Paving a new Silk Road

India's PM Singh and Afghanistan president Karzai sign a Strategic Partnership. Photo PM of India's office

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial assistant

India has big plans to increase its involvement in Central Asia, including rebuilding Afghanistan into a trade hub along a new Silk Road between the sub-continent and the energy-rich ‘Stans’. Analysts frequently speak of a ‘new great game’ in Central Asia, where Russia, China, Iran and Turkey are already competing for political influence and access to vast reservoirs of oil, gas and other natural resources. With the new ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy that it unveiled in Kyrgyzstan last month, Delhi has signalled its intentions in the region.

Fleshing out the new policy at the IISS this week, Asoke Mukerji, Special Secretary at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said that it would range from closer military cooperation and more proactive diplomacy through bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and  the Eurasian Economic Community to banking, agricultural and construction projects, including new hospitals and hotels.

Initiatives focusing on India’s areas of expertise would include the establishment of an ‘e-network’ delivering tele-education and -medicine throughout Central Asia, and the establishment of a university in Bishkek that would focus on IT, management and languages. Central Asians were already being trained in financial services, diplomacy, IT, engineering and the development of SMEs through India’s Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC), Mukerji said.

Given fierce competition from neighbouring states, India has tried to portray its role as complimentary rather than competitive. Mukerji emphasised India’s position as unique in providing education and health services.

However, India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna has also pointed to the ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy as a way of significantly addressing India’s energy security needs, and Mukerji went on to list successes in the energy sector. The most high-profile of these was the recent deal for the TAPI (Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India) gas pipeline project, which is due to be completed in the next five years. This followed gas-exploration agreements with Tajikistan in 2011 and a deal in 2009 for Kazakhstan to supply uranium to India’s civilian nuclear programme.

While there was no overland trade route – the ‘Silk Road doesn’t exist on the ground’, Mukerji admitted – India planned to reactivate the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and establish air links. He also mentioned the Zaranj–Delaram road India had built in 2009, which facilitated the movement of goods and services from Afghanistan to the Iranian border and then to the Chahbahar port in southern Iran.

Undoubtedly, Afghanistan posed the principal challenge to the ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, Mukerji said. Unless a stable state was established, the success of any new Silk Road ‘would be continually in doubt’. This was the reason India – which signed a Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan in October 2011 (above) – planned to increase military training, counter-terrorism coordination and close consultations on the future of Afghanistan.

Listen to India, Central Asia and the new Silk Road

Related: India’s role in Afghanistan


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