China, India woo Central Asian states - GulfToday

China, India woo Central Asian states

Chinese president hosts five Central Asian counterparts for a virtual meeting on January 25 to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations. (Supplied)

Chinese president hosts five Central Asian counterparts for a virtual meeting on January 25 to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations. (Supplied)

Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with heads of the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on January 25, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual summit too with Central Asian leaders on January 27. While China celebrated 30 years of establishing diplomatic relations with the former Soviet republics, India held its first summit with the intention of establishing closer economic and strategic connectivity with these states. Xi has announced China-Central Asia gas pipeline, China-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline, China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan high way, and China-Tajikistan expressway. He also announced an assistance of $500 million to support the livelihood programmes, and promised to supply 50 million vaccines. He set the target of taking China-Central Asia trade to $80 billion by 2030. It was $20 billion in 2018. And he expressed support to Kazakhstan government in the wake of an attempted coup, and blamed outside elements for it. Modi declared, “I want to make it clear that Central Asia is central to India’s vision of an integrated and stable neighbourhood.” India too was marking 30 years of cooperation with these states.

The leaders and people of the five Central Asian states must be feeling flattered that two of Asia’s biggest nations are keen to connect with them and help them, and there is the third powerful country, Russia, only too willing to protect their security interests when President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Kazakhstan to help the government to deal with an aborted coup. It is not surprising that Central Asia has assumed great importance in the new geo-political and geo-economic situation. The Central Asian states are home to enormous mineral resources, especially oil and gas, and they are strategically located on the highway as it were of the old Silk Route and China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For China, which is connected to Europe through its trans-Asian railway, these states assume critical importance.

The Indian interest in Central Asia is two-fold. Access to oil resources is indeed a key factor, but there is also the prospect of improving trade ties, where India could find a receptive market for its exports. India is aware that it does not have direct connectivity like China does because of its uncertain relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. India has been working with Iran on the Chabahar port to find a way to Central Asia through Iran. This path is still to be worked out and for the two-way traffic of trade between the two sides. An equally important issue for India is to have a security tie-up with the Central Asian states which would contain the anti-India religious extremist groups from spreading their influence northward. India feels that its strategic neighbourhood extends beyond its physical borders, which include the Central Asian states and the South-East states in the Indo-Pacific region.

In many indirect ways, China, India, and Russia are competing, with each other, to exert their influence in these Central Asian states. Interestingly, the three powers and the Central Asian states are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with Pakistan and Iran. China and Russia have an advantage because they are already present in visible and invisible ways. India’s presence has not yet crystallised and expanded. It would require lot more energy and imagination for India to become an influential player in the region. The situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban is a big concern for India in its Central Asia calculations. The region has turned out to be a pivotal point along with Pacific region, and Africa. World has truly become polycentric in terms of power politics.

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