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democracy aligned: indian and u.s. interests in central asia

Democracy Aligned: Indian and U.S. Interests in Central Asia

Author:Jacob Levitan

Jan 23, 2020

Introduction

The Eurasian Heartland, Central Asia, has become, as Halford Mackinder predicted at the start of the 20th century, the world’s most vital geostrategic region.[1] Whoever controls this region manages the new economic corridors connecting the rich markets of Europe to East Asia, and the new emerging markets of South Asia to West Asia. With projections indicating that the Asian continent will make up over half the world’s GDP by 2050, the trade routes of Central Asia will be indispensable. [2]

Russia and China already have a significant foothold in this strategically important region. They have, between them, centuries of historical influence and billions of dollars invested in Central Asia. Russia maintains its influence in the former Soviet republics through the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and bilateral ties. China has its Shanghai Security Organization and is building its influence by investing billions into infrastructure projects and is beginning to add a security component as well, notably in Tajikistan.[3]

While the United States has the economic and military capacity to compete with Russia and China in this region, it does not have the political will to be the main competitor. India, however, is a waking giant on the Asian stage. It has deployed soft-power assets across the world, particularly in Central Asia, and is in the process of capitalist-oriented economic reforms that are bringing fresh winds to its economy. It also has a massive, young, and well-trained population, which, when placed next to China’s aging population, gives India the long-term advantage. [4] It would be no exaggeration to say, in terms of potential, that India resembles a democratic version of Deng Xiaoping’s China. Connecting to Central Asia represents a vital geostrategic objective for a rising India, given its rivalry with Pakistan and China.[5] India, therefore, is the perfect partner for the United States in maintaining the independence and sovereignty of Central Asia from Russia and China.

India and Central Asia

India has recently come to see Central Asia as part of India’s ‘extended neighborhood,’ and, even earlier, as a strategic partner against Pakistan. [6] Like Russia and China, it has more than 2,000 years of historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic links with the region, which it can use to establish connections. A brief by India’s Ministry of External Affairs emphasized that India and Uzbekistan had ancient connections by noting that Uzbeks participated in the period described by the Indian Mahabharata epic.[7] More recently, India was one of the most diplomatically engaged countries in Soviet Central Asia, as one of the few to maintain a consulate in Soviet Tashkent.[8] Indian soft power, especially Bollywood, was and remains omnipresent in the region.[9] However, following the Soviet collapse, Indian policy primarily focused inwards on economic development and glanced outward only to focus on its archenemy, Pakistan.[10]

India snapped back to an active role in the region a few years into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) when it realized China had established solid relations with India’s South Asian neighbors.[11] India responded first by reaffirming its neglected relations with its South Asian neighbors. India has pushed on by seeking to reconnect with Central Asia through its Connect Central Asia Policy (CCAP) project, launched in 2012 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.[12] However, India is still far behind in total trade with the region compared to China. India’s trade with the region in 2017 was only $1.5 billion, whereas China’s was $50 billion.[13]

India has taken steps to address this. As part of the CCAP, India is working on constructing the International North-South Transport Corridor, a 4,474-mile land and sea route that would link India, Central Asia, Iran, and Russia. In 2016, India, Afghanistan, and Iran agreed to renovate the southeast Iranian port of Chabahar, while India would help develop a 373-mile rail route from Chabahar to Turkmenistan.[14]

Further, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in 2015, made the first tour of Central Asia by an Indian head of state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the course of the tour, 21 agreements on defense, trade, and energy linkages were signed. One of the most notable was a uranium-supply agreement with Kazakhstan, which has led to Kazakhstan becoming India’s biggest source of uranium. Prime Minister Modi and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev also agreed to trade intelligence to fight terrorism in Central Asia.[15] In addition to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan represents one of the biggest targets for Indian policy. India has agreed to help in the joint exploration and exploitation of Uzbek gas fields, to assist in the construction of liquid gas and oil factories in Uzbekistan, and to source Uzbekistan as another supplier of uranium.[16] Uzbekistan borders all the Central Asian states (including Afghanistan), making it a key transit platform in India’s foreign policy calculus.

