mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
India Looks North by Northwest

In the past, if you asked Indian policy planners what the greatest threat was to the west,  they would traditionally list three: Pakistan, Pakistan, and Pakistan. These days, however, Delhi is thinking a lot more expansively about its place in Asia. Earlier this week, India hosted Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, capping the visit by inking a strategic partnership agreement (the full text of which is here). The deal promises more trade, the construction of a joint civilian-military hospital, and some vague albeit intriguing talk of “the continuing expansion of defence cooperation.” There is no mention, however, of a long-touted but still non-existent Indian air base on Tajik soil.

Why this deal now? Look at a map of the region, and you should be able to figure it out. In case you don’t have a map handy, the Times of India explains:

Official sources said that the strategic partnership emanated mainly from Tajikistan’s fear of the Taliban and the possibility of their comeback in Kabul after the drawdown of international forces in 2014…

But it would also be a mistake to view this partnership purely as an insurance policy against post-drawdown Central Asian contagion. This summer, for example, India announced a “Connect Central Asia” policy to boost its engagement in a region whose real estate is likely to be a transit corridor for Delhi’s future energy needs—needs which very much include preventing massive power outages like the ones that occurred just last month.

Regional competition also enters in to India’s new, more expansive thinking. China needs Central Asian energy and minerals just as much as India does. But Beijing has a big head start over Delhi when it comes to building roads, revamping public transport networks, and goodwill gestures like doling out scholarships to Kazakhs, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz. Not only that, compared to China, India’s level of trade with the region is pathetic: $500 million last year, or just one-tenth of the trade between Beijing and just one country in the region (Kyrgyzstan). It’s no wonder, then, that Indian policy planners are looking for ways to expand India’s presence in the region—especially in countries, like Tajikistan, that fear a Taliban revival just as much as India does, if not more.

Central Asia, in other words, is the western counterpart to countries like Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia. Long ago, places like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Osh were just as much of a part of a bigger Indian World as were countries like Indonesia or Thailand: overland trade and Islam connected the former with India just as much as oceanic trade and Buddhism linked India with the latter. The traumas of Partition, not to mention Delhi’s attempt to lead the Non-Aligned Movement, covered up some of those links for much of India’s post-independence period. Now, with India looking outward, and with a rising China peering over its shoulder, that bigger Indian World matters more than ever for Delhi.

Features Icon
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service