengthen political understanding. India’s Look East policy is aimed at greater economic alignment and an enhanced political role in the dynamic Asia–Pacific region in general and Southeast Asia in particular. The Look East policy is pursued to make India an inalienable part of Asia–Pacific’s strategic discourse. Hence, the Look East policy marks the beginning of a vibrant relationship on the economic, political and strategic fronts. The economic potential of this policy is also emphasised to link to the economic interests of the North-eastern region as a whole.
The beginning of the early 1990s was marked by a transformation in the international political economy, contributed by the end of the Cold War and the resulting spread of globalisation. Globalisation of world economies intensified international competition and has given rise to a new wave of regionalism. During this time India, like many developing countries, faced many challenges—both internally and globally. Internally, the country was unsettled by social unrest, serious political instability and poor economic performance. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, New Delhi lost a major economic partner and its closet strategic ally. India cannot look towards West Asia and Africa for intensive economic cooperation, as the countries of this region look up mainly to the West. During this period, India has got attracted to the high-performing economies of East Asia. Forced by the economic crisis and the dire need of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) for rapid economic development, India had enunciated the Look East policy in 1991 and was determined to work with the spirit of regional economic cooperation with her Eastern neighbours.
The first phase of India’s Look East policy was ASEAN-centred, and focused primarily on trade and investment linkages. The second phase, which began in 2003, is more comprehensive in its coverage, extending from Australia to East Asia, with ASEAN as its core. The new phase marks a shift in focus from trade to wider economic and security cooperation, political partnerships, physical connectivity through road and rail links. In India’s effort to look East, the Northeastern region has become a significant region due to its geographical proximity to Southeast Asia and China. India’s search for new economic relationship with Southeast Asia is now driven by the domestic imperative of developing the Northeast by increasing its connectivity to the outside world. Instead of consciously trying to isolate the Northeast from external influences, as it had done in the past, New Delhi has now recognised the importance of opening it up for commercial linkages with Southeast Asia.
Over the time, policy-makers, bureaucrats and intellectuals have attributed the numerous armed separatist struggles and political instability in the Northeastern states to the region’s underdevelopment and weak economic integration with mainland India. As part of the efforts to integrate the region with the rest of India, developmental funds were poured in and emphasis was laid on infrastructural development. However, the region still has the problem of underdevelopment and faces the problem of a growing and expanding security apparatus. Moreover, there is a relocation of factories and industries towards northern and western India, and hence the cost of transportation of goods to Northeast India has increased. Therefore, the existing policy of development of the Northeastern region needs to be reoriented if its stated objectives have to be fulfilled in due course.
Look East policy, which identifies Northeast India as the gateway to the East, is a major initiative that promise a new way of development through political integration of this region with the rest of India and economic integration with the rest of Asia, particularly with East and Southeast Asia. Taking into account its geographical proximity, its historical and cultural linkage with Southeast Asia and China and the primary objective of the Look East policy, it is being widely stated that the Look East policy would result in the rapid development of the region as it promises increased trade contacts between the Northeastern region and Myanmar, China and Bangladesh. The policy also has the potential of solving the problem of insurgency, migration and drug trafficking in the region through regional cooperation.
On the other side, there is pessimism that the policy of integrating Northeast India with its Eastern neighbours would lead to dumping of cheap foreign goods, and the region’s own industries being adversely affected by it. The region is also being perceived as just a transit region without bringing economic development to the region, as it has no adequate industrial infrastructure to produce goods which can be exported to these countries. There is also a concern that such integration will develop further the feeling of alienation of the people and the region itself would drift away from the mainstream Indian politics.
Under the BJP government in Delhi, India’s Look East policy has morphed into a proactive Act East policy, which envisages accelerated across-the-board engagement between the two growth poles of a vibrant Asia. India’s growing relations with the 10-nation ASEAN grouping are at the heart of this Asian relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his maiden trip to Myanmar on November, 2014, to attend his first India-ASEAN summit and the 18-nation East Asia Summit, unveiled India’s new “Act East Policy”, and convinced his Southeast Asian counterparts that his government is serious about boosting ties with the region.
