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China, Afghanistan top of mind as PM Modi holds 1st summit with Central Asian leaders on 27 Jan

India, which sees Central Asia as part of its ‘extended neighbourhood’, firmed up plans to hold the summit when foreign ministers of these nations visited New Delhi in December 2021.

The foreign ministers of Central Asian countries with India's prime minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on 20 December 2021 | Twitter/@ANI
The foreign ministers of Central Asian countries with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on 20 December 2021 | Twitter/@ANI

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be holding the first-ever summit meeting with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan virtually on 27 January. It comes at a time when Chinese influence is growing in the Central Asian countries and their significance has increased with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

This is for the first time that India will be holding a summit-level meeting with the Central Asian presidents, a foreign policy move that has not yet been taken by China or Russia, both of which have close strategic and economic ties with these five countries.

India, which considers the Central Asian countries part of its “extended neighbourhood”, firmed up plans to hold the summit meeting when the foreign ministers of these countries visited New Delhi in December 2021 for the third round of the India-Central Asia Dialogue, sources told ThePrint.

With growing Chinese footprints in these countries in both the defence and security segment as well as the economic sphere, it has become imperative for India to have a “robust foothold” there, sources said. 

According to the sources, while China is also holding regular dialogues with the Central Asian countries at the foreign ministers’ level, it has not yet held a summit meeting with them. Chinese defence supplies to these countries have also increased in the last few years. 

India had reportedly invited the presidents of the five Central Asian nations as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations, which was to be followed by a summit meeting, but the plans were cancelled due to the spiralling third wave of the Covid pandemic.

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Increased significance of Central Asian countries

In July 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit all Central Asian countries to boost strategic and trade ties. He also met the leaders of these countries in 2018 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting that was held in Qingdao.

However, sources said that the strategic importance of the five Central Asian countries “has increased” ever since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021.

New Delhi believes these countries will prove to be beneficial for India in having some sort of a channel open with the Taliban regime that is currently in power in Kabul, they said, even as the Modi government has started sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan

Ties between India and Central Asia started taking a decisive turn as the US government signed the so-called peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, and fears began to mount about Afghanistan in the aftermath of the NATO’s pullout. Prior to that India mostly looked at Central Asia from the perspective of energy ties.

As India closed all its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan, it also took the initiative to host the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue in November 2021, which was chaired by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. All security chiefs from the five Central Asian nations attended the meeting along with Russia and Iran, to send a message to the Taliban government.

How to deal with Taliban

Apart from China, another important issue the summit will be dealing with is how to deal with the Taliban interim government in Kabul in the future, as the humanitarian crisis in Aghaninistan intensifies and security threats emanating from the country loom, sources added.

“The inception of the India-Central Asia Dialogue at foreign ministers’ level, the 3rd meeting of which was held in New Delhi from 18 to 20 December 2021, has provided an impetus to India-Central Asia relations,” said an official statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs.

“The participation of the secretaries of National Security Councils of Central Asian countries in the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan held in New Delhi on 10 November 2021 outlined a common regional approach on Afghanistan,” it added.

During the first India-Central Asia summit, it said, “the leaders are expected to discuss steps to take forward India-Central Asia relations to newer heights”.

“They are also expected to exchange views on regional and international issues of interest, especially the evolving regional security situation,” it added.

The issue of maintaining close ties with the Central Asian countries, when it comes to Afghanistan, was something that was also discussed between Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the India-Russia Summit held in December 2021.

Besides, India is also keen to strengthen trade and energy ties with the Central Asian countries with a focus on increasing connectivity.

New Delhi, sources said, is expected to push for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the TAPI (Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India) pipeline for natural gas during the summit.

‘Relevance of Central Asian countries has multiplied’

Ashok Sajjanhar, a veteran diplomat and former Indian envoy to Kazakhstan, said the summit will prove to be a long-term gain for India in the region, and will be closely watched by China as well as Pakistan.

“The relevance of the Central Asian countries was always there but it has significantly multiplied after the Taliban takeover. All those commentaries around India’s lack of engagement with the Taliban government and lessening of its presence in Afghanistan will take a backseat,” he added. “We always had a robust foundation with the Central Asian countries, which is now going to take another turn.”

According to Sajjanhar, who has served in several Indian missions, including those in Washington DC, Moscow, and Tehran, these countries have not given a “de jure recognition” to the Taliban government, they have started working with them in a “de facto” manner, as they also remain concerned, like India, about terrorism spilling over into their countries from Afghanistan.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

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