Photo credit: Astana Times

Already, Indian soft power is highly prevalent in Uzbekistan. For 57 years, there has been Hindi broadcasting in the country. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations was established in Tashkent in 1995 and has promoted Indian culture throughout the country.[17] India has also taken pains to emphasize the joint history of Uzbekistan and India, from the time when they were both ruled by Alexander the Great to the empires of Tamerlane and Babur. When former Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj visited the country in 2018, an Uzbek woman serenaded her with a Bollywood song on the street.[18]

India has also worked to develop Central Asian infrastructure, building a military-medical research facility in Kyrgyzstan and helping build a $46.5 million bypass road in Tajikistan from the West (Hisor) Gate in Dushanbe to Khatlon province.[19] Still, the bulk of Indian-Central Asian trade is with Kazakhstan (making up 75 percent of the total trade), and is primarily crude oil and chemical imports, while India exports its pharmaceuticals and equipment.[20]

India has also emphasized its growing commitment to the region through the First Session of the India-Central Asia Dialogue that was held in Samarkand on January 13. The Indian representative was Modi’s newly appointed Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyan Jaishankar. During Minister Jaishankar’s speech, India announced that it would establish an Indian-Central Asia Business Council, that the Indian Council for Cultural Relations is organizing an international conference in New Delhi on the cultural links between India and Central Asia, and that India is ready to help the Central Asian states follow its own successful model on developing pharmaceutical businesses.[21] In addition to this, Minister Jaishankar announced that India is ready to begin developing film cooperation between India and Central Asia, something that Uzbekistan has long sought.[22]

While Russia and China have the advantage in actual hard infrastructure development and security cooperation, India has managed to carve out a large slice of the soft-power pie in Central Asia. India also has the benefit of being seen as a benevolent rising power. While Pakistan has played on its shared Muslim faith with Central Asia,[23] it has also been an unsubtle purveyor of terrorism, especially through its support of the Taliban.[24] China’s BRI is coming under increasing suspicion thanks to the debt traps that Pakistan has fallen to in Gwadar and that Sri Lanka has fallen to in Hambantota.[25]

India has, especially since the 1990s, followed a policy called the ‘Gujral Doctrine.’[26] In Prime Minister Singh’s words in 2010, the Gujral Doctrine meant that India should engage its neighbors “without looking at reciprocity, [but] in our own enlightened interest.” India has followed through on this through the successful and recent completion of the trilateral Indo-Japanese-Sri Lankan port development project in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. In the terms of the deal, Sri Lanka owns 51 per cent of the port, while the Indo-Japanese joint venture will own only 49 per cent, maintaining Sri Lankan sovereignty.[27] India has demonstrated itself to be an altruistic alternative to China’s BRI in South Asia, and, therefore, as a potential partner offering leeway from China. For this reason, India, with its passive model of system-exportation and anti-imperialist ideology, is a particularly attractive partner for developing countries, especially in Central Asia.

Photo credit: thedailystar.net

Possibilities and Challenges to an Indo-U.S. Partnership in Central Asia

Prospects of a U.S.-Indian Partnership

India and the United States have good reasons to cooperate in this region. From a normative perspective, the partnership between the two countries makes sense. The United States has, from the start of the Cold War, engaged in an official foreign policy predicated on the belief that democratic countries are stronger than their authoritarian counterparts and are natural allies. A U.S.-India partnership is, therefore, a likely and desirable outcome, since both are capitalist democracies that believe in the rule of law. A partnership between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s strongest democracy would be able to put revisionist, authoritarian powers such as Russia, China, and Iran back on the defensive. Reflecting this geostrategic ideal is the deepening U.S.-Indian relationship that began under President Clinton’s administration, and which developed momentum with Prime Minister Modi’s election.[28] Following Modi’s election, the U.S. entry ban on him was lifted, and he was invited to speak at the United States Congress, which he described as a temple of democracy.[29]

Photo credit: European Press Photo Agency

Other, more realist-based reasons for a U.S.-Indian partnership are the global and national security concerns facing India and the United States. Both are threatened by a rising China,[30] and both have serious security commitments and concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[31] Regarding China, the United States and India have been working closely to counter China’s maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean. In 2014, the United States, India, and Japan held trilateral naval exercises.[32] The United States, India, Japan, and the Philippines held naval exercises in May, not so subtly aimed at China.[33]

Another area of cooperation is Afghanistan. Both India and the United States see a stable and prosperous Afghanistan free from international terror as important to national security. For India, a stable Afghanistan is more likely to be aligned with India, denying Pakistan the strategic depth it has sought through the Taliban.[34] This would also take away the Pakistani leverage of instability over the fragile Central Asian states.[35] For the United States, it would create a partner in the region against Iran, and could provide a gateway to building infrastructure in Central Asia, countering China’s BRI. For India, a stable Afghanistan would also provide a secure transit corridor to Central Asia, allowing for India to cooperate with and develop the region more fully.

