Dialogue  January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3


Geopolitical Perspectives on Central Asia: An Indian View#

Nirmala Joshi

India’s sphere of geopolitical and strategic interests widened considerably when the five States of Central Asia suddenly and unexpectedly gained independence in 1991. Though India does not share a direct boundary with any of the states, its geographical proximity makes the Central Asian region to be considered as part of India’s strategic neighbourhood. Even in the past the region was important, but as they were part of the Soviet Union Indian concerns were taken care of by friendly and close Indo-Soviet relations. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, all the earlier assumptions underwent a change. Over the years developments in Central Asia have considerably enhanced its significance for India as well as for the international community. This paper will firstly discuss the geopolitical importance of Central Asia and secondly analyse Indian perspectives on these developments.

Geopolitics of Central Asia

Central Asia’s geopolitical location in the heart of Eurasia is crucial. In the north Central Asia is flanked by Russia aspiring to regain its ‘great power’ status. China an upcoming power adjoins Central Asia’s eastern periphery. To the west is Iran, Turkey and the Middle East while Afghanistan and Southern Asia are in the south. After the end of the Cold War the role of Asia began to figure prominently in world politics. Here were the fastest growing economies and consequently a large market. In the foreseeable future Asia is likely to emerge as the biggest consumer of energy. But Asia does not as yet have its own security architecture. The huge Eurasian landmass has few security related multilateral structures. On the other hand China poised to emerge as a pivotal player in international politics is likely to pose a challenge to the idea of an unipolar world led by the United States of America. However, China’s western periphery is vulnerable. The Xinjiang region is underdeveloped. As part of its long-term strategy for the region China would like Xinjiang to have close links with Central Asia especially with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with whom it shares the boundary. By pursuing such a strategy China hopes that the separatist movement led by the Uighurs would gradually loose shine.

Subsequently the location of Central Asia became a crucial factor in the global war against terrorism launched after the events of 9/11. The apprehension was that the Central Asian States are also vulnerable to the forces of religious extremism spreading into the region. The three states, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share a common boundary with Afghanistan. Under the Taliban rule such an apprehension appeared real. Such a possibility would have given the forces of religious extremism a powerful boost. The Central Asian States welcomed the military presence of the coalition forces led by the U.S., for in their view only the West could deal with this pernicious danger. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have granted base facilities to the coalition forces at Karshi-Khanabad and Ganci near Manas airport respectively. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have shown willingness to cooperate with the coalition forces. Though by defeating the Taliban the West has reduced the danger of terrorism, its military presence has nevertheless altered the geopolitical situation.

Second, the geopolitics of the Central Asian region could undergo a radical shift, if the forces of religious extremism sweep Central Asia. For the present the prospect of forces of religious extremism gaining ascendancy appears not too bright. This is because Central Asia lacks the tradition of fundamentalism. Though the people of Central Asia are largely followers of Islam, they have never displayed fanatic tendencies. Several factors have moulded the outlook of the people. The famous silk route which passed through the region exposed the people to novel ideas and new cultures. Renowned centres of learning and culture Bukhara and Samarkand attracted scholars from all over. The strong and benevolent influence of Sufism, a strand within Islam spread the message of tolerance all over Central Asia. In this regard the Sufi brotherhood have tendered yeoman service to the people. The nomadic psyche still exercises a powerful influence on the people of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. The access to modern education science and technology, health care facilities during the Soviet period have all played a role in shaping the outlook of the Central Asia. The people have imbibed a spirit of tolerance and benevolence. However, the present day dire economic situation and the poor quality of life especially in the Fergana valley, and the lack of openness and participatory politics is driving the underprivileged to extremism.

It should, however, be borne in mind that the Fergana valley had always been a stronghold of Islam. It was the settled way of life in the valley which gave the people enough leisure to imbibe deeply the teachings of Islam. Even in the Soviet period when religion was brutally suppressed, Islam continued to have the faithfuls flock to the creed. It was in the Fergana valley that the influence of the unofficial clergy was much stronger than the official one in Tashkent. The religiosity of the people in the Fergana was never in doubt. Forces of radical Islam began to gain strength in the wake of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The mujahideens, opposing the “godless communists” were motivated to fight the Soviets on the plea that “Islam was in danger”. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and its break-up in 1991 provided these forces of religious extremism a powerful boost. Subsequently, the forces of religious extremism by now entrenched in Afghanistan acquired a new and a dangerous dimension under the Taliban rule, namely international terrorism. Closely intertwined with the growth of religious extremism and terrorism is the drug trafficking that goes on from Afghanistan via Central Asia to markets in Europe. This pernicious activity sustains extremism and terrorism and has ill effects in terms of corruption, addiction and violence.

