Hutong Cat | India-CAR summit: A step in the right direction

BySutirtho Patranobis
Jan 31, 2022 02:35 PM IST

New Delhi needs a lot of catching up to do with Beijing in context of rejuvenating ties with Central Asia to make the relationship more productive

President Xi Jinping has thrust some unexpected fame on a young student from Kazakhstan, Ismail Daurov, who is studying Chinese medicine at a university in northwest China. “I am a foreigner, but I am not an outsider,” Xi quoted Daurov as saying during his January 25 speech to the heads of the five Central Asian Republics (CARs).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the first meeting of India Central Asia Summit, through video conferencing, in New Delhi, January 27, 2022 (PTI) PREMIUM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the first meeting of India Central Asia Summit, through video conferencing, in New Delhi, January 27, 2022 (PTI)

Xi then explained how the Kazakh student’s Covid-19 volunteer work in Xian is part of a “…stirring symphony of Chinese and Central Asian people supporting each other through thick and thin”.

New Delhi too is looking to stir the complex cacophony of diplomacy in central Asia.

India invited the heads of State of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to New Delhi to attend the January 26 Republic Day celebrations as part of that effort. It didn’t work out because of a surge in Covid-19 cases.

So, as a follow-up and substitute, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the five leaders to the first-ever (virtual) summit-level meeting held on January 27.

Currently, the six countries have a foreign ministers-level mechanism called the India-Central Asia Dialogue, the third meeting of which was hosted by New Delhi in December.

India’s external affairs ministry described the PM Modi-led meet as the “first engagement of its kind between India and the central Asian countries at the level of leaders”.

Only, the meeting ended up sandwiched between a similar summit held by President Xi Jinping on January 25 – to mark 30 years of ties between China and the five countries -- and the central Asian leaders’ expected arrival in Beijing about a week later.

The five heads are slated to be in Beijing on February 4 to attend the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan are also expected to attend the programme. A grand reception and bilateral interactions await the visitors in Beijing.

Media reports in India said Xi held the virtual summit with CAR leaders at a short notice, only after New Delhi had announced its summit.

There’s scope to speculate who planned it first: On December 12, Indian media reports said New Delhi had invited the five leaders to be chief guests at the 2022 Republic Day function.

Beijing could have also planned it before as part of the process to invite the five to the Olympics opening ceremony; it announced the summit formally only days ahead of the date, as it usually does with big–ticket diplomatic events

That speculation apart, diplomats and experts agree, New Delhi needs a lot of catching up to do with Beijing in context of rejuvenating ties with Central Asia to make the connect more productive.

That’s despite the soft power of old Hindi film songs and superstars and cultural and culinary affinities that Hindustan enjoys in the region.

“Direct Indian-Central Asian links were limited during the Soviet period, but the context of Indian-Soviet friendship made Delhi relatively present in the everyday lives of Central Asians via television, movies, music, and cultural exchanges,” the authors of China and India in Central Asia: A New Great Game? wrote almost a decade ago.

Correct. But movies and music only fuel ties until the nostalgia runs dry.

PM Modi had visited all the central Asian countries in 2015, a first by any Indian PM, which was in itself a reinforcement of the “Connect Central Asia” initiative launched in 2012.

But New Delhi’s attitude towards the region, as described by former Indian envoy to Kyrgyzstan, P. Stobdan few years ago, remained “desultory”.

Modi-led virtual central Asian summit was a recalibration of New Delhi’s focus in the right direction.

He said one of the summit’s objectives was to create an ambitious road map for cooperation.

“Through this, we will be able to adopt an integrated approach for regional connectivity and cooperation for the next 30 years,” PM Modi said.

The thing is, China has been doing exactly that for 30 years – engaging with the republics, which India’s external affairs ministry says are part of “India’s “extended neighbourhood”.

Beijing’s evolving strategic outreach to central Asia goes back several years to the mid 1990s after the former Soviet Union fell apart.

(India too had reached out but China seems to have done it better.)

Within years of the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was finding its way around the ruins of the former Union in central Asia, tapping on the shaken grounds, trying to make sense of the new independent and volatile pieces of society and geography.

It was during President Jiang Zemin’s mid 1990s visit to four of the Central Asian countries when he first talked about fighting against the “three evils” -- terrorism, extremism, and separatism’; Premier Li Peng had toured the region earlier.

It is pertinent to remember that Xinjiang borders three of the five central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

China’s outreach among the rediscovered republics was symbolised first, by the founding of the “Shanghai Five” in 1996, which in June 2001 evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The Shanghai Five and the subsequent SCO -- along with Russia -- had emerged from China’s perceived security threat in the remote northwestern frontier autonomous region of Xinjiang.

Within years, Xi saw bigger opportunities in the region.

Chinese official media religiously reported on Xi’s address delivered at the Nazarbayev University in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, on September 7, 2013.

In it, along with descriptions of echoing camel bells, wispy smoke and stories of love, Xi had spelt out his ideas on more practical aspects of what China wanted from the mineral rich central Asian country -- actually from all of central Asia – connectivity, trade, and circulation of Chinese money.

It was the first time in that speech that Xi spoke of building an “economic belt along the Silk Road”, which, along with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, quickly evolved into his legacy project, the multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In a recent article for the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi wrote “we have helped each other through thick and thin, and established a new framework for security cooperation”.

Here are a few projects, which China says are “…of strategic importance” completed in the region: the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline, the China-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway, the China-Tajikistan expressway, and the China-Europe Railway Express which runs through Central Asia.

And, at the January 25 Xi-led virtual summt, China pledged to provide 50 million Covid-19 vaccine doses and $500 million for livelihood projects to the five countries over the next three years.

China’s trade with the five Central Asian countries has increased by more than a hundredfold in the past three decades, state media reports say. Outbound direct investment from China to the CARs has exceeded $14 billion, China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao recently said.

Xi said China and the CARs were striving to “…increase the trade between our two sides to US$70 billion by 2030.”

India’s trade with the group remains below $1.5 billion by most accounts.

Going back to young Ismail Daurov’s immortalised “Hindi film” dialogue-like line “I am a foreigner, but I am not an outsider”, India should quickly act to convince the region, it isn’t one.

The views expressed are personal

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    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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