As China’s One Belt, One Road policy unfolds in Central Asia, strategic alliances within the region are becoming increasingly complex. While ancient partnerships are deepening, new opportunities arise for key South Asian players. India, a long-standing absentee in the region, may very well hold the key to the balance of power in Central Asia.

India’s missed opportunities and the Silk Road

India began to develop a presence in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2002, Russia and India partnered up to launch the International North South Trade Corridor (INSTC). In 2012, New Delhi devised its official Central Asian policy, a 12-points list aiming at increasing connectivity among the Five Stans, taking advantage of the energy potential of the region and developing its banking sector.  Opening roads to Central Asia, China’s prime objective in the region has also been India’s priority for a decade. Ensuring that these roads are not carrying only Chinese goods, however, will remain a key priority for both India and Russia.

Professor Alexander Cooley at Barnard College, in Great Game, Local Rules (2012) says the reality of Indian’s success in Central Asia has been greatly overstated. Nationalism in the Indian media over its ‘’Northern Strategy’’ has largely exaggerated India’s diplomatic successes in Central Asia. That being said, India’s ambitions do have a major significance for the Kremlin. According to Cooley, India’s capability for bringing balance in Central Asia can be a game changer: ‘the inclusion of India and Pakistan will take the spotlight away from the China-Russia relationship, and tensions over the organization’s purpose and role, and recast the organization as a more comprehensive regional forum’.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, has been much more proactive. He visited the five Central Asian countries in July 2015. Among the multiple signatures with Central Asian leaders, Modi secured a deal with Kazakhstan to supply 5000 tons of uranium to Delhi over the next four years. The belated TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline was also an object of discussion with Turkmenistan, poised to take the lead on the project. Although a recent boom in construction, IT and pharmaceuticals has stirred the Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbekistan economies, their poor infrastructure and geographic distance have severely limited the trade between India and the region.

Conversely, India figures relatively high in Central Asia. New Delhi has a reputation of a neutral country. A former leader of the non-aligned world during the Cold War, its presence in Central Asia threatens neither China nor Russia. India’s clearly stated willingness to engage in multination organizations involved in Central Asia is seen as a relief in the context of Chinese and Russian dominance.

An Indo-Russian channel

Russia actively supported the Indian nomination as a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese-led security organization chiefly regarded by Moscow as an encroachment on its Near Abroad. Launched by China in 2001, the SCO has devoted much of its energy to fighting terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, all of which are of great interest to India as well.

The Russia & India Report noted in mid-2014 that ‘’Russia’s inclusion may moderate India’s apprehensions about China’s manoeuvre in the implementation of the project.’’ Russia, India and China, three members of the BRICS may act as a springboard for the BRICS’s Development Bank and create momentum for trade among the organization. India, a long-time Russian ally, has also been one of its steadiest arms buyer. For these reasons, a closer cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi could greatly facilitate the hopes for Eurasian integration.

Soviet friendship, however, is now in the past. The physical obstacles to commerce have done little to bring the two powers together.  In 2014, bilateral trade between India and Russia amounted to less than $ 10 billion dollars. Moreover, the United States has increasingly tossed Russia aside by providing India with more and more military hardware. According to the Indian government, this is the result of a shift in defense relationship ‘from a simple buyer – seller framework to one involving joint research’.

Perhaps a bigger strain in bilateral relations occurred in September 2015, when Russia agreed to sell its fourth generation Su-35 fighter to Pakistan, India’s security arch-rival in the region. The contract has arguably cast a shadow on Russian-Indian relations, as well as the earlier sale of the Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters and Limov RDP93 engines for its series of JF-17 fighters. Although India was initially courted for the Su-35 fighter, as well as China, the contract sent a powerful symbolic message to the Indian establishment, confirming the 10 years decline of Russian share in arms sales to India, as well as a lack of political commitment to Indian security.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit in Moscow in December 2015 may have changed that with 16 agreements signed between the two countries, including a $6 billion sale of S-400 supersonic air defense systems. On May 9, India took part in Russia’s high stake military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nuclear energy stands atop the key areas of cooperation, Russia being practically the only country engaged in the sector with India. Moscow helped build two nuclear power units equipped with some of the world safest light water reactors at Kudankulam.

If Russia and India both fear of a Chinese-dominated Central Asia, the same is true with Central Asian leaders, who do not want the opening of Eurasia’s core to be single-handedly organized by Beijing. India, a major market, seen as a competitor with China, is thus a reassuring presence in the neighborhood.

In a sense, both India and Russia are struggling to find their role in the international order. Everything now depends on both Russia and India’s capacity for concrete cooperation in Central Asia, and on their ability to send powerful messages about the depth of their commitment to security in the region.


Pierre-Olivier Bussieres is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada. Pierre holds a Master of Arts (M.A) in Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from Carleton University. He is currently Desk Officer for the Montreal Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and Editor-in-Chief for Republic of the East. He previously worked as a Research Assistant at Carleton University’s Centre for Excellence in European Studies, and Parliamentarians for the Americas. In addition to his M.A, Pierre obtained a Practical Certification in Foreign Intelligence Assessment from the Canadian Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Carleton University.

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