Developments in Afghanistan have had an impact on the Fergana valley. The peoples fervour for religion and the economic deprivation have led many to take to extremist activity. From across the border, external funding, safe sanctuaries and training is provided. It is in the Fergana valley that the threat of religious extremism is looming. Even now the depleted ranks of religious extremism operate from the Fergana valley. The people, however, want a right balance between modernity and tradition. As one perceptive observer stated “One hand must hold the Koran and the other a computer”.

Third, what has attracted the external powers to the Central Asian region is its abundance of natural resources including energy sources. Three Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan a Caspian Sea littoral are richly endowed with oil, natural gas and hydrocarbons. Uzbekistan has modest quantity of gas. In the twenty-first century ensuring energy security has become one of the key concerns of states. The global economy depends on timely and reliable delivery of energy. In the U.S., defence is redefined and includes securing cheap energy. Estimates about Central Asian energy reserves vary, but it is now being acknowledged that Central Asian energy reserves are significant. The possibility of unexplored reserves being high is indeed real. But the Central Asian states are landlocked, which makes the cost of Central Asian energy comparatively costlier than elsewhere. Despite this impediment Western multinationals are involved at various stages of exploration, building an efficient pipeline network etc.

What has really added to the significance of Central Asian energy reserves is that the West particularly the United States of America is keen to diversify its sources of energy. The uncertainty in the Middle East, the dictates of OPEC in terms of supply and price, and the American entanglement in Iraq have led to an intensification of search for new sources of energy. It is against this perspective that the West sought to control the energy sources of Central Asia. Prominent American thinkers such as Henry Kissinger have not hesitated to advocate the control of this strategy commodity – oil, by any means. Often the competition to control the energy sources of Central Asia and to also roll back centuries old Russian influence from here is referred to as the new version of the nineteenth century ‘great game’.

Over the years the geopolitical significance of Central Asia has grown. Major and regional powers are involved in the region. Given this scenario we now turn to examine the Indian perspective on its extended neighbourhood.

Indian Perspectives

One of the post Cold War global trend as mentioned earlier has been the rise of religious extremism and terrorism especially in this part of the world posing a serious challenge to the integrity of nations. These are powerful forces and are capable of tearing nations apart; as it happened peacefully in the Soviet Union and violently in Yugoslavia. Multi ethnic and pluralist societies are most vulnerable to these insidious forces. India as well as the Central Asian states are multi ethnic and pluralist in nature. For more than a decade India has been battling the challenges of militancy and terrorism in its state of Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. The talk of jehad against India by militant groups enjoying sanctuary and support across the border has made the situation in the state extremely difficult. The war in Kargil in 1999 is an eloquent testimony of these activities of the jehadis. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are witnessing increasing activity by extremist groups in certain key pockets especially in the Fergana valley. Among the major militant groups mention must be made of Hizb-ul-Tehrir committed to building an Islamic Caliphate from Mongolia to the shores of Caspian Sea. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan now renamed as Islamic Movement of Turkestan was largely supported and funded by the Al-Qaeda. In Tajikistan a new group “Bayat” meaning “pledge” in Arabic is a recent development. The Bayat is suspected to have Wahabi leanings. Although the presence of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is maintaining and the immediate threat of destabilization in Central Asia by forces of religious extremism has been warded off but periodic reports suggest that the danger is till lurking. The terrorist infrastructure has not been completely dismantled. One assessment is that the terrorists have adjusted faster to the post 9/11 scenario than the states in the region.

In the initial years of their independence Indian concern was that the secular and modern outlook of Central Asia should not be disturbed or replaced by a religious orientation. From the Indian perspective the main concern was the activities of Pakistan and its quest for strategic depth. Pakistan’s objective was not simply to bring the Central Asian states within the fold of Islam or to gain military space for itself, but it was to emerge as a bridge between Central Asia and the rest of the world. The Afghan government was expected to provide transit facilities to the landlocked Central Asian states and Karachi or Gwadar could be the outlet to the world. In course of time an integrated region would arise perhaps under the leadership of Pakistan. In this context the defunct Regional Cooperation Development (RCD) organization was revived with a new name Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). The chief thrust of ECO was on building transport and communication links with Central Asia. To date the ECO remains a non-starter. In the process Pakistan’s aspirations for an enlarged belt of Islamic countries which could have helped it to solve its identity issue remains unfulfilled. Pakistani efforts to befriend the Central Asian states bore no fruit. Instead the Central Asian leaders lacking experience and expertise looked towards India for help and guidance in transforming their political and economic system as well as in managing the diversity of a multi ethnic and a pluralist society. Such an approach came naturally to the Central Asian leaders because of the past historical and cultural affinity, and it undoubtedly eased India’s worry. All the leaders viewed religious extremism as a very dangerous tendency. A typical example is the following speech made by President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan during this visit to India in March 1992. He said at the banquet speech “Kyrgyzstan is looking to India as an example, as it sets about restructuring its economy and socio-political system”. Further he said, “We categorically reject extremism of any kind. Let it be neither extremism of communist type nor of religious fanatics”. Such an approach showed that the leaders of Central Asia viewed India as a friendly country with no hidden agenda to pursue and the secular, modern and democratic ethos of India attracted them.