Commerce, Culture and Connectivity (Three Cs) are the three pillars of India’s robust engagement with ASEAN. In the economic arena, the India-ASEAN relations are poised to scale new frontiers. The two sides have signed an India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in services and investments recently. It includes specific recommendations to advance ASEAN-India economic relations over the next few years, including establishing a special purpose vehicle for project financing, building information highways, and inviting ASEAN countries to participate in India’s ongoing economic transformation.
For the Northeast to serve as a bridgehead to the country's eastern neighbourhood, there has to be a comprehensive connectivity strategy for the region. Such a strategy would have three interlinked components. The first would be to improve connectivity between the Northeast and the rest of India; the second would be to enhance connectivity within the Northeast and the third would be to improve existing and establish new cross-border transport and communication links with neighbouring countries. These three components need to be pursued in tandem if the full benefits of Act East policy are to be realised.
In the first category, the existing highway and rail-link needs to be upgraded significantly to enable much higher load-carrying capacity and speedier transit. We need to construct modern expressways and a high-speed rail freight and passenger corridor to more closely integrate the Northeast with the rest of India. This will also enable Northeast produce to find ready markets in the country itself and to compete for exports.
Intra-regional connectivity within the Northeast is sparse, poor in quality and over stretched. The existing branch rail lines and roads from the rail heads to various state capitals are unable to cope with the increase in both freight and passenger traffic. Currently, travel among state capitals of the Northeast is difficult and time consuming. There has to be a master plan for linking all the Northeastern states together with a network of road, rail and air links. One should also fully utilise the potential of inland water transport using the rivers which crisscross the region. Bangladesh is also increasingly open to reviving the old river navigation routes, which were the main transport links in undivided eastern India. Without these Act East policy would not bring economic benefits to the region as it would only bring heavy influx of imports from neighbouring countries without much encouragement to local resource based production and access to the larger Indian and export markets.
Cross-border connectivity has been on the government's agenda for several years, but has made only slow progress. There is an ambitious Trilateral Highway Project to link India, Myanmar and Thailand, with possible extensions to Laos and Vietnam. The multi-nodal transport corridor linking the Myanmar port of Sittwe with India's Mizoram, using both river and road transport is under implementation. There are a number of road, river and rail projects in the pipeline with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. In addition to physical infrastructure, it is also important that we adopt the most modern processes to facilitate the smooth crossing of state and national borders by both goods and people. Only then would transaction costs be reduced significantly and raise the competitiveness of our products.
It is important for India to invest in infrastructural development projects in the Northeast region and beyond its borders. At a strategic level, the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor (BCIM) is bound to bring India and Bangladesh closer and will enhance bilateral relations relating to trade and movement of goods. BCIM economic corridor is also very important as it places the North-East as a crucial link to achieve regional economic cooperation via land of the North-Eastern region. Complementing this, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) can also act as a good framework for regional integration. BIMSTEC can open up ample trade and economic opportunities between India’s neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and also with the countries of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations like Myanmar and Thailand. Were these intended projects to actually materialise, then a densely interconnected and economically vibrant sub-regional economic zone would emerge, with the Northeast as its hub.
CLMV IN INDIA’S ‘ACT EAST’ POLICY
The 2015-2016 Indian budget included a proposal to set up manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries. The CLMV includes four Southeast Asian nations – Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, which are seeing the highest FDI growth in the region, especially in manufacturing. As India seeks to deepen economic partnerships with Southeast Asia under an “Act East” policy it has prioritized CLMV economies. There is a history of industrial cooperation between India and the CLMV countries. Major Indian investment in Vietnam includes large projects such as oil exploration, power generation, and chemical manufacturing. The bigger idea behind investing in CMLV is not only to tap these markets but also larger markets like the US with which the group has entered into trade pacts such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
CHALLENGES IN REALIZING THESE AMBITIONS
India’s ability to pursue a more ambitious role in the Asia-Pacific will also face domestic constraints. A prolonged period of lower growth, if happens, may reduce India’s capacity to commit resources to the region, it will also diminish its credibility in the eyes of regional partners. India is still in the early stages of developing its ability to project and sustain its naval presence beyond the Indian Ocean, and continued increases in the naval budget and improvements to India’s defence infrastructure will be necessary to achieve this. As a geographic outsider to the Asia-Pacific, India will continue to rely on its partners, particularly in Southeast Asia, to project power east of Malacca, located in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, further reinforcing the need for it to prove itself a credible partner in the first place.
