Jinghong Tao

The proximity of India to Central Asia, which has essential geo-strategic meaning, has recently attracted public attention. To a certain extent, everyone’s concern is more understandable from India’s active expansion of its power, believing that this may bring new instability and risks to the region, especially its competitive relationship with China.

To a certain extent, the international media has emphasized India’s geopolitical ambitions: the desire of this “sound and colorful” power to go beyond South Asia and through Central Asia to achieve the status of significant power in Eurasia.

Even China and Russia, whose stance is markedly different from India’s, over-quoted India’s self-imposed ambitions in their reports. This unbalanced reporting manifests the imbalance between South Asia and Central Asia in global discourse power.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the first India-Central Asia Summit in virtual format on 27 January 2022,  which was attended by Presidents of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Republic of Uzbekistan. This first India-Central Asia coincided with the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Central Asian countries.

Earlier in December last year, a meeting was held in Afghanistan between the Central Asian Republic’s foreign ministers and India in New Delhi.

It was decided to hold this Summit every two years. It was also agreed to hold regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Trade Ministers, Culture Ministers, and Secretaries of the Security Council to prepare the groundwork for the Summit meetings. An India-Central Asia Secretariat in New Delhi would be set up to support the new mechanism.

Naturally, as close geographical neighbors, both sides need to summarize and improve their 30-year diplomatic relations. Second, as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the two sides need communication and dialogue in security and economy and are affected by international games on a larger scale.

It is worth noting the working language of this summit was Russian. The heads of states of Central Asia all spoke in Russian, and Prime Minister Modi used simultaneous interpretation. The language arrangement still reflects the subtle old order.

Although Prime Minister Modi made the first speech as the initiator of this summit, in the meeting that lasted about 30 minutes, his speech only took 5 minutes, and there was no final statement from him.

President Tokayev’s speech was the longest speech as the head of state and the final statement. He pointed out the most substantive issues in his speech.  He has pointed out the challenges between India and Central Asia bilateral limitations and at the same time shared proposals for future cooperation. 

At the same time, we also pay attention to the specific speeches of the leaders of these countries to understand their attitudes in multilateral and regional relations from a balanced and impartial standpoint.

Prime Minister Modi made a speech and briefly described the relations between the countries and especially expressed condolences to the January riots in Kazakhstan. He has mentioned the importance of Kazakh to India’s energy reiterated that India and Central Asia share common concerns about the situation in Afghanistan.

India’s statement repeated its usual great power views, especially the urgent need after the diplomatic failure in Afghanistan, the ambition to bypass hostile Pakistan and Afghanistan and expand itself from a South Asian power to a Eurasian power.

However, unlike the “India shock” packaged by the English-language media, the fact is that the leaders of Central Asian countries did not pay for India’s ambitions. 

First of all, he regarded the necessity of cooperation between Central Asia and India as the result of the rapidly growing economic market, corridors, and cultural exchanges in the Asian region, which is the embodiment of Asia becoming a new global capital investment center, not just regional cooperation in South and Central Asia.

Such an argument seems to have more in common with “rising in the east and descending in the west” rather than the new picture drawn by India based on self-standard. At the same time, President Tokayev pointed out that: “By 2020, the trade volume between India and Central Asia reached 3 billion US dollars, and Kazakhstan accounted for 80% of the share”.

Although Kazakhstan is the biggest beneficiary of the small cake of Central Asia and India trade, Tokayev then pointed out that such an economic scale is entirely inconsistent with Kazakhstan’s economic development trend.

Contrary to the somewhat straightforward attitude of Kazakhstan, the leaders of the other four countries are rather soft-spoken. The speeches of the leaders of the remaining four countries were full of formal diplomatic language primarily emphasizing building bilateral cooperation.  The leaders expressed their wishes for India’s 75th National Day and 30 years of friendly bilateral diplomacy. 

To a certain extent, the attitudes of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are slightly different. The two sides’ leaders focus on tracing the ancient and close cultural ties in history, although this historical and cultural connection is primarily not necessarily what Modi, a Hindu nationalist, would like to see.

Turkmenistan had a lot of good words to say, but as a permanently neutral country, there is only the Turkmen flag and the presidential flag in the background, and the flags of India and other countries are missing.

As for India’s initiative on Afghanistan, none of the three countries’ leaders bordering Afghanistan brought up the Afghan issue during the dialogue. Instead, the furthest away from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan mentioned the joint fight against terrorism. 

The concluding speech of the summit continued to return to Kazakhstan, as the country with the most substantial economic strength in Central Asia and the country farthest from India.

President Tokayev stressed that the main priority should be developing trade and economic cooperation and establishing transit and transport links. In particular, it should focus on expanding cooperation in the transport and logistics sector, in which Central Asia has vast potential.

At the summit, the topic of Chabahar Port, highlighted by English-language media, did not discuss directly; instead, Kazakhstan strongly recommends its prospects for the ports of Aktau and Kurik in the Caspian region.

At the same time, Tokayev stated that Kazakh itself had invested 30 billion US dollars in improving infrastructure in the past ten years (exactly ten times the total trade volume of India and Central Asia in 2020).

Kazakhstan has emphasized its strategic position in the geopolitical position, the great efforts for infrastructure construction, and its economic investment cooperation with India reflects a self-centered initiative.

Kazakhs have some advantages for India’s economic ambitions. Accept them first, and then talk about the posture later. Of course, in addition to knocking the bowl, President Tokayev also draws attention towards Afghanistan emphasizing that terrorism and extremism are common threats. 

In general, we think such a dialogue between the heads of state is far from meeting India’s expectations. 

In the final declaration, which was called the “Delhi Declaration” by India and “Declaration of the First Central Asia-India Summit”, including thirty-six articles were written.  In the end, it should be noted that although the summit was institutionalized, it had a little crowding-out effect on other multilateral international organizations and other regional cooperation organizations.

There are more clauses in the declaration that affirm the utility of other multilateral institutions than the system of the summit itself. These are fundamental operations between Central Asia and India, which can be summed up as “politics are not hot, the economy is colder.” 


The writer is a Ph.D. student in the history of international relations and foreign policy at the Ural Federal University in Russia; visiting researcher at Shihezi University in China.

*Views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organizations.