Potential Challenges to Partnership

Despite the similarities and mutual interests shared by India and the United States, there remain significant obstacles. The greatest issue is President Trump’s tariff campaign against India. The Trump administration decided to end tariff exemptions on $5.6 billion worth of Indian exports, and has shown no signs of changing this policy any time soon.[36] This campaign only serves to validate prevailing anti-Anglo sentiment in India and bolster the impression that the United States means to continue with unilateral actions. In response to this, India has applied tariffs of its own.[37] Prime Minister Modi’s new Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, India’s longest-serving envoy to Beijing and former ambassador to the United States, will most likely work to smooth over this hiccup. [38]

Another issue facing U.S.-Indian cooperation is Iran. From the Indian perspective, the U.S. sanctions against Iran threaten India’s ability to reach Central Asia through the Iranian port of Chabahar. Besides China, Chabahar is the only way for India to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghanistan; and, while the United States has said that Chabahar will be spared sanctions, New Delhi is still worried about continued American pressure on Iran. [39] India reads the unilateral actions of the United States in reimplementing the Iranian sanctions, largely without international support, as indicative of the United States’ penchant for imperialistic and unilateral actions.[40]

From a U.S. perspective, India is provoking concerns by purchasing Russian weapons systems. It signed a $5 billion deal for Russia’s S-400 systems in Fall 2018,[41] and in April signed a $2 billion deal for 464 Russian battle tanks.[42] While the United States does not want its allies to buy Russian weapons, India has had a long-standing relationship with Moscow since the Cold War and is unwilling to jeopardize it.[43]

India has continued to push through with the S-400 purchase, triggering U.S. sanctions through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.[44] However, India is lobbying for exempt status which the Trump administration has the authority to grant under the 2019 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act. The issue continues to act as a major bump in a developing Indo-U.S. alliance, given American fears that the S-400s will be able to access sensitive U.S. and U.S.-ally military technology in the region.[45]

Photo credit: Sputnik News

[1] Glover, Charles. The Unlikely Origins of Russia’s Manifest Destiny Foreign Policy. 07/27/2016. https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/27/geopolitics-russia-mackinder-eurasia-heartland-dugin-ukraine-eurasianism-manifest-destiny-putin/ (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[2] No author listed. “Asia, 2050.” https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/28608/asia2050-executive-summary.pdf Asia Development Bank. (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[3] Eurasianet. Tajikistan, China to hold another joint military drill in Pamirs. 07/09/2019. https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-china-to-hold-another-joint-military-drill-in-pamirs (retrieved July 12, 2019).

[4] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hafeez, Mahwish. India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy. 10/17/2017. http://issi.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/IB_Mahwish_October_17_2017.pdf, (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[7] January, 2017 https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Uzbekistan_Jan_2017.pdf, (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Times of India. 08/06/2018. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/uzbek-woman-floors-sushma-swaraj-with-ichak-daana/articleshow/65289681.cms (retrieved July 15, 2019)

[10] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[11] Xavier, Constantino. India 2024: A Neighborly India. 05/17/2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/05/17/india-2024-a-neighbourly-india/, (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[12] Hafeez, Mahwish. India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy. 10/17/2017. http://issi.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/IB_Mahwish_October_17_2017.pdf, (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[13] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[14] http://instcorridor.com/ (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[15] Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. PM Modi’s visit to Central Asia: India and Kazakhstan ink deals on uranium supply, defence. 07/11/2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/pm-modis-visit-to-central-asia-india-and-kazakhstan-ink-deals-on-uranium-supply-defence/articleshow/47996585.cms (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[16] Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. India and China new players in Central Asia’s ‘Great Game’ 07/12/2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-china-new-players-in-central-asias-great-game/articleshow/60905273.cms (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[17] January, 2017 https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Uzbekistan_Jan_2017.pdf, (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[18] Editorial Staff. Uzbek woman singing Ichak Dana for Sushma Swaraj is winning the internet. 08/08/2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/what-s-hot/story/uzbek-woman-singing-ichak-dana-for-sushma-swaraj-is-winning-the-internet-1308400-2018-08-08 (retrieved 06/20/2019)

[19] Asia-Plus. India supports construction of road from the West Gate of Dushanbe to Chortout mahalla. 07/05/2019. https://news.tj/en/news/tajikistan/power/20190705/india-supports-construction-of-road-from-the-west-gate-of-dushanbe-to-chortout-mahalla (Retrieved July 17, 2019).