India under Modi is likely to pursue a more ambitious role in East and Southeast Asia centred on practical partnerships with Japan, Vietnam, and Australia, and multilateral engagement with ASEAN. India’s partners in the region can expect greater Indian involvement in multilateral maritime security initiatives, particularly in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transnational crime, and joint bilateral naval exercises. However, India will be unlikely to engage in any security initiatives that could be perceived as threatening or containing China. In the near term, it would not be realistic to expect India to take an active position on East Asia’s maritime territorial disputes, beyond its declared support for principles such as freedom of navigation.
In the past, India has neglected to articulate a clear vision for its strategic ambitions in East and Southeast Asia. Historically it has suffered from strategic timidity and poor defence planning that has impeded its ability to integrate itself into the Asia-Pacific. To establish the seriousness of India’s commitment to the region, the Modi Government must demonstrate that Act East is more than just a rebranding of an existing policy. Perseverance is a must here and is likely to pay off because of two positive factors. First, the likely emergence of India as the fastest growing major economy. Secondly, India already has some reliable partners, such as Singapore and Vietnam, among ASEAN countries. And there is a palpable unease about China’s claim on what it calls the South China Sea. In order to preclude further inertia, India will need to move quickly to outline a clear agenda for deepening economic, institutional, and defence links with the region that go beyond what has been pledged by previous governments. If the Modi Government is able to achieve this, then India has the potential to assume a role as a consequential strategic player across the wider Indo-Pacific.
“LOOK WEST” POLICY
The geographical conception of West Asia has significantly expanded since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now called the "Greater Middle East". It includes the far corners of northern Africa and the now independent republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Much like South East Asia, this region shares a long historical association with India. It is the source for India's ever-expanding needs of energy. It is also a huge market for Indian goods, services, and skilled manpower. And, it is the arena for the unfolding confrontation between the impulse for political modernisation and religious extremism. This tension has naturally overflowed into the subcontinent destabilising India's own security environment.
While India's engagement with the Greater Middle East has increased in the 1990s, there is as yet no coherent strategy. India has attempted, in a piecemeal manner, to improve relations with the Central Asian states, sought to promote its energy security partnerships in the Gulf and beyond, and reach out to markets there. It has sought to develop a special relationship with Iran and intensify its role in Afghanistan. All these efforts have not added up to much. Nor has India been able to reclaim its pre-independence primacy in the region. The inability of India to make a strategic breakthrough in the Greater Middle East lies in the unending political rivalry and military tension with Pakistan. The Partition in 1947 removed India's physical access to the region. Pakistan, of course, is more than a geographic barrier between India and the Greater Middle East. It has effectively neutralised many of India's initiatives through its own special links to the Greater Middle East.
India’s ‘Look West Policy’ was unveiled in the India-UAE Joint statement when Modi visited United Arab Emirates in August, 2015. The Look East Policy succeeded because South-East Asia began to “look West” to India, seeking a balancer to China. Modi’s “Look West” Policy has the potential to succeed because West Asia is “looking East” worried about the emerging strategic instability in its own neighbourhood and the structural shift in the global energy market. The foundation for Modi’s successful outreach to West Asia was in fact laid by his predecessor when India invited the King of Saudi Arabia to be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade, in 2006. This was followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh and the India-Saudi defence cooperation agreement signed in 2014. This had set the stage for wider engagement at a strategic level with the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Mr. Modi’s visit to the UAE was preceded by significant visits to other GCC states by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. She made Bahrain her first stop in the region and was welcomed by Bahrain’s India-friendly leadership. Over the last year, the government has put forward a nuanced view of the region openly declaring friendship with Israel, seeking better relations with Iran and, at the same time, cementing a thriving relationship with the GCC states. The Joint Statement between the United Arab Emirates and India is an important articulation of a significant shift in the Arab world’s view of India. The statement is truly comprehensive and wide-ranging. It talks of historic ties of “commerce, culture and kinship”, drawing attention to the unique history of Arab interaction with Indian communities of the west coast, from Gujarat to Kerala.
