New Battlefront: South Asian Power Contests in Central Asia

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Recently, Tashkent convened two major international conferences with profound ramifications for South Asia. The first was an international conference where nearly 30 nations engaged with the Taliban on Afghanistan, a fragile state still on the edge.

The second meeting in Uzbekistan was a meeting of foreign ministers under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – a multilateral coalition that aspires to enhance stability across Eurasia – having met in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where the main agenda was regional security, stability and measures to stem alarming inflation. The SCO summit brought together Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto and Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar who were at the same table for the first time.

Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Jamshid Khodjaev is visiting India for a session of the Indo-Uzbek Intergovernmental Commission. Trade between India and Uzbekistan grew from $247m in 2019-20 to $342m in 2021 and 2022, a gargantuan growth of 38.5% as Delhi and Tashkent step up tech cooperation financial, digital payments and agriculture.

These summits show how Central Asia is rising like a phoenix from its ashes as a pillar of South Asia’s strategic foreign policy alignment. Central Asia increasingly shapes the geopolitics and geoeconomics of South Asia with profound implications for South Asia.

As this week’s summits illustrate, some Central Asian republics, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are emerging as major diplomatic players. In recent years, Ashgabat and Tashkent have hosted Afghanistan summits with Taliban delegations focusing on security and power line connectivity. Central Asian republics’ interest aligns with South Asia, particularly Afghan stability and regional connectivity and their membership status overlaps in several regional alliances where the SCO has added Islamabad and Delhi in 2017 to the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. (OCI) while the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is currently being revitalized by India.

Without Islamabad and Delhi, one cannot create global stability in “Eurasia”. Central and South Asian states have jointly participated in Turkey’s Heart of Asia Istanbul Process, which focuses on Afghanistan. Russia’s Eurasian Broader Partnership could offer future South and Central Asian states greater strategic convergence in foreign policy.

Central Asian republics have geographical gravity to South Asian states. Three Central Asian states border Afghanistan. The Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge in Hairatan, Afghanistan is a testament to the rapprochement. The Friendship Bridge is a life for Afghanistan as it serves as a thoroughfare for food, goods and supplies. Senior Taliban brass hail Uzbek peace and infrastructure initiatives in Afghanistan.

Central Asia is a key connectivity gateway for South Asia to Russia and the Middle East, both of which are influential hubs for several South Asian states. Moscow enjoys positive relations with most states in the region, including Pakistan recently, and most states have refrained from criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Asian states like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as well as the five former Soviet states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain dependent on Moscow for export routes, security aid and labor markets, and are therefore reluctant to condemn Putin’s incursion.

Central Asia is increasingly emerging as a frontline battleground for the rivalry between Delhi and Islamabad, not least because of the region’s lucrative oil and gas fields. India and Pakistan have insufficient local gas supplies and are seeking to diversify their energy portfolios beyond a highly unstable Middle East and war-torn Russia. In 2022, New Delhi accelerated its diplomatic relations with Central Asian states via the India-Central Asia Summit where Indian President Narendra Modi and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came together.

Focus on geoeconomics

Meanwhile, Pakistan is focusing on “geo-economy,” with Central Asia bolstering energy and trade deals. Examples are the Uzbekistan-Pakistan Agreement on Transit Trade (AUPTT) and the Bilateral Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) where Pakistan can tap into $90 billion, offering Central Asian states l access to Pakistan’s strategic seaports, notably Gwadar, making Uzbekistan less dependent on the Iranian seaport of Bandar Abbas via Turkmenistan.

Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan Aybek Arif Usmanov has confirmed that the Pak-Uzbekistan bilateral trade will increase up to $1 billion. Other initiatives are the Pakistan-Uzbekistan Joint Ministerial Commission, the Pakistan-Uzbekistan Business Forum “Reconnecting the Silk Road”, the ECO Free Trade Agreement (ECOTA) and the Trade Transit Agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan (APTAT) supported by the UN, as evidenced by the opening of the bilateral trade border of Wagah.

India has invested heavily in Tajikistan’s infrastructure and energy development by upgrading the Verzob hydroelectric power station and constructing a highway from Chortut to Ayni. India is bolstering its “soft power” by providing millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Tajikistan to overcome the devastation caused by the floods – particularly in the Pamirs, Rasht Valley, Khatlon and Khorog.

Pakistan and India are each implementing separate projects promoting rapprochement with Central Asia. India aspires to help by developing the port of Chabahar in southern Iran, boosting trade through Afghanistan. Pakistan hopes to collaborate with Kabul and Tashkent on the new Trans-Afghan Railway linking Uzbekistan to ports in Pakistan. Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have drawn up a roadmap for its realization.

The Central Asian republics have their own motivations to deepen integration with Delhi and Islamabad as they seek wider access to each country’s hot water ports for trade and commerce, quenching the thirst for l Central Asia for Strategic Waterways and Trade. The Pakistani port of Gwadar is connected to the western city of Kashgar, in Xinjiang, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Pakistan enjoys a strategic advantage over India, as most direct land routes to Central Asia pass through Pakistani soil, enhancing its role as a transit trade hub. Pakistan generally does not offer commercial transit rights to India. Undeterred, Delhi is strengthening its presence in Afghanistan, partially reopening its embassy in Kabul to strengthen access to Central Asia.

Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have become subtle “influencers” in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that is largely dependent on energy resources from Central Asia. Most Afghan electricity is imported from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tashkent and Dushanbe will try to leverage the electricity to induce the Taliban to reduce Afghan-based terrorist entities like the so-called “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)”.

Additionally, the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF) has sanctuaries in Tajikistan, and Dushanbe is secretly reviving the NRF as a bargaining chip against the Taliban. Taliban and Tajik extremists are erecting a new watchtower along the “Nijniy Pyanj” border, stoking tensions.

Changing foreign policy imperatives in South Asia increase Central Asia’s growing diplomatic and commercial reach, particularly in Afghanistan. Contrary to commonly accepted assumptions, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran have taken a vigilant approach and have restricted their presence in Afghanistan since America left. The geopolitics of South Asia can no longer be analyzed solely through the prism of the Indo-Sino rivalry or the great power contest between China and the United States.

In the coming years, Pakistan and India will increasingly compete for soft power in Central Asia with a reliable and enduring presence serving their national interests where some stakeholders could exploit the disorder. This simultaneously opens up vast possibilities and rivalries in trade, security, counterterrorism, and culture.

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