India Hosts Virtual Summit With Central Asian Leaders

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Narendra Modi Photographer: MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by T. Narayan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged closer ties and security cooperation with five Central Asian nations as he hosted their leaders at a virtual summit days after neighbor and rival China hosted a similar meeting.

“Stronger cooperation between India and Central Asia is necessary for regional security and stability,” Modi said at Thursday’s meeting, adding that Afghanistan under the Taliban raised major “security concerns,” which affected India and Central Asian countries equally.

For New Delhi, the importance of close ties with the region was highlighted when the militant group swiftly took over Afghanistan last year. It has since been working towards closer links with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to balance the growing influence of China and Pakistan in the area.

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In December last year, India hosted the foreign ministers of these countries and separately their national security advisers along with Iran and Russia for talks on Afghanistan’s future. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan share borders with Afghanistan.

Modi’s meeting comes two days after Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the leaders to commemorate three decades of diplomatic relations. In a tacit show of support to Beijing, amid a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the five leaders are expected to travel for the opening ceremony of the games.

India’s plans to host the leaders at its Republic Day celebrations on Jan. 26 were shelved because of a surge in Covid-19 infections.

“New Delhi was slow to engage the Taliban and missed the bus,” said Swasti Rao, associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses’ Europe and Eurasia Centre. “New Delhi cannot miss out on opportunities anymore.”

With $3 billion in investments in Afghanistan, India is concerned about how Taliban rule could impact security in the region, especially in India’s restive northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Afghanistan is a matter of direct concern for India and Central Asian partners,” said Sana Hashmi, a fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and a scholar with the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs. “A lasting solution to the Afghanistan conundrum is a responsibility of all stakeholders of the region.”

New Delhi has backed regional infrastructure projects, including the North-South corridor which is a network of highways and railways connecting Chabahar port in Iran with Russia to reduce the time of shipments between Europe and Central Asia.

The summit comes as the Central Asian countries are looking to diversify trade and diplomatic ties.

“Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan have vast gas reserves and are keen to tap India’s market, the meeting of India and Central Asian countries could lead to many positives in the near future,” Rao said. “Both India and Central Asian countries have a strong and significant relation with Russia and therefore comfortable engaging each other.”

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