LOOK WEST POLICY: PRIMARY RATIONALES FOR INDUCTION
Diaspora & remittances: The West Asian region is home to millions of non-resident Indians who are an important source to India in financial remittances. The introduction of the Nitaqat laws in many Gulf countries has resulted in several thousands of these workers having to return to India. While it is unfair to view the returnees as a liability, one cannot ignore the economic and social impact of this mass re-migration. India is not prepared to assimilate all these people into its own economy just yet. Already, unemployment rates are high and job creation will take a while, and until then, there will be some strain on the economy.
Energy: India, being a growing economy, is perpetually energy-hungry. West Asian nations are among the primary suppliers of oil and gas that keep the Indian economy running. Stable and more improved relations between India and the region are key to securing and expanding on these sources.
Maritime security: Be it trade or energy supply routes, or even national security, the significance of an effective maritime security infrastructure in the Indian Ocean – the maritime link connecting India with several of its key West Asian partners – is pivotal to ensuring safety, stability, and disaster-management for the region. Already, there is a constant threat of piracy in the western Indian Ocean. A concentrated policy will be needed to identify specific issues and areas of cooperation between India and West Asia, in order to ensure smooth and secure movement.
Furthermore, in recent times, there have been many debates on the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ to boost connectivity between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The two regions already have robust connectivity, but more can be done. However, if this concept of the Indo-Pacific has to become a reality, there is a need for enhanced cooperation in various areas among the key players in each region, before connecting the regions. Eventually, the Look West Policy and the Look East Policy can lay the foundations for the realisation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
National and regional security: Any form of tumult in the West Asian region invariably has an impact on India and South Asia as a whole. For strategic reasons, India seeks peace and political stability and security in the West Asian region. So far, India has been pragmatic in its policies towards the West Asian region excellent examples of which are balancing its relationships with Palestine and Israel; and Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others.
However, there is more that needs to be done, and for that, there needs to be better, more polished and astute understanding of the region in our country – especially in the light of the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan; the thawing in the US-Iran bilateral; the ongoing civil war in Syria and its implications; implementation of the Nitaqat policies in the Gulf countries; and the rising fundamentalism, especially in the franchisee-ing nature of terror networks, among others.
GCC LOOKS EAST
What is significant about the new strategic partnership is the fact that it is defined not just by India’s “Look West” policy, based on its energy and financial needs, but that it is equally defined by the GCC’s “Look East” policy, soliciting greater Indian engagement with West Asia. Several factors have contributed to this fundamental shift in West Asian strategic thinking.
First, the structural change in the global energy market with West Asian oil and gas increasingly heading to South and East Asian markets rather than to the Trans-Atlantic markets. Second, partly as a consequence of this change in flows and partly owing to the fiscal stress faced by the trans-Atlantic economies, West Asia is looking to India and other Asian powers to step in and offer security guarantees to the region. Many GCC states have welcomed defence cooperation agreements with India. Third, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the mess in Egypt and Iraq, the Gulf States find India and China to be more reliable interlocutors than many western states. Fourth, under pressure from radical and extremist political forces within West Asia, most states in the region have come to value the Indian principle of seeking and securing regional stability as an over-riding principle of regional security.
This strategic engagement is the product of a mutual “look-at-each-other” policy. If China’s rise offered the backdrop for South-East Asia’s “look at India” policy, the West’s failures and weaknesses, and a weakening of the strategic trust between the West and West Asia may have contributed to the GCC’s “look at India” policy. Modi’s visit to Central Asian countries also adds to the success of the Look West policy
CONNECT CENTRAL ASIA POLICY
India has now started think ways to exploit the energy rich region of Central Asia which would give boost to its foreign policy on energy. Irrespective of the difficulties like the presence of great powers in the region, limited trade and limited size of markets, Central Asia has gained valuable place in the foreign policy of India for more than a decade. The ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ is a concrete testimony of this growing interest, which is based on proactive political economic and people to people connectivity with the region both individually and collectively. CCAP obviously add to its energy policy to tap the natural resources in the region.
The ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy (CCAP) was first unveiled by UPA government as a Track II initiative in June 2012 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to fast-track India’s relations with the Central Asian Republics (CAR) – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It aimed at increasing India’s engagement with the region both bilaterally and multilaterally, which has been limited in the last two decades.
This also offers chances for Central Asian countries to meet their desire to diversify hydropower and energy export routes, corresponding with India’s quest for diversifying energy imports. CCAP highlights the broader aspects of India-Central Asia cooperation on several subjects such as exchanges of high level visits to strengthen political relations both bilaterally and multilaterally, to gain strategic and security cooperation via military training, joint research, counterterrorism coordination and close consultation on Afghanistan. The policy is also looking at the region as a long term partner in energy and natural resources. Apart from this, setting up of civil hospitals and clinics in the medical field to ensure modern health care system in CARs, contributing to higher education system like setting up a Central Asian University in Bishkek to impart world class education in areas like IT, Management, Philosophy and languages, to work on Central Asian e-networking with its hub in India, to encourage construction sector, promote land connectivity through reactivating INSTC (International North-South Transport Corridor) route are some of its soft power initiatives in the region.
In addition, through this policy India wants to expand viable banking infrastructure and policy environment which is absent in the region, a major impediment to trade and investment. Finally, to improve air connectivity to promote tourism and to enhance people to people connectivity through mutual exchanges of youth delegations, students, scholars, academics and future leaders of India to sustain our deep engagement are also India’s policy concerns. Such a comprehensive approach would be beneficial for India to strengthen its engagement in the energy sector of the region.
Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s visit to the 5 states had a three-fold focus: energy, exports, and as a counterpoint to China’s inroads in the region.
India is trying to develop connectivity with Central Asia which is a favourable energy option for India. Chabahar port of Iran in the Gulf of Oman and Bandar Abbas port near the Strait of Hormuz are likely to become as potential route for transporting into Afghanistan and through its territory to Central Asia which is part of INSTC route The policy outlines the role of India to promote INSTC trade route as it is involved in ongoing discussion with Iran to complete under-construction portion of this route which will result in shorter transit time for trade with Central Asia
Exchanges of high level visits by leaderships from both sides as described in the policy can help in strengthening the cooperation in multiple areas. In addition, joint research programs and exchanges of ideas of scholars on energy, trade and geopolitical issues probably contribute to the research on India-Central Asia’s joint ventures in the energy sectors which would provide them a space for decision making regarding energy and security strategy.
This policy further emphasizes on people to people connectivity and humanitarian concerns such as opening hospitals and education systems through which they can know about each other needs and win the governments favour. Thus, it is expected that India would increase its cooperation in the region both bilaterally and multilaterally through these soft power initiatives which would prove to be effective tools of its engagement in the region’s energy sector.
No doubt, realization of this policy can spur the development of Indian engagement in the region. Indian government and business has already started to make contacts with their Central Asian counterparts for enhancing mutual cooperation through this policy framework. Its main focus on cooperation on developing transportation infrastructure linking India-Central Asia region to facilitate the increase of trade turnover and import of strategic natural resources still remains a needed component which is essential for the growth of Indian economy. It is thus expected that this policy would help to revitalize South and Central Asia trade links which can further give boost to energy imports of India from the region. Finally, it looks impossible to bring energy directly from Central Asia on the face of the current geopolitical realities in South Asia, but CCAP is going to be an effective tool for India in order to make strong footholds in the region, and slowly push its energy agenda effectively.
In fact, importance of Central Asia is a challenge in itself and there are several draw backs in speeding up the relationships and governmental interactions of India with the region under the present circumstances. In the present settings of South and Central Asia it seems to be very difficult to bring energy directly and easily from the region. Here are some of vibrant challenges to India and to establish connectivity with Central Asia to satisfy its energy needs in particular.
First, lack of direct route connectivity. India has been lacking direct land route links since its partition. This forms the fundamental challenge in establishing easy and sustainable connection. This poses a great difficulty for India’s trade with Central Asia as it has to seek other options to connect with Central Asia. Land route connection plays a key role in developing trade and transport of energy materials.
