India and the Silk Road Not Taken

New Delhi has an enormous opportunity in Central Asia.

For India, Central Asia has been a squandered opportunity for twenty years. There is still time for India to play a significant and mutually positive role in Central Asian affairs, but it will require a much more muscular and coordinated effort from India’s foreign policy establishment, business leaders and military strategists.

An invigorated and engaged India augurs a more benign geostrategic partnership for economic and political development in Central Asia than China, Pakistan, Iran or Russia. And conversely, Central Asia provides multi-ethnic and democratic India, still reticent to promote itself as a model to anyone, a platform on which India can further build out its own legitimate economic, military and geopolitical interests. India is a natural accomplice to help fulfill the ambition of countries like Kazakhstan to further diversify their dependence on a number of big global powers, to provide greater employment by developing industries outside energy, and because of geography, to foster specific economic strategies, such as becoming a major logistics hub between Asia and Europe.

India’s recent interaction with Central Asia underscores this potential. In congressional testimony this past July, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake surprised his audience by praising Turkmenistan for sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to garner goodwill in the buildup of Turkmenistan’s prospective rail and energy links through Afghanistan to India and Pakistan (and possibly Bangladesh, too). This planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline illustrates how India can take a leadership role in not only helping to tie Central Asia closer to India but to lash it with the greater South Asia subcontinent, and encourage Central Asian countries, even paleo-isolationist havens like Turkmenistan, to shoulder a larger role in regional economic development.

Because many of the Central Asian footpaths to India literally go through Afghanistan and Pakistan, closer ties between Central Asia and India hold out some hope for more cooperation-by-necessity between them, even if it’s far too little to induce a real rapprochement.

Uzbekistan has encouraged India to put down stakes in its energy development, for example in the Karakal gas reserves. The Indian built Pul-e-Khumri transmission line from Beghlan to Kabul carries Uzbek-generated electricity—a boon to all sides. The Indian energy company GAIL Limited has signed a gas sale-and-purchase agreement during tripartite talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India in Islamabad; the outcome will mean a transit fee paid to Afghanistan for transmitting gas to Pakistan and India and the obligation for the Afghan government to protect the TAPI pipeline from terrorist attacks, pressing all three, at least in this one endeavor, into common cause just as the 2014 pullout from Afghanistan imperils Indian security interests—not only in Afghanistan but from the possibility of a new surge of anti-Indian militants infiltrating Kashmir.

An Underachieving Reboot

India has an interlocking history with the vast mountains and grasslands above Afghanistan, a connection never dissolved and sometimes nurtured. It is a long entwined narrative: from Babur marching down from Uzbekistan in the 16th century to found India’s spectacular Mughal dynasty; to Indian prime minister Jawaharial Nehru’s 1955 trip to the Soviet Union and Khrushchev's return visit to India that same fall, resulting in the Soviet Union’s support of Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and other disputed territories; and currently reflected in TAPI, the planned trans-Afghanistan natural gas pipeline originating in Turkmenistan and terminating in New Delhi.

During the Soviet period, India had a robust export trade to Central Asia and a productive cultural exchange that seeded the ardent popularity, sustained to this day, of Bollywood films and Natyashastra dance troupes. India sent large numbers of students to Soviet medical schools located in Central Asia—still a common practice. When the five Soviet Central Asia republics declared independence, India rushed to be one of the first nations to send ambassadors to freshly minted embassies.

At the onset of the 1990s, historical linkages informed an inchoate sense among Indian elites that Central Asia was both fertile ground and a rare opportunity for India to project soft power. Activist policy impulses also were catalyzed by concrete concerns that forging strong ties with Central Asia’s majority Muslim populations was an opportunity to gain important allies in its cold war with Pakistan. And there was an immediate awareness of the potential for Central Asia to provide significant energy resources for India’s thirsty, modernizing economy.

This initial burst of diplomatic engagement, however, did not translate into a sustained and meaningful encounter; instead, it illustrates how Indian foreign policy was hampered, and even sidelined by an overly cautious business and merchant class. Turkey, China, the United States, to some extent Russia and even South Korea cleared a path to Central Asian power centers with aggressive business deals: building factories, investing in new cellular networks, arranging arms sales, and big spending on major banking and infrastructure projects.

But in the 1990s, an Indian government liberalization program meant to decouple business from government oversight and control resulted in Indian industry receiving little incentive to look north, and Indian businesses for the most part did not recognize Central Asia as a promising market.