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The great game, again?

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The great game, again?

The Trade Game

Amiya Chandra

Pentagon Press, Rs 1,095

There’s quite a conflict brewing within Central Asia, with China, Russia, and India as the stakeholders. From the point of view of security as well as trade, it can have everlasting implications for the parties involved, writes DEEPAK KUMAR JHA

The book delves briefly into the past when the “Great Game” was being played between the British Empire and Russia to control the vast and strategic trade routes of Central Asia, for their own primary trade goals. These games have become far bigger and complex with disintegration of Russia and emergence of five key nations of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, referred to as ‘5 CARs’ in the book.

Amiya’s book aptly portrays the modern trade games being played in Central Asia. It talks about its importance for India and focuses on strategies for overcoming various barriers in achieving these strategic goals.

The increasing clout and influence of China juxtaposed with the dwindling authority of the US under the leadership of President Trump, dilution and distraction of British and European nations with Brexit, ever growing discontent and waging wars in the Middle East and Gulf countries, trade politics being played over the nuclearisation of North Korea — the strategic importance of Central Asia is critical and of far more significance for India than was ever before.

The book provides insight into the stakes of all the other key players in Central Asia. It positions China, Russia and India as the players in the new “Bigger Game”. There, China and Russia already have an early mover advantage and have gained substantially. That doesn’t work well for Indian security and trade interests.

India has always considered Russia as its dependable friend. However, the same cannot be said of China as it has taken an aggressive stand against India on numerous occasions in the past.

China’s interference and influence has been witnessed in the recent incidents involving Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, North Korea and now even Maldives. China, in its unstated yet conscious policy, has been trying to limit India’s influence as well as trade potential. China has great ambitions of expanding its trade, military as well political control across the world. It’s been equally aggressive in African and South American continents and has taken a clear leadership position there.

In his book, Amiya has tried to draw attention towards China’s growing influence in Central Asia — how through its OBOR programme, it intends to dominate world trade. Trade, Finance, Security, and Grants are some of the means it has deployed to further its objectives. The book outlines the series of events and steps that the Indian Government has taken recently and also puts it in the historical perspective. It’s surprising that India’s approach has been rather muted when in reality India had been one of the key nations which proposed, suggested and agreed to the need of an over-the-land trade route, linking Asian countries to Europe through Central Asia.

Central Asia today is being treated as India’s “extended neighbourhood”. As per the book, “the importance of Central Asia to India is now not merely civilisational and historical, but also geopolitical and economic”.

Though these republics have been acknowledged as being endowed with rich energy and other mineral resources, they require heavy investments and technical know-how to develop these resources. Above all, the CARs share common glitches of political instability, terrorism, mutual discord on border delineation, sharing of water resources and problems of landlockedness, etc.

Such a scenario wherein regional players like Russia and China seem to be able to dominate the “weak” Central Asian Republics and may reduce countries like India, with little physical access to Central Asia, permanently to a fringe-player status, is a hyper-exaggeration of the situation. Evidence shows that the last two decades and especially since the NDA Government under Narendra Modi took charge, have been periods of intense political engagement. There has been a constant search for newer ways of economic engagement between India and Central Asia.

Some recent academic literature describes India as playing “The New Great Game” in Central Asia, and that it is in competition with the key regional and global powers for resources and influence. While not sharing the above-mentioned pessimistic outlook, Amiya in his book argues that India’s relationship with Central Asia must be seen in terms of a unique model of political, economic, strategic, cultural and development partnership with a multilateral approach. In these past couple of years a massive effort by the Indian government can be witnessed by visits undertaken by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Central Asia Republics, Cabinet Ministers like Nitin Gadkari visiting Iran as a special envoy of India was in Tehran and represented India at the swearing-in of President Hassan Rouhani for the second term in August 2017.

Given the vast energy resources of the Central Asian region and its hunger for development and infrastructure, India, with its proven prowess in capacity- building and training, is uniquely equipped to play an important role in the transformation of the region.

But this benevolent intent, as mentioned above, has been constrained by the lack of direct land connectivity to the Central Asian region. The instability in Afghanistan and the reluctance

of Pakistan to grant overland access

to India have come in the way of fructifying the potential of India’s relationship with the region.

The INSTC envisages a movement of goods to and from Mumbai to the Bandar Abbas port in Iran by sea, from Bandar Abbas to Bandar-e-Anzali (an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea) by rail and road, from Bandar-e-Anzali to Astrakhan, a Russian port, across the Caspian Sea by ship and from Astrakhan to other regions in Russia by rail.

The book argues that in the long term, the challenge is, creation of stable and competitive goods and energy supply networks for not just trade but also for the supply of oil from the Caspian Sea, gas from Turkmenistan and hydroelectricity from Tajikistan to India.

The Indian public sector companies are in active discussions with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the oil and natural gas sector. The fact that the governments of the region have agreed to the construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan- India) gas pipeline project is a positive indication of the opportunities ahead, given the growing political will to enter into such cooperation between Central Asia and South Asia. India is engaged with Central Asia through multilateral forums as well. One of the forums through which the Central Asian Republics are tied together is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

In one instance, the book offers new perspective and recommends some key solutions for increasing trade between India and Central-Asian nations. It tries to reach out beyond the conventional hurdles that India is facing and suggests new means to come out of it. General Director Economic Society, Ashgabat, Mouhamed J Kalandarov says about the book that it provides numerous insights, pragmatic solutions and new perspective to circumvent challenges.

The final chapter concludes the entire gamut of the economic dimension of the India-Central Asia relations by making an assessment of the extent and pattern of their economic and trade relations in a comparative perspective with a long-term projection of their engagements in the context of India’s on-going “Connect Central Asia Policy”.

Besides, it also provides a perspective on New Delhi’s growing attention to the region as a response to the changing dynamics of the major powers’ relations with Central Asia, particularly the increased involvement of China.

 
 
 
 
 

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