PLAYING a significant role in Central Asia has been a complex but interesting task for India. This is primarily because India shares no common maritime or land border with any of the powers in the region, which extends from the eastern borders of China to the western borders of Russia. The only convenient route for access to Central Asia from India currently lies through Iran. Nevertheless, following the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India have realised the importance of maintaining and expanding ties with the erstwhile Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (homeland of Mughal ruler Babar) and Kyrgyzstan. Difficulties in access has been a major factor limiting India’s ties, especially economic, with these Central Asian countries.
India made it clear that firm action needed to be taken against states sponsoring terrorism.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was set up on June 15, 2001, in Shanghai. It includes Russia, China, India, Pakistan and the four Central Asian republics. Much to India’s satisfaction, Iran has now become a member of the SCO. The Chabahar port, built with Indian collaboration, gives India and other countries direct access to Central Asia through Iran, while bypassing Pakistan. Islamabad has, not surprisingly, been delaying or denying India access for trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia. This had compelled India to take time-consuming and expensive trade routes to Central Asia.
Russia still wields substantial influence over some SCO countries, where Russian remains a very widely spoken language. China is, however, steadily but surely increasing its influence in Russia’s neighbourhood, given its capabilities to undertake complex construction and transportation projects. Beijing also has a keen interest in developing the vast mineral and oil resources of the Central Asia region. Moreover, while China and Russia may have a ‘bhai-bhai’ relationship as of now, Russia would certainly not relish predominant Chinese influence either in the Central Asian republics or in its easy access to the mineral and oil resources of the region. The SCO summit has clearly brought to light the direction in which Sino-Russian relations are moving.
From India’s point of view, the recent SCO summit was useful in terms of organisational practice before it hosts the G20 summit in New Delhi in September. The latter will, according to present indications, be attended by all five permanent members of the Security Council, and the major economic powers from North and South America, Australasia, Africa and the Gulf countries, apart from the European Union. It would be an interesting occasion for the world to see Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping alongside President Joe Biden and his EU allies, unless Xi chooses to depute someone else for the summit.
During the SCO summit, India responded swiftly and strongly by abstaining from a Chinese-sponsored resolution praising China’s much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The very next day, Taiwan announced that it will be setting up an Economic and Cultural Centre (ECC) in Mumbai to add to its ECCs in New Delhi and Chennai. This was in response to the praise China sought and got at the SCO summit for the BRI. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in Chennai also caters to Sri Lanka and Maldives, along with the states and union territories in south India. What New Delhi is really interested in is obtaining Taiwan’s immense knowhow and potential to enable India to expand its semiconductor industry.
The outcome of the SCO summit meeting was predictable. Quite naturally, India made it clear that given Pakistan’s continuing support for terrorism, firm action must be taken against states sponsoring terrorism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself came out strongly against state-sponsored terrorism.
Interestingly, China and Russia came together in giving precedence to the Chinese and Russian languages, ignoring English. India, nevertheless, stuck to its international practice of conducting its business in English, while PM Modi delivered his address in Hindi. This summit was not an earth-shaking event, but a reflection of China and Russia sparing no effort to ensure that their views prevail on all regional and international issues.
The Ukraine conflict and the relentless American and NATO pressures on Russia are inevitably compelling Russia to go along increasingly with Beijing’s wishes, in what is a Central Asian grouping, jointly controlled by Russia and China. This is certainly a far cry from the days when China was warned by Moscow not to get involved in the Bangladesh conflict. China was then described as an ‘expansionist’ power by Moscow. Russia and other world powers now recognise that the economically fast-growing India of 2023 is very different from India of the past. Putin’s Russia has, meanwhile, been facing huge pressures from the US and its NATO allies because of the Ukraine conflict. Significantly, the joint statement of the summit gave the names of countries supporting the BRI. Naturally, India’s name did not figure on this list. This was inevitable, given India’s concerns about the Chinese initiative compromising its national security across its northern borders in Jammu and Kashmir.
Just prior to the New Delhi summit, President Putin spoke to PM Modi about the Wagner Group mutiny which he had crushed. He hailed PM Modi as Russia’s ‘big friend’, while also expressing praise for his economic policies. It is clear that while Putin’s Russia is appreciative of the understanding that India has shown during the Ukraine crisis, it is also highly dependent on China for military, diplomatic and economic support in the face of unrelenting American pressures. There is also a concern that American readiness to provide an ever-expanding range of weapons to Ukraine could compel Moscow to respond with low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. One hopes that all parties involved in the Ukraine conflict understand this.
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