Former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Phunchok Stobdan: “India would be keen to play a balancing role in Central Asia.”

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Relations between India and the countries of Central Asia have noticeably revived recently. This is facilitated by bilateral and multilateral contacts, primarily in the field of trade and energy, as well as India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017 and the creation in 2019 of the India-Central Asia Dialogue platform. Thus, India’s activities in the region show that it has its own vision of regional processes and its place in them.

In this context, Ankara Center for Crises and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views of Phunchok Stobdan, former Indian civil servant and Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, on the relationship of India with the countries of Central Asia.

Dear Mr. Stobdan, as we know, recently the New Delhi held the 3rd meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue, also in 2022 the presidents of all five Central Asian countries were invited as guests for upcoming India’s Republic Day. İn this sense, how do you assess the development of relations between India and Central Asia?

Unlike the previous meetings of the India-Central Asia Dialogues, the 3rd Dialogue has taken place against the backdrop of several strategic developments that affected India’s geopolitical interests. The Dialogue assumed importance after India faced geopolitical setbacks, from the border conflict with China to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. While India has been busy hobnobbing with the US in the far-off Indo Pacific, threats originating from Afghanistan have gained a dimension that requires concern for India. It became more worrisome after China established its strategic hold in the Eurasian theatre including in Afghanistan. It is for this Central Asia is assuming fresh importance in India’s foreign policy.

How do you think, has anything changed in India’s policy towards Central Asia over the past few years? Or are there any changes expected in the near future?

India’s outlook towards Central Asia has changed in recent years after a new strategic competition among major powers has spread into different regions of the world, including in Central Asia. In fact, the recent escalation in diplomatic tensions between the US, China, and Russia have begun to impact the Eurasian region the most.  India is worried because China is spending an enormous amount in Central Asian energy pipelines and connectivity projects – ostensibly to get their economies tied to the Chinese network. China’s new modus operandi now under the BRI is to clasp everything in the region from big to petty businesses.  Russia is being edged out. China’s trade with Central Asia hovers $40 billion.

How do you assess the prospects of promoting economic/regional connectivity between Central and South Asia?

On the connectivity front, India has undertaken several projects to link Central Asia with the Indian Ocean through the Chabahar port and the INSTC. However, it is possible to say that these projects did not progress due to geopolitical reasons such as the instability in Afghanistan, the attitude of Pakistan and the uncertainty of Iran, etc. There is also the comparative geographical disadvantage for India. China is able to fulfil Central Asian economic requirements in a much more competitive manner. The US and Japan should join India’s connectivity plans to link Afghanistan and Central Asia. This would fit into a new policy approach on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that imparts the resources needed to make these programs work.

Due to its geographical location, Afghanistan has always served as a bridge between the two regions. Against this background, how do you assess the importance of Afghanistan’s peace process in India’s relations with Central Asia?

Afghanistan certainly serves as a bridge between Central and South Asia, but the issue is whether that bridge plays a useful role or becomes an obstacle for promoting genuine relations. Although a country like Uzbekistan takes a positive approach to engaging with the Taliban and thinks that Afghanistan will serve as a gateway between Central Asia and India, it still worries about the Taliban administration. Therefore, it is necessary to wait.

Let me raise a question about your approach to Indian cooperation in Belt and Road Initiative. Several years ago, you wrote that non-participation of India in the BRI would lead to isolation and that without a partnership with China, India’s integration into Asian regionalization would be difficult. Do you hold on to this vision to this day? And how do you generally assess the perspectives from India in cooperation with the Chinese BRI project?

Theoretically, any connectivity integration projects are good for the region. India is not against connectivity. But the issue is about India’s sovereignty that one of the BRI projects like the CPEC violates. Minus that India is unlikely to have many problems. Of course, the BRI-related projects are not being transparent is also a concern for India.

How do you assess the role of Russia and China in Central Asia? And in your opinion, how is the activation of relations between India and Central Asia perceived in these countries?

Russia and China have gained a strategic stranglehold in Eurasia, but there is also consternation in Russia over growing Chinese influence in Central Asia which has the potential to undermine Russian influence in its ‘near abroad’. India would be keen to play a balancing role in Central Asia. India has joined the SCO with such an intention. It is also the desire of the Central Asian states to provide India with important space for anchoring the power balance in the region.

How do you see the development of relations between the countries of Central Asia and India in the medium and long term?

India is aware of its limitations in extending its outreach in Central Asia. However, it can be said that it is a historical necessity to establish a relationship with people who are deeply connected with the Indian Civilization and to maintain it. Therefore, it can be said that the relations between the Central Asian countries and India will continue in a stable manner.

An interview on our website is the personal opinion of the expert and may not reflect the institutional view of Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Research (ANKASAM).

The original version of this interview was published on The International Asia Today on 26.01.2022.

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İlköğretim ve lise eğitimini Kırgızistan'da tamamlayan Perizat RISBEKKIZI, 2019 yılında Kırgızistan-Türkiye Manas Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. 2020 yılından itibaren yüksek lisans eğitimini Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı (YTB) burslusu olarak Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı'nda sürdürmektedir. Lisans döneminde İstanbul Ticaret Odası, Kırgızistan Din İşleri Devlet Komitesi'nde staj yapmıştır. İyi derecede Rusça ve İngilizce bilmektedir.