Consequently, Indian and Central Asian perception of Pakistan and Afghanistan coincided largely. In view of this shared interests, Indian objective has been that the Central Asian region remains stable and secure. Since the challenges were regional and had not assumed threatening proportions, the military presence of the Russian Federation as part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping mission under the Collective Security Treaty was adequate to maintain peace and stability on the Tajik-Afghan border and keep the hordes of extremists at bay. The close and friendly Indo-Russian ties whose crux lay in the compatibility of their geopolitical interests in Central Asia were able to meet Indian concerns.

Indian and Central Asian views on religious extremism coincided even further when the Taliban backed by Pakistan came to power in 1996. This development gave tremendous leverage to Pakistan in the region. There was a better understanding between India and the Central Asian states, though in varying degrees about external sources of religious extremism and terrorism. It was accepted that Afghanistan under the Taliban had emerged as the epicentre of international terrorism. The challenge of extremism and terrorism had become grave and insidious to both India and the Central Asian states. This near similarity of views between India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan led them to fully support the forces opposing the Taliban, namely the Northern Alliance. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan while opposed to the Taliban, opted for engagement with Taliban. Perhaps they felt that the existing security structure in the region the Collective Security Treaty was not adequate to meet the challenges posed by forces of religious extremism. The blasts in Tashkent in February 1999 and the attempt on the life of President Islam Karimov is a case in point. After the devastating events of 9/11 Indian and Central Asian perception about religious extremism, its sources and external supporters coincided completely. All have supported the American led coalition forces and as mentioned earlier Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have offered military base facilities. Today it is the ISAF that is maintaining peace and stability in the region. Whether the present stability is durable only time will tell. President Hamid Karzai is referred to as the “mayor” of Kabul. Either way it will have an impact on Central Asia’s security. Nevertheless the situation in India’s vicinity continues to be volatile. The international attention from the fight against terrorism has got deflected due to the war in Iraq and the impending problems related to reconstruction and developmental activity in Afghanistan. Any re-emergence of the forces of religious extremism and terrorism would be highly unwelcome in India as well as in Central Asia.

Central Asia’s location in the centre of Eurasia is a major factor that impinges on India’s concerns. Central Asia’s strategic location began to attract external and regional powers. It was around the mid nineties that the euphoric phase in Russian-American relations was drawing to a close. The Budapest summit of 1994 heralded this phase, which was aptly described by President Boris Yeltsin as the beginning of “Cold Peace”.

In American strategic thinking British Geographer Halford Mackinder’s ideas that Eurasia is the “geographic pivot of history” continues to influence many even today. The significance of geopolitics has not lost its relevance in the changed context of the Post Cold War. The idea of “geopolitical pluralism and multiculturalism” is being put forward. It implies that Russia alone cannot claim that the CIS is its zone of special interest. The West also has vital interest at stake there. Russian policy in the CIS should be inclusive and not exclusive. Well-known American opinion maker Z. Brzezinski in his book The Grand Chessboard has advocated such ideas. His views subsequently became the cornerstone of both the Clinton and Bush Administration policies towards the newly independent states of Central Eurasia. As a counter to the above view V. Kolosov and N. Mironenko in their book Geopolitics and Political Geography contended that Russia must develop a strategy that would encourage volunteer economic cultural and communication integration. It was from this thinking that the idea of a unipolar world led by the U.S. was juxtaposed against the Russian and Chinese idea of a multipolar world was born. These inimical approaches showed that while the Cold War was over, the mindset continued to be dominated by the bygone era. Many Russians felt that it was wrong to expect the West to accept it as an equal partner once the ideological divide had been bridged. There were inherent limitations in such thinking. The West in their view had always wanted a weak Russia, a supplier of raw materials an appendage of the West. The civilisational differences only added to the limitations. As very well argued by Sergei Rogov of the Institute of the United States and Canada, Russian Academy of Sciences “Russian-American partnership even if one were realized could not become the central axis of the new system of international system”.

