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India’s “knight’s move” to Central Asia

 More than 2150 years ago, when the envoy of the Chinese emperor Zhang Qian, the “father-founder” of the Great Silk Road, reached the final point of his journey in the northern Bactria (current South Tajikistan), he was surprised to find that bamboo and other goods from China were available at the local market. This discovery of the famous Chinese traveler shows that ancient India had a trade route towards not only Southern China, but also Bactria, which was the largest region in ancient Transoxiana. In other words, the ancient trade road “from Bactria to India” existed before the discovery of the Great Silk Road.

Currently, when the world superpowers initiate large-scale projects for the revival of the Great Silk Road, India – the homeland of chess – is also starting its own serious game on trade route establishment in Central Asia. Due to the fierce competition with Pakistan, India cannot directly enter the Central Asian region through Afghanistan and has to opt for the “knight's move”.

The logic of the “knight's move” of India implies a direct marine connection between the Mumbai harbor and the Iranian harbor in Chabahar. With the railway (which is rapidly being built),  goods are transferred to Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, and further to Russia and Europe, in this way bypassing Pakistan through the sea.

The Indian rush towards Central Asia contains not only the trade/economic component, but also covers the following “peacemaking” aspect:

1) Conflict resolution in Afghanistan

The first meeting between the foreign ministers of India and the five Central Asian countries took place in Samarkand in January 2019, organized by the Indian side upon the invitation of the Afghan foreign minister to this meeting (in a "5 + 1 + 1" format). The meeting addressed not only the creation of a trans-Afghan transit zone, but also the regulation of the Afghan crisis. This encounter has led to the creation of various strategies for resolving the long-lasting conflict in the region.

Neither the Soviet nor the NATO attempts to foster reconciliation in Afghanistan have been successful so far. The country remains unstable, which causes concerns among Afghanistan’s nearest neighbors. The above-mentioned ministerial meeting of the Indian Minister, Ms. Svaraj Sushma, with her Central Asian colleagues in Samarkand seems to have become a catalyzer for negotiations in Doha and Moscow.

Two other factors regarding Afghanistan need to be taken into consideration. First, the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the accession of Iran into the SCO in the near future will lead to success of the Indian mediation. Delhi, by having not only good relations with Afghanistan, but also a large amount of experience with resolving conflicts and crises situations non-violently, has more chances to influence the peacemaking process. The forty-year war in Afghanistan, with an active military intervention of the world superpowers, has completely exhausted the ability of these powers to resolve the conflict. Second, the joint Indian-Central Asian effort to achieve peace and social harmony in Afghanistan is guided by the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state (“panja shila” concept).

2) Involvement of Iran into the process of peace creation in Afghanistan

By entering Central Asia through Iran, India can actively involve this country in the trade-economic relations of the region and the whole Central Asia. The involvement of Iran in Central Asian affairs accelerates this country’ entry into the SCO. Iran’s accession to the SCO (accompanied by a withdrawal of the American (NATO) army from Afghanistan) creates a relatively “peaceful environment” around Afghanistan. Further resolution of the Afghan conflict will depend on this authoritative organization. The SCO can initiate the convocation of an International Conference on Post-Conflict Development and Reconstruction of Afghanistan.

3) Regional economic integration

The gradual peaceful (economic) entry of India into post-Soviet Central Asia will also lead to a softening of the tough competition in the strategic “Russia-China-USA” triangle, and will contribute to its transformation into a stable “Russia-China-India-USA” quadrate. The Central Asian region, which does not have a direct access to the seas, will receive a convenient access to world ports due to the Iranian-Indian efforts to create modern road infrastructures from the harbors of the Indian Ocean.

India is starting its own game with a "knight's move" which will lead to a fundamental change of the strategic configuration in Central Asia.

This is the second entrance of India into Central Asia. 2,000 years ago, peaceful Buddhism was born in India and spread through Central Asia to the whole world. In today’s violent and uncertain world, a new humanistic spirit is needed. That will hopefully be the spirit of Gandhi and the “spirit of non-violence".

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Dr. Abdugani Mamadazimov, CSR Zerkalo