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Asian games

India’s involvement and stakes have increased in the Central Asian region

June 13, 2018 12:15 am | Updated October 13, 2018 07:45 am IST

India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a full-fledged member for the first time at the Qingdao summit this month, a development that may over time influence Central Asian geopolitics.

The historical rivalry between the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent and Tsarist Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, known as the Great Game, was a clash of imperial ambitions between two great powers, in which the territory of Afghanistan helped minimise the risk of direct confrontation between them.

In the early and mid-19th century, British officials of the East India Company feared that the advance of Tsarist Russia into the Khanates of Central Asia might prove detrimental to British interests in the Indian subcontinent. The officials were worried that if the Russians crossed Afghanistan, it would be easier for them to cross over the plains of Punjab and advance deep into the territories of northern India.

This logic applies equally to what has come to be known as the “New Great Game”, or the modern geopolitics in Central Asia since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, characterised by competition among the U.S., the U.K. and other NATO member states on the one hand, and Russia, China and other states of the SCO on the other.

Central Asia has historically witnessed tussles over access to the region’s rich natural resources, because preferential access to these resources better enable energy-hungry global powers to meet their domestic demand. Built around this immense imperative for natural resources, the New Great Game is manifested in efforts to expand regional connectivity, with links through trade, commerce, energy, ideology, ethnicity and even terrorism. The New Great Game became more entrenched after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., with Washington getting deeply enmeshed in the region.

India’s engagement with the region has also become active, with the Ministry of External Affairs making it clear that it considers the Central Asian region to be India’s “extended neighbourhood.” India and Central Asia have enjoyed shared cultural linkages for around 2,000 years. From the Kushan Empire in ancient India to the Mughal Empire later, the connectivity between the two regions has always been considerable. When India got independence and parts of modern-day Central Asia were within the USSR rubric, India was one of the few countries that managed to maintain its access to this region.

Today, projects such as the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor have increased India’s involvement and stakes in the region’s stability. India’s admission to the SCO was a step towards its more holistic engagement with the region. Given the multipolar competition for Central Asia’s resource bounty, India would do well to tread lightly, yet manoeuvre to protect its interests.

The writer is a Junior Research Fellow at the School of International Studies, JNU

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