June 20, 2013

India’s Strategic Failure in Central Asia

CENTRAL ASIA | POLITICS | INDIA June 11, 2013By Stephen Blank

As Western forces depart the region, New Delhi will need to act to translate potential into reality.

India’s political, cultural, and historical ties to Central Asia date back to antiquity. But contemporary circumstances, namely the quest for energy and the threat of terrorism, have imparted a new urgency, adding strategic realities to historical tradition. Indeed, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has said that India’s energy requirements are growing at a “terrifying pace.” Consequently, India’s government recently announced that it refuses to lay down a quota for importing oil (and presumably gas) from any country, including Iran. Instead, India will buy oil (and, again, presumably gas if not other energy sources) from wherever “it gets the best deal.” In this context it is even looking at the Arctic for energy sources. Not surprisingly in this context the Caspian basin is seen as an “important source” of hydrocarbons and ONGC is buying an 8.42% share of Conoco Phillips’ holidngs in Kazakhstan. It also is buying equity (albeit modest) in Azeri fields around the Caspian.

Yet despite the urgency for India, if not Central Asia, of strengthening those ties, India is failing to keep pace with its rivals, particularly China. New Delhi knows this to be true as does every analyst who observes its efforts in Central Asia. For example, despite the importance of the so-called TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, no international firm is ready to finance the project. This failure occurs even though the U.S. supports an expanded Indian role in Central Asia, and the American presence vastly enlarges the political, economic and military space available to India. Indeed, Washington’s presence allows India to play, or at least aspire to, a greater Central Asian role than it could achieve on its own. Washington also counts on New Delhi playing an expanded role in Afghanistan and Central Asia as its troops depart Afghanistan.

While India plays a large role in Afghanistan, focused principally on building human capital and physical infrastructure, improving security, and helping the agricultural and other important sectors of the country’s economy, it nevertheless continues to lag China and Russia. India’s difficulties in Central Asia also confirm that, unlike Russia, China sees India as not just an obstacle in its own right, but as a U.S. stalking horse and continues to obstruct Indian efforts to enhance its presence in Central Asia. As we approach 2014 it seems clear that absent that U.S. role (and despite Russian support), China and Pakistan will probably succeed in checking India’s ability to project meaningful economic or military power into the region, including its ability to negotiate contracts for energy supplies.

Yet India certainly cannot depend on Russia to advance its Central Asian interests. Indeed, according to U.S. experts, India’s effort to refurbish and maintain an air base at Ayni in Tajikistan was quashed when the Tajik government told India that Moscow opposed any foreign bases there regardless of whom they belonged to.

India clearly needs a partner to be effective in Central Asia, while China does not, and China intends to exploit that advantage for as long as possible. Certainly China has far outpaced India to date throughout the region, regarding both energy acquisitions and the building of a long-distance transportation, trade and infrastructure network despite India’s rising wealth and power. China’s ability to compete successfully against India is visible in its accelerating consolidation of its own version of the Silk Road. Neither is this rivalry occurring only in Central Asia. The same process took place in the Sino-Indian competition that China won for a gas pipeline from Bangladesh and Myanmar to China rather than India. And Indian analysts worry with good reason about China’s increasing presence in the smaller countries of South Asia.

We also see this trend with the cornerstone of Indo-American aspirations for a post-Afghanistan economic structure, the New Silk Road strategy in Central Asia and Afghanistan. This project aims to help stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it and its Central neighbors from succumbing to violence. But it also seeks to bypass Russia, Iran and China while linking India with Central Asia – and ultimately Europe – help develop all those economies, and provide a major new investment opportunity for U.S. business.

Even before 9/11, analysts saw increased opportunities for Indo-American partnership in Central (and South) Asia. C. Raja Mohan observed as early as 1999 that U.S. activism and presence was likely to increase on India’s peripheries, including Central Asia, while Indian interest in those peripheries was also growing. Further, in areas like Central Asia a broad agenda of promoting regional and subregional cooperation awaited both Washington and New Delhi. Mohan called for a project to foster economic and political pluralism in the neighborhood, protect energy and sea lanes, and combat terrorism and the drug trade.

Undoubtedly, the Silk Road project and its accompanying vision reflect the accuracy of Mohan’s argument. But 14 years later, despite much dialogue, India is still essentially a minor player in Central Asia and is not competitive with China or Russia. Unquestionably, some of this stems from the fact that Pakistan’s geography and deliberate policy of obstruction cuts India off from Afghanistan and Central Asia. But that is by no means the exclusive or even primary reason for India’s strategic failure here. In 2010, analysts Marlene Laruelle, Jean-Francois Huchet, Sebastien Peyrouse and Bayram Balci found that despite the already visible Sino-Indian rivalry, India’s business presence remained “minimal.” Indian policymakers may have proclaimed Central Asia a key priority of Indian foreign and security policy, especially as India’s comprehensive national power grew. But despite this rhetoric, by 2010 India was clearly not an influential power in Central Asia. Neither has it become one since then.