[20] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[21] Jaishankar, Subrahmanyan. Statement by External Affairs Minister at the First Session of the India-Central Asia Dialogue. 01/13/2019. https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/30905/Statement_by_External_Affairs_Minister_At_the_First_Session_of_the_IndiaCentral_Asia_Dialogue. (retrieved July 16, 2019)

[22] Nayar, Mandira. Uzbekistan woos India, Bollywood style. 09/28/2018. https://www.theweek.in/news/entertainment/2018/09/28/uzbekistan-woos-india-bollywood-style.html. (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[23] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. Why Pakistan supports terrorist groups, and why the US finds it so hard to induce change. 01/05/2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/01/05/why-pakistan-supports-terrorist-groups-and-why-the-us-finds-it-so-hard-to-induce-change/ (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[24] RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan, Interview: Ex-Afghan Warlord Says ‘No Doubt’ Pakistan ‘Supports’ Taliban. 04/15/2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-gulbuddin-mujahideen/29881053.html. (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[25] Editorial Board. Another ‘Belt and Road’ Hostage. 08/19/2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/another-belt-and-road-hostage-1534717019 (retrieved July 16, 2019)

[26] Xavier, Constantino. India 2024: A Neighborly India. 05/17/2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/05/17/india-2024-a-neighbourly-india/, (retrieved July 17, 2019)

[27] Borah, Rujakhpyoti. Did Japan and India Just Launch a Counter to China’s Belt and Road. South China Morning Post. 07/09/2019  (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[28] Rubin, Jennifer. India Reminds Us Why We Need Democratic Allies. 06/09/2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2016/06/09/india-reminds-us-why-we-want-democratic-allies/?utm_term=.21758de24005. (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[29] Ibid.

[30] Xavier, Constantino. The New Indian Realpolitik. 12/20/2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-12-20/new-indian-realpolitik (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[31] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[32] Katyal, Ritika. Why India’s Blue Water Ambitions Matter. 08/04/2014. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/04/why-indias-blue-water-ambitions-matter/ (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[33] Kaura, Vinay. US-India Relations at a Crossroads. 06/24/2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/us-india-relations-at-the-crossroads/ (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[34] Muzalevsky, Roman. Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia. October 2015. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2364.pdf (retrieved July 1, 2019)

[35] Mishra, Manoj Kuma. Pakistan’s Interests in Central Asia and Its Afghan Strategy – Analysis. 06/19/2019. https://www.eurasiareview.com/19062019-pakistans-interests-in-central-asia-and-its-afghan-strategy-analysis/, (retrieved June 19, 2019)

[36] Pant, Harsh V. Modi Reimagines India’s Role in the World. 06/04/2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/04/modi-reimagines-indias-role-in-the-world/ (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[37] Mishra, Asit Ranjan. India to levy retaliatory tariffs on 29 US products. 06/14/2019.https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-to-impose-retaliatory-tariff-on-29-us-items-from-jun-16/story-3ixhmnhRAZYu911pq07YqL.html. (retrieved 07/16/2019)

[38] Ibid.

[39] PTI. US says Chabahar project won’t be impacted by Iran sanctions. 04/24/2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/us-decision-to-end-iran-oil-sanctions-waiver-wont-affect-indias-investments-in-chabahar-port/articleshow/69019491.cms (retrieved July 19, 2019)

[40] Kaura, Vinay. US-India Relations at a Crossroads. 06/24/2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/us-india-relations-at-the-crossroads/ (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[41] Raghuvanshi, Vivek. India approves S-400 buy from Russia, amid expectations for more bilateral deals. 09/28/2018 https://www.defensenews.com/land/2018/09/28/india-approves-s-400-buy-from-russia-amid-expectations-for-more-bilateral-deals/ (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[42] Moscow Times. 04/09/2019. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/04/09/india-to-buy-over-450-russian-tanks-worth-2bln-reports-a65146 (retrieved June 20, 2019)

[43] Kaura, Vinay. US-India Relations at a Crossroads. 06/24/2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/us-india-relations-at-the-crossroads/ (retrieved July 18, 2019)

[44] Gady, Franz-Stefan. US Warns India Over S-400 Air Defense System Deal With Russia. 06/17/2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/us-warns-india-over-s-400-air-defense-system-deal-with-russia/. (retrieved 06/20/2019)

[45] Ibid.


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