Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday began his central Asia trip, which will be interspersed with his visit to Russia to attend the summits of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Ufa.
Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit all five countries in one go after Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to all these five countries - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Here are five underlying themes of the visit:
These five countries are the northern frontier of the Islamic world. For long they remained unaffected by radicalism of any disturbing proportion. But things are changing. Experts warn of an arc of instability consisting Chechnya, Ferghana, and Xinjiang. There are reports of 3,000 to 4,000 recruits in Islamic State from these countries. With continuing instability in Afghanistan, bordered by Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan in the north, security cooperation to counter radical forces assume greater significance.
Creating a strategic space
Influential Chinese general Liu Yazhou of the PLA, once said, "Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens". Unlike the way his country is perceived in many parts of the world, China is seen as a reliable partner in central Asia. The silk road and belt initiative of China envisage an investment of $40 billion for connecting Asia to Europe via central Asia. So competing with China is not an option for India, but India has long failed to cash in on the goodwill that exists for India in the region. And Modi's visit should help in building bonds with the rulers of the five countries. Except Kyrgyzstan, no country is a democracy there. The visit should help in India getting a strategic space in a resource-rich region.
Connectivity beyond the discussed
The over-land route of connectivity via Afghanistan and Iran to central Asia (which is part of the International North-South Corridor) are set to be pursued along with other plans that remain dormant for a while, like the seabed pipeline to connect Iran-Oman to Kandla or Mumbai will get an fresh push. With existing plans, gas from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan can be fed into this line. India enjoys good ties with Iran and Oman has remained India's most trusted partner in the Gulf. The TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pipeline) is also set to get a push during Modi's visit, but it still remains a complex project. India's partition and Pakistan's occupation of parts of Kashmir have led to a physical cut-off between India and central Asia.
Reviving cultural connect
The ties between India and central Asia go back to at least 2,500 years. Ancient Pali literature and the Mahabharata talk of Uttarapatha that stretched from the Indo-Gangetic plain and ran through Taxila to central Asia. In the present day, Indian culture has considerable resonance in these five nations. The Uzbek radio completed 50 years of Hindi broadcasting in 2012. Indian television soaps, dance and yoga are popular in Kazakhstan, and Indian films are broadcast in Tajik television. Using the visit to put an emphasis on the cultural connect would bring dividends to India.
India's trade to the region is a paltry $1.6 billion. Except Kazakhstan, there are no trade ties with other countries that is worth mentioning in detail. But there is enough potential. For example, Uzbekistan is world's six largest producer of cotton and ninth largest producer of gold besides having considerable natural gas resources. Kyrgyzstan has an estimated hydrocarbon potential 140 billion kilowatt-hour per year out of which just 10% is exploited. From construction to pharmaceuticals to information technology, there are many areas where India can build ties with central Asia. And building partnership holds the key.
Read:Energy tops priority list as PM Modi begins central Asia tour