Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold the first India-Central Asia summit on Thursday, in a video conference with five Presidents from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Government officials said the major areas of focus for the conference would be trade and connectivity, building development partnerships and enhancing cultural and people-to-people contacts, but it is clear that a number of global and regional developments will also form a large part of the discussions, set to begin around 4.30 p.m IST.
During the conference, the countries are expected to propose ways to increase trade between India and the region, which is only about $2 billion at present, most of which comes from energy imports from Kazakhstan. India extended a $1 billion Line of Credit (LOC) for development projects in the areas of energy, healthcare, connectivity, IT, and agriculture in 2020 and proposes to increase the number of educational opportunities for students from Central Asian countries. In addition, India hopes to build on its trilateral working group on Chabahar with Iran and Uzbekistan to strengthen connectivity to the region.
Meanwhile, other developments like the COVID-19 are expected to be discussed, and in particular rebuilding economies affected by pandemic. This has also been a major subject for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) where India and the Central Asian countries are members along with Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The five leaders including Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov,Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov andUzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyevwere due to be chief guests at the Republic Day parade in Delhi on Wednesday, but their visits were cancelled due to the current wave of coronavirus cases in India.
The growing tensions between Russia and NATO countries over the troop build-up on the Ukraine-Russia border, which Moscow says is in response to plans for NATO expansion in East Europe, will cast a shadow over the meeting as well, given the close strategic ties between Russia and the five former Soviet States, as well as Russian ties with India. During the recent uprising in Kazakhstan, President Tokayev had received support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who dispatched Russian Army soldiers to help restore the situation.
The situation in Afghanistan, which was discussed at length at the SCO, and in November by National Security Advisors at an India-Central Asia meet hosted by NSA Ajit Doval, as well as at the meeting of India-Central Asia Foreign Ministers in December will also come up.
Despite statements from several multilateral groupings, the Taliban regime in Kabul is yet to agree to forming an inclusive government, restoring education for girls of all ages, andgiving concrete guarantees on preventing terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. This week, Taliban talks with Western countries at a conference in Oslo took many by surprise as the Taliban delegation included Anas Haqqani, a Taliban minister and a member of the Haqqani network that is on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list and wanted for a number of terror attacks. New Delhi has been concerned about the possible “mainstreaming” of the Taliban, and of legitimising Pakistan’s backing for the group, as they both demand that the Taliban regime be recognised as the official Afghan government. Muslim majority Central Asian countries, that promote themselves as “moderate Islamic states” have also expressed concern about Taliban rule giving fillip to radicalisation in the region. However, not all Central Asian countries are on the same page as India on dealing with the Taliban, and with the exception of Tajikistan, all have exchanged high level diplomatic visits with Kabul, while at least two, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have reopened their missions in Afghanistan.
All the Central Asian countries have also built closer ties with Pakistan in the last few months, and are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as a Quadrilateral Traffic-in-Trade Agreement that includes China. Earlier this week all five Central Asian leaders also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday in a virtual conference to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations, where they discussed increasing trade between China and the region, which is more than $41 billion at present, in addition to infrastructure investment in the BRI projects.