BACKGROUND: Thanks to the close relationship that existed between Moscow and New Delhi during the Cold War, New Delhi has traditionally had strong links with the Central Asian region. In the decade since the end of the superpower conflict in the region and the collapse of the Soviet Union, India has increasingly made an effort to build on these long-standing ties in order to establish links with the newly formed Central Asian Republics. Currently, the most important factor driving relations between India and the Central Asian Republics has been the rise of religious extremism and terrorism.
New Delhi and its friends in Central Asia are particularly concerned about the rise of religious extremism in Afghanistan (the Taliban). There is a real possibility that the conflict in Afghanistan will spill over into and destabilize the region's fragile, secular political structures. India is concerned about the impact of the Taliban's rise on Kashmir, where a bloody insurgency has been underway since 1989, not least because Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars since independence in 1947, two over Kashmir, is one of the group's main backers.
Looking ahead, India's growing need for hydrocarbons to drive its booming economy is increasingly likely to play an increasingly important role in its policy towards Central Asia. New Delhi is currently in discussion with a number of countries, including Iran, about gaining access to the region's oil. Obviously, as India's reliance on Central and Western Asian oil rises, so too will Indias stake rise in ensuring the stability of the region. In Central Asia, meanwhile, there is speculation that India's growing interest in the regions oil reserves will one day clash with that of China, which has already won major concessions from Kazakhstan.
IMPLICATIONS: India shares many of the same concerns in Central Asia as Russia, China and Iran, the other major powers in the region. The largest concerns revolve around the domestic and international challenges posed by the spread of terrorism and religious fanaticism. Beyond this, they have similar opinions on a number of other issues, including a combined fear of the rising global dominance of the United States and the willingness of the West to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries to further its human rights agenda. But it is unlikely that these countries have enough in common, as a number of diplomats and politicians have suggested, for a strategic alliance based on shared security concerns to emerge.
India and China fought a brief war in 1962 and continue to dispute a large proportion of their common border. Relations between the two countries have improved somewhat since the end of the Cold War. Efforts are being made to find a solution to the border problem and Beijing has also scaled down its support for Pakistan's Kashmir policy. India nevertheless remains concerned about the close military and political relationship that exists between China and Pakistan. According to American intelligence officials, Beijing has transferred ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Islamabad. China, for its part, was openly critical of India's decision to conduct a series of nuclear tests in May 1998.
New Delhi is likely to attempt to build closer ties with Moscow. As with Russia and China, the two have signed a number of military, economic and security agreements, and waxed lyrical about the threat of terrorism in Central Asia and the need to preserve secular governments. Furthermore, President Putin is due to visit New Delhi this October. The two countries are expected to sign a document making them "strategic partners" during his stay. The two were on different sides during the Cold War. Today, Moscow is concerned about the increase of Chinese influence in the Central Asian republics.
CONCLUSIONS: India's policy is therefore to give both practical and diplomatic support to those secular governments currently in power in the Central Asian Republics and to build trade links with them. In Afghanistan, New Delhi has refused to acknowledge the Taliban as the official government of the country and instead continues to support the Northern Alliance. Crucially, from an Indian strategic point of view, Russia like India has a historical mistrust of China. But from an Indian perspective, China's role in the region remains the main stumbling block.
Rather than increasing the possibility of stability in Central Asia and the chances of some form of alliance between the major players being established there, India's growing presence in the region will only serve to further complicate the region's geopolitics. Rather than adopting a go-it-alone policy towards Central Asia, India is likely to try and achieve its ambition in tandem with its old ally Russia. Based on a long sense of shared history and common desire to blunt Chinese expansion, the India-Russian partnership will form one of the major axes for future competition between those powers engaged in the new great game already underway in the region.
AUTHOR BIO: Damon Bristow is Head of the Asia Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in Whitehall, London.
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