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New battlefront: South Asian power contests in Central Asia

Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have risen as subtle “influencers” in a Taliban-led Afghanistan ..

Recently, Tashkent convened two main international conferences with deep ramifications for South Asia. The first was an international conference where almost 30 nations engaged with the Taliban on Afghanistan, a fragile state still on a razor’s edge.

The second meeting in Uzbekistan was a foreign ministers’ gathering under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – a multilateral coalition that aspires to enhance stability throughout Eurasia – having convened in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, where the main agenda was regional safety, stability and measures to curb alarming inflation. The SCO summit was attended by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto as well as Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar who were at the same table for the first time.

Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Jamshid Khodjaev is on a visit to India for a session of the India-Uzbek Inter-Governmental Commission. Trade between India and Uzbekistan catapulted from $247 million in 2019-20 to $342 million in 2021 and 2022, a gargantuan growth of 38.5% as Delhi and Tashkent ramp up cooperation in fintech, digital payments and agriculture.

These summits highlight how Central Asia emerges like a phoenix from the ashes as a mainstay for South Asian strategic foreign policy alignment. Central Asia increasingly shapes South Asian geopolitics and geo-economics with deep reverberations for South Asia.

As this week’s summits illustrate, certain Central Asian Republics, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are ascending as major diplomatic participants. Over the past few years, Ashgabat and Tashkent hosted summits on Afghanistan with Taliban delegations focusing on security to connectivity to power lines. The Central Asian republics’ interest aligns with South Asia, especially on Afghan stability and regional connectivity and their membership status overlaps in several regional alliances where the SCO added Islamabad and Delhi in 2017 to the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) while the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is now being revitalized by India.

Without Islamabad and Delhi, one cannot create comprehensive stability in “Eurasia.” Central Asian states and South Asian ones jointly participated in Türkiye’s Heart of Asia Istanbul Process with a focus on Afghanistan. Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership might offer future South and Central Asian states further strategic foreign policy convergence.

Central Asian republics have geographical gravitas for South Asian states. Three Central Asian states border Afghanistan. The Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge in Hairatan, Afghanistan testifies to rapprochement. The Friendship Bridge is a lifetime for Afghanistan acting as a shipment route for food, goods and supplies. The Taliban’s top-brass welcome 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 nerve centers for multiple South Asian states. Moscow enjoys a positive rapport wielding “soft power” with most regional states, including Pakistan recently, and most states abstained 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 assistance and labor markets, and are therefore reluctant to condemn Putin’s incursion.

Central Asia increasingly emerges as a front-line battlefield for Delhi and Islamabad’s rivalry, especially due to the region’s lucrative oil and gas deposits. India and Pakistan have insufficient local gas supplies and seek to diversify their energy portfolio beyond a highly volatile Middle East and war-bound Russia. In 2022, New Delhi accelerated diplomatic outreach with Central Asian states via the India-Central Asia Summit where Indian President Narendra Modi and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev grew closer.

Focus on geo-economics

Meanwhile, Pakistan focuses on “geo-economics” with Central Asia boosting energy and trade agreements. Examples are the Agreement between Uzbekistan and Pakistan on Transit Trade (AUPTT) and the bilateral Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) where Pakistan can tap into $90 billion, offering Central Asian states access to Pakistan`s strategic seaports, notably Gwadar, making Uzbekistan less reliant on the Iranian seaport Bandar Abbas via Turkmenistan.

Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan Aybek Arif Usmanov confirmed that Pak-Uzbek bilateral trade will increase up to $1 billion. Other initiatives are the Pakistan-Uzbekistan Joint Ministerial Commission, the Pakistan-Uzbekistan “Silk Route Reconnect” business forum, the ECO Free Trade Agreement (ECOTA) and the U.N.-supported Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) as evidenced by the opening of the bilateral Wagah trade border.

India has heavily invested in Tajikistan’s infrastructural and energy development modernizing Verzob Hydro Power Station and constructing a highway from Chortut to Ayni. India enhances its “soft power” by providing millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Tajikistan to overcome the devastation wrought by floods – especially in Pamir, Rasht valley, Khatlon and Khorog.

Pakistan and India each distinctly implement separate projects bolstering rapprochement with Central Asia. India aspires to assist by developing the port of Chabahar in south Iran boosting trade through Afghanistan. Pakistan hopes to collaborate with Kabul and Tashkent on the new Trans-Afghan railway linking Uzbekistan to the ports of Pakistan. Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have drawn a roadmap for its realization.

Central Asian republics have their own motives to enhance integration with Delhi and Islamabad as they seek broader access to each country’s warm-water ports for trade and commerce, quenching Central Asia’s thirst for strategic water routes and trade. Pakistan’s Gwadar port links to China’s western city of Kashgar, Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Pakistan enjoys a strategic advantage over India, as most direct land routes to Central Asia go through Pakistani soil cementing its role as a transit trade hub. Pakistan usually doesn’t offer India transit trade rights. Undismayed, Delhi enhances its presence in Afghanistan, by partially reopening its embassy in Kabul to boost access to Central Asia.

Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have risen as subtle “influencers” in a Taliban-led Afghanistan, which largely depends on Central Asian energy resources. Most of Afghanistan’s electricity is imported from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tashkent and Dushanbe will try to leverage electricity to sway the Taliban to curtail Afghan-based terrorist entities like the so-called “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).”

Further, the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF) has sanctuaries in Tajikistan and Dushanbe covertly revives the NRF as a negotiation trump card vis-à-vis the Taliban. The Taliban and Tajik extremists are erecting a new monitoring tower along the “Nijniy Pyanj” border elevating tensions.

Changing foreign policy imperatives in South Asia augment Central Asia’s growing diplomatic and trade outreach, notably in Afghanistan. As opposed to commonly-held assumptions, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran espoused a vigilant approach and restricted their presence in Afghanistan since America’s departure. The geopolitics of South Asia can no longer solely be analyzed through the prism of India-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 dependable and durable foothold serving their national interests where some stakeholders could exploit the disorder. This simultaneously opens up broad possibilities and rivalries in trade, security, counterterrorism and culture.



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