2012 is a landmark year for India’s relations with both Southeast Asia and Central Asia; it marks the twentieth year of the formulation of the Look East Policy (LEP) vis-à-vis Southeast Asia and also the twentieth year of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Central Asian countries. Two decades later, it would be prudent to critique the past and make subsequent projections for the next decade.
Every scholar and analyst in India would have repeatedly and invariably emphasized the strategic significance of Central Asia for India. This analysis does not intend to repeat that exercise. Instead, it attempts a debate to change priorities and expand ties. In this context, availability of gas in Central Asia and its import to India has been one of the most important issues in defining Central Asia’s strategic importance to India.
Perhaps, it is time to revive this point. Is India likely to tap the Central Asian gas reserves any time in the near future? Drawing from Indo-Pak relations as they stand today and based on an informed analysis of the last two decades, one could safely conclude that Indo-Pak relations have not matured adequately to agree on a gas pipeline from Central Asia into India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Besides bilateral relations, another important issue is Pakistan’s ability to build and protect a pipeline, thus ensuring the supply of gas over Durand line into India.
If the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is to be taken as an example, it can be concluded that Pakistan is unlikely to build any pipeline across the country anywhere in the near future. Although the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline has been completed on the Iranian side, it is yet to start within Pakistan. Analysts within Pakistan believe that Islamabad will end up paying a huge penalty to Iran as per the agreement for not completing its part of the bargain.
Besides Indo-Pak relations and Pakistan’s abilities, stability in Afghanistan will also play a crucial role in acquiring Central Asian gas. There are, however, two other options – either via Afghanistan into Iran, and from there to India via the sea route, or via Xinjiang, Aksai Chin, and Ladakh into India.
It may therefore be time for India to look for other factors to shape its policy towards Central Asia. Besides the gas pipeline, trade has always been an option. In fact, India has always conducted brisk trade with the Central Asian region – either through the Silk Route, or through other routes cutting across what constitutes today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Silk Route trade to Central Asia mainly happened through Kargil, Skardu, Gilgit and then northwards across the Khunjerab pass. The other route would be through Nathu La and the East-West Silk route across Tibet and Xinjiang. But both routes have serious political issues, which need to be resolved.
First, the most efficient way to revive links with Central Asia is by making use of India’s soft power – especially in the educational sector. India could become a very lucrative destination for students from Central Asia. If the ICSSR and ICCR could find innovative ways to improve India’s image and presence in Central Asia, educational institutions could be full of students from north of the Hindu Kush!
Second, India could also use its J&K linkages with Central Asia, especially in tourism and Sufism. Historically, the links between J&K and Central Asia has been important; Sufism, the proponents of which won the hearts and minds of Kashmiris in the Valley, has very strong linkages with Central Asia. There also is a strong Central Asian diaspora in the Kashmir valley. If the Srinagar airport remains truly international, and has direct flights to Central Asia, Air India would run full flights every day.
From a security perspective, Central Asia is important for India not for its gas reserves but for what it could do to help us achieve our interests in Afghanistan. It is important for India to work with regional partners towards its interests in stabilizing Afghanistan and to prevent it from becoming Pakistan’s backyard again. While Pakistan should have a legitimate role to play in Afghanistan to secure its own interests, it cannot be allowed to dictate Kabul. It is essential for India to bring the Central Asian states to the table and extensively discuss Afghanistan with them at multiple levels – both at the state and society levels.
A ‘Delhi Discourse’ – a track-II initiative with Indian and Central Asian states - would be a worthwhile initiative. New Delhi should allow independent stakeholders and institutions from different parts of India to establish and organize multiple dialogues, with the objective to revive trade, tourism and cultural linkages with Central Asia. While this would help New Delhi build a larger network between India and Central Asia, it would also become a useful strategic tool for India to build an exclusive alliance on Afghanistan.
Let India’s investment in Central Asia be broad-based as it starts the third decade of its diplomatic engagement. Let New Delhi also include regional stakeholders, especially J&K, in this process.