Energy-hungry India is set to put its economic muscle to work, as it strives to make inroads into Central Asia. A recent India-Central Asia Conference in Tashkent, along with visits throughout the region by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Defense Minister George Fernandes and Foreign Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, indicate that India's foreign policy focus is shifting increasingly beyond its traditional China-Pakistan focus.
India's energy needs are driving the country's interest in Central Asia. With a population of over 1 billion and a booming economy, India is ranked as the world's sixth largest energy consumer. To keep its economy growing at an average annual rate of 7-8 percent, Indian Planning Commission Chairman K. C. Pant recently told the Indo-Asian News Service, the country will need to increase its energy consumption by roughly 5 percent each year.
For a country that imports nearly five times the amount of electricity it exports, such an increase represents a tall order. It is one that India, mindful of its historic Silk Route ties with Central Asia, hopes the largely untapped energy potential of the region will fulfill.
Indian oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd. already has a 15 percent holding in Kazakhstan's Alibekmola oil fields and a 10 percent holding in the country's Kurmangazi fields. According to a January 2003 report by John Hopkins University's Central Asian-Caucasus Institute, it would like to put down a minimum 20 percent stake in Uzbekistan's oil and gas fields as well. Water-rich Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have also lined up to offer hydropower projects to India.
For now, though, mired in an ongoing debate over transportation routes, ambitious energy export plans have yet to deliver. Eager to skirt arch-rival Pakistan, India has supported a controversial 890-mile, $2-billion "energy highway" that would run from Russia via Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, and on to Kashmir through the India-China Line of Control.
In considering energy questions, security issues are coming into play. With Taliban attacks on the increase in nearby Afghanistan, India fears the resurgence of fundamentalist Islamic groups in an area it hopes will be not only a willing trade partner, but dependable supplier of oil and gas.
Last year, India began repair work on an air base at Ayni, about six miles outside of the Tajik capital Dushanbe. At a November 2003 meeting with Tajikistan's President Imomali Rahmonov, Prime Minister Vajpayee denied India plans to station aircraft at the base, RFE/RL reported, but Western defense analysts and Rahmonov himself have contradicted him.
Joint military exercises have been held with both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and, in November 2003, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes announced plans to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with both countries. Kazakhstan's leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has proposed that India go a step further and join Central Asia's regional security alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a suggestion welcomed by Russia, but opposed by China. Also in the works: six Ilyushin mid-air refueler planes on order from Uzbekistan, and a pledge of financial support for a navy to defend Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea oil routes.
While traditional rivals China and Pakistan may cast a wary eye on these military maneuvers, officially New Delhi is assuming a reassuring tone. "We are not interested in moving into the region," Foreign Minister Sinha told The Hindu in February 2003. "There is more than enough room there for us all."
Yet that inclusiveness may stop short of the United States. Despite New Delhi's improved relations with Washington, many Indian officials see the semi-permanent American bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as potential "lily pads" for the United States, said Dr. Phunchok Stobdan, a research fellow at India's government-funded Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis. Stobdan suggested Washington could use the bases to intervene in local conflicts, or exert political pressure on local leaders.
The "reconfiguration forms a compelling reason for India's reclaiming its geopolitical rights and responsibilities in Central Asia," said Dr. Stobdan. "India's overriding concerns are security-driven, too."
At the Nov. 6-8 India-Central Asia Conference in Tashkent, Sinha confirmed the addition of a Tajik leg to the planned Russia-Iran-India trade corridor that would "reduce by 1,500 kilometers [932 miles] the distance between India and Central Asia." A trade agreement between Iran, India and Turkmenistan and, now, Tajikistan is hoped to further smooth the way. But some analysts warn that by strengthening ties with India, Central Asia risks being drawn into a larger foreign policy zone of competition, involving Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstani journalist.