SEnECA Blog Post: India’s “knight’s move” to Central Asia

More than 2150 years ago, when the envoy of the Chinese emperor Zhang Qian, the “father-founder” of the Great Silk Road, reached the final point of his journey in the northern Bactria (current South Tajikistan), he was surprised to find that bamboo and other goods from China were available at the local market. This discovery of the famous Chinese traveler shows that ancient India had a trade route towards not only Southern China, but also Bactria, which was the largest region in ancient Trans­oxiana. In other words, the ancient trade road “from Bactria to India” existed before the discovery of the Great Silk Road.

Currently, when the world super­powers initiate large-scale projects for the revival of the Great Silk Road, India – the homeland of chess – is also starting its own serious game on trade route estab­lishment in Central Asia. Due to the fierce compe­tition with Pakistan, India cannot directly enter