Second, India’s relations with neighbouring countries and weak border. This is the main geopolitical challenge and associated problem with the above stated point. India has hostile neighbours like Pakistan and China. China’s encirclement of India via Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan poses problems for its security. These types of relationships with neighbouring countries and weak borders made India an isolated land which has to struggle for making presence across the region.
Third, Islamic extremism. This issue has been focal point of India’s concern on its national security. The terrorist activities such as Taliban insurgency on domestic soil of Afghanistan and Pakistan has been threatening. Due to the proximity of CARs to the Afghan border, Central Asian countries are also experiencing terrorist activities and drug trafficking which has become a big security concern for India too. Since there is always threat of disruption to India’s energy initiatives across the region it has become vital for India to ensure strategic and border security along with energy security.
Finally, geopolitical competition between great powers in the energy sector. There is an intense competition in the region between great powers of the world such as the US, Russia and emerging power China, which are economically as well as politically involved in the region, in the energy sector. China is one of the major energy competitors for India in the Central Asian energy story. Russia wanted to maintain it soviet legacy over the region. Both China and Russia are members of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and aiming at reducing the US influence in the region. On the other hand, the US is trying to exploit energy resources of the region and make this a strategic base to control Islamic terrorism. Hence India has to push its interests through the interplay of these powers and across their individual interests. Moreover, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are trying to pursue their interests in the region and Pakistan continues not only to block India geographically but also politically.
Central Asian countries have shown their keen interest in allowing India to play a bigger role in the region. Russia has been a dominant force in the region and China has also made inroads into the region in recent years. But the five capitals want to diversify their foreign relations and believe that India's presence will help them achieve their aim. And Mr Modi seems to have leveraged Central Asia's quest for diversification to India's advantage.
Stability in Central Asian region is important as it have a significant impact on the internal security of Russia, India and other neighbouring states. There is a need to bring together the two regions South and Central Asia in the cooperative environments which will be great contribution to regional stability and lasting peace building programmes and will help the removing of drug smuggling and attacking terrorist groups in the region. For this India needs to boost sub-region groups between South and Central Asia as it has did in Southeast Asia context on the lines of following Look East policy. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan share borders with Afghanistan and fear that any instability in the neighbourhood will affect them. India can bolster her Afghan policy through CAR’s. Central Asian countries are also "nervous" about the growing influence of Islamic State militant group in the region. The PM has convinced the leaders of the five nations that India stands united in their fight against the jihadist group.
India needs to change its approach to Central Asia and show greater pro-activity. We must shed piecemeal approach to Central Asia in favour of a holistic and long term approach. We must think big. This will require dealing with Central Asia not only at the bilateral level but also at a collective level. India could consider setting up an India-Central Asia Forum (on the lines of India-Africa Forum) to deal with the region in a holistic fashion, to engage with them periodically with regularity and to identify projects which are of common interests. Monitoring an implementation mechanism should also be set up. It would be desirable to set up a Central Asia fund to seed the various projects.
The economic development of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, has sparked a construction boom and development of sectors like IT, pharmaceuticals and tourism. India has expertise in these sectors and deeper cooperation will give a fresh impetus to trade relations with these countries. India's trade ties with Central Asia have been performing well below their true potential. Poor connectivity has also contributed to the below-par trade between India and Central Asia.
India has to work out a multipronged strategy to address the energy issue and overcome the crisis it is currently undergoing. Having realized the practical difficulties in transporting energy from Central Asia under the present geopolitical realities, India should adopt pragmatic strategies and should continue its political dialogues with CARs and other transit countries. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan recently inaugurated a railway line connecting the two countries with Iran. India has invested in Iran's Chabahar port and that will allow Indian products to reach Iran and then to Central Asia through the rail link.
A strategy of cooperation rather competition/clash would best suit its interests. India needs to pursue its ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ energetically, irrespective of its unimpressive gains so far, to achieve plausible breakthroughs in regional, economic, trade and energy cooperation with new states. The policy can play a role of anchor in increasing India’s hard and large period planned attention in view of its further relations with Central Asia.