Thus, analysts find that not only is India in a sense geographically excluded and able to act only at a remove, while lacking the comprehensive global power projection capabilities of the U.S., “its prospects are fluid and subject to relations with other powers and regions.” While it would like to be and claims to become a regional balancer, relationships with Pakistan, China, Russia, and the U.S. constrain its ambitions, which are best served under conditions of regional cooperation. Yet regional cooperation is the last thing that characterizes Central Asia and India suffers accordingly. In fact as Laruelle and Peyrouse found, talk of India’s important priority in Central Asia and efforts to cut a major figure there are more aspirational than actual and “its discursive activity by far exceeds the reality of bilateral relationships.”

So while India has acquired a stake in the Satpayev block in Kazakhstan, it is a long way behind China, and not just in energy access. This is not for want of trying. Just in the recent past India has launched discussions with Kazakhstan about extending a pipeline to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project (TAPI), acquiring a block in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan block for about $5-6 billion, and extending the pipeline from TAPI all the way to Russia. But the TAPI project is at so early a stage, not even a study has been commissioned. India also seeks to expand its civil nuclear energy cooperation with both Russia and Kazakhstan. It is also concurrently negotiating with Rosneft to buy a stake in two blocks in the Sea of Okhotsk, Magadan-2 and Magadan-3, and is even keen to gain a foothold in Arctic projects while expanding in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE).

Yet China already receives 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas annually from Turkmenistan, a figure that is projected to rise to 65 bcm when the Uzbek and Kazakh pipelines are added. This failure – both vis-à-vis China and in regard to maximizing India’s overall posture – is not primarily due to Pakistani obstruction but probably owes more to the well-known difficulties India has encountered in framing an adequate energy policy, as the catastrophic blackout of 2012 shows.

Moreover, many scholars believe that India suffers from a congenital difficulty in thinking and acting strategically. As Charles Ebinger has noted, China has regularly and successfully outbid India for gas deals in Central Asia , Africa, and Latin America. Now China is also expanding its portfolio to include coal and uranium. Since China holds over $2 trillion in foreign reserves and is not encumbered by democracy, it can move much more quickly and decisively than India can. And India’s bureaucracy if notorious for grinding and foot-dragging while China’s is almost equally well known for its ruthless effectiveness.

India’s comparative failure clearly emerges in regard to Tajikistan. It recently welcomed Tajikistan Vice President Hamid Ansari, who signed deals to expand cooperation in information technology, energy, health, education, trade, commerce, mining and agriculture. At least formally, both governments also stressed the importance of cooperation in dealing with the expected security threats from Afghanistan.

While India will collaborate with Tajikistan in establishing an IT center of excellence and a Central Asia e-network, the extent of bilateral cooperation is in fact small compared to China’s record.

China has been able to invest vast sums of money in Tajikistan’s infrastructure, telecommunications, uranium and other minerals, and even force Tajikistan to cede it land rich in minerals in an arrangement that essentially gave China the land for free.

Similarly, despite the shared Indo-Tajik concern over security, there is no effective security cooperation with India and its armed forces certainly do not take part in bilateral or joint military exercises with Central Asian states to anywhere like the degree that the PLA does. It could not even hold onto its base at Ayni.

Likewise, while India is certainly interested in exploring for energy sources in Tajikistan, China as mentioned is on track to receive 65 bcm of natural gas annually from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the next few years.

So despite the fact that Indian commentary warns that India cannot afford to delay and must now move to set up a regional grouping involving Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan to check Pakistan’s “nefarious” aims, in fact China is already quite far ahead, and its regional organization will certainly include Pakistan, its ally if not client.

In fact, China is well advanced in its process of building its own “Silk Road”, well before the joint U.S.-India project goes anywhere. Ansari and other Indian officials may therefore say publicly that there is no clash between India and China to increase their respective stakes in Tajikistan or other Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, but it is doubtful if any one of these governments or anyone else believes that.

This Indian failure also reflects on the U.S., which as it withdraws its forces from Afhganistan aims to leave behind a training and advisory force and an econmic structure in its “New Silk Road” strategy. But to the extent that Washington cannot pay for this strategy and India cannot compete with China, it is hardly surprising that, according to U.S. analysts, Uzbek President Islam Karimov laughs whenever someone tries to talk to him about the Silk Road. This also means that states like Uzbekistan will look for real security wherever they can find it and while they may wish India well, it is doubtful they will rely on New Delhi more than on Moscow and Beijing, which are in a much stronger position to deliver on their rhetoric.

India is in many ways an appealing example to Central Asia and especially to Western governments looking for a partner there. But as the West departs Afghanistan and Central Asia for lack of real resources, India will have to stand by itself and stand taller than it now does if its appeal is to be translated into something that is both practical and enduring.

Stephen Blank is Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute.


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