By then there was a positive assessment of Central Asian Energy reserves despite its landlocked status. The issue of laying a new export pipeline infrastructure assumed more political than economic dimension. It became a tool in the hands of the West to isolate Russia. In due course the question of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhand pipeline (BTC) was juxtaposed against the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) which transits through Russia up to Novorossyisk on the Black Sea. The pipeline issue became a symbol of the emerging subtle competition between the West on the one hand, and Russia on the other hand. The American objective was clear (1) to control the energy sources of Central Asia; (2) to restrict the enormous Russian influence in the region; and (3) to fight the global war on terror. This was the beginning of the competition for control and influence often referred to as the “great game”. It may be mentioned that Russia has been the region for centuries and Central Asia is a natural extension of the Russian steppes.

The global war on terror paved the way for a cooperative framework, as the cooperation of Russia was crucial. Russian approval in allowing the coalition forces to establish their military presence in Central Asia was not only helpful, but fundamentally altered the geopolitics of the Central Asian region. An opinion began to develop in Russia that the Western military presence would not be a short one; while some felt that it had a hidden agenda. The overwhelming response of the Central Asian states was revealing. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have granted base facilities to the US. Recent reports suggest that Kazakhstan may be willing to grant base facilities. The Central Asian states also desire strategic space for themselves and therefore are keen to invite the presence of external powers so that their dependence on Russia is reduced to an extent. The pipeline issue offered them this opportunity and hence they have shown keenness to diversify their export routes.

The cooperative aspect between Russia and the U.S. received a jolt with the developments in Iraq and the competitive dimension has resurfaced. This rivalry has now acquired a military edge. Russia is asserting its presence in Central Asia. As a counterbalance to the NATO military presence Russia along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus has formed an alliance – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO has acquired a base in Kyrgyzstan; the Kant air base near to Ganci base of the West. The following statement succinctly puts the issue in a proper perspective. “… now all these countries, Russia, America and/or China are trying to develop a different type of relationship where the right to abolish terrorism is playing a more visible role. If we prefer to cover up the real intention of each country, it is clear that everyone wants to be present in Central Asia …” To put it differently, “The matter is that Russia is trying to respond to its potential rival the United States. Once Americans have stationed in Uzbekistan, Russians must do the same in Tajikistan …”

A new factor that has become apparent in this potential rivalry between Russia and the U.S. is the role of China. As mentioned China has developed deep interests in the region especially with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. China is particularly interested in Kyrgyzstan. It is seeking to strengthen the confidence and military cooperation with its neighbour. China would like to develop transport links through Kyrgyzstan. In May 2003 it was announced that a new rail route will connect Kashgar, China and then via Jalalabad go up to Andijon in the Fergana Valley. China has also been interested in the products of the former Soviet defense industry enterprise located in Kyrgyzstan particularly the Bishkek Machine Building Plant Janar and Dastan.1 0

Thus we find that India’s extended neighbourhood is not as peaceful as sit should be. With the growing significance of Eurasia in the coming decades, the geostrategic location of Central Asia is going to become crucial. The competition that exists between Russia and the U.S., at times overtly and at times covertly, is not likely to escalate into a confrontational situation at least not over Central Asia. This scenario could undergo a radical change if China perceived as a great power surges forward posing a challenge to the world’s only super power. Such a situation may not come about in the near future. On the other hand Russia has the potentialities to play a pivotal role in international relations, but that is not going to happen immediately. The world is going to witness interesting alignments taking shape in Central Asia in the near future. All these developments do have an impact on India’s geopolitical interests and security concerns. India should energize its policy towards Central Asia so as to build a strong and lasting relationship with the countries of the region.


     1.   The Times of Central Asia (Bishkek), 7 February 2002.

     2.   Ibid., 6 May 2004.

     3.   Indian Express (New Delhi), 18 March 1992.

     4.  www.Eurasianet.org/Insight by Igor Torbakov A. Eurasia Net Essay. “Reexamining Old Concepts About the Caucasus and Central Asia’. February 6, 2004.

     5.   Ibid.

     6.  Sergei Rogov, “Russia and the United States at the Threshold of the Twenty First Century” in Russian Social Science Review, vol. 40, no. 3, May-June 1999, p. 35.

     7.   The Times of Central Asia, 22 May 2003.

     8.   Ibid., 2 July 2003.

     9.   Ibid., 1 May 2003.

   10.   Ibid., 14 August  2003.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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