Time to strengthen India’s Look West Policy

In 2005, Dr. Manmohan Singh first mooted India’s “Look West Policy” at the Prime Minister’s Trade and Economic Relations Committee (TERC) meeting. The commencement of the policy was marked by launching negotiations for an India-GCC free trade agreement and a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with individual nations of the group. India and the Middle East have a long history of , trade. Many Indians are employed in the Middle East. These countries are also a major source of oil for India, besides having collaborated in fighting terrorism.

India’s rising international profile has been an impetus for greater economic integration and has highlighted the need to secure its energy interests. While the ‘Look West Policy’ is important and welcomed, its impact remains restricted to only the Middle East. After all, India’s Western neighbours stretch from the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Persian Gulf to the Central Asian Republics (CAR) and the Caucasus. What is starkly evident in the PM’s Look West Policy is the absence of the CAR which cannot be ignored. While these regions are not conterminous with India, one cannot ignore that any events in these regions have a domino effect on India. Additionally, India has tried to deal with each region separately through bilateral agreements and ‘as and when’ the need to cooperate crops up. India cannot look the other way, especially at a time when China is asserting its global superiority in all spheres of international politics. Additionally, Pakistan continues to regard the region important in order to trammel any Indian presence in the region. There is an imperative need to study the current scenario in CAR, assess the current influences pertaining to China and Pakistan and formulate policies to counter those influences and carve a niche for Indian interests.

Chinese Interests in Central Asian Republics

China has a long border with numerous Central Asian States, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. The economic linkage between China and CAR has been growing steadily and is benefiting both parties. China’s core interest in CAR is oil and gas as manifested in the ‘New Great Game.’ The country has been tapping the CAR’s natural gas to secure it as an alternative source of energy. The energy dependence of China and CAR’s potential for foreign investment in such sectors has been a point of fortifying friendship.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a successor of the original Shanghai Five organisation has been an important instrument for Beijing as it has offered them the platform to cooperate with Russia, CAR and exercise its influence.

Pakistan’s Interests in Central Asian Republics

Islamabad has always been aware of CAR’s geopolitical role and the importance of Pak-CAR cooperation which can be effectively employed as a leverage. More importantly, one cannot gainsay the significance Pakistan has for CAR because of the sea-access (through Gwadar port) Pakistan offers the land-locked nations. CAR remains significant for Pakistan because of the natural gas supplies and pipelines from these countries. India and Pakistan, both have attempted to gain an advantage over the other in terms of energy needs. While Pakistan has tried to capitalise on Islamic commonalities, it has not been able to achieve a lot. Rather than viewing CAR through the tints of ‘strategic depth’, they have pushed hard to impede the prospects of Indian presence there.

The Afghan factor also brings prominence to the CAR. The Indian support to Northern Alliance in Afghanistan through Tajik links had alarm bells ringing in Pakistan. This further highlighted the need to secure the CAR connection in order to exercise indirect influence on verging regions. While India has invested heavily in Afghanistan to ensure a positional advantage, it has failed to offer an equivalent degree of investment in the CAR.

The need for an Indian response

With such strong Sino-Pak interests in the region, India needs to take note and carve out a policy that counters the growing influence of its not-so-friendly neighbours. Even though, India has inked numerous bilateral treaties and agreements with the Central Asian countries, the level of commitment is superficial. There is an urgent need to take the extra mile and cooperate with CAR to a higher degree to ensure that India is not marginalised in the ‘New Great Game’ and is able to safeguards its energy needs. The recent agreement signed on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the proposal to induct a private partner in the agreement brings new hope for the pipeline. However, India need not lay supine but use the impetus to sign more deals with Tajikistan and other countries in Central Asia.

The greater influence India can exercise in Central Asia in terms of energy, access and investments, the stronger it would turn out in the regional game. India’s nuclear cooperation with Kazakhstan has opened doors for a long-lasting friendship but the need is to nurture the alliances for long-term benefits.

Additionally, Tajikistan’s adjoining borders with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and China and its proximity to PoK makes the country extremely important. Tajikistan can aid India’s effective functioning in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the future of the country seems bleak. The fight against drug trafficking and terrorism can be easily facilitated through a stronger alliance. It is important to note that Tajikistan is the only foreign country where India has a military base. Unfortunately, the Farkhor Air Base has not become operational due to numerous frictions between the two sides.

Other potential areas of cooperation with the CAR can be space and military technology. Considering the potential, the present scale of economic dealings with CAR is on a very small scale. Building stronger bonds (in terms of economics, military and politics)with a country is not a matter of days but require sustained efforts over years, that are further nurtured though cultural and diplomatic exchanges and cooperation. India needs to wake up and focus attention towards its distant-yet-important neighbours in the Central Asian region, before other countries grab the opportunity and carve a niche for themselves.


Aditi Malhotra

Date: 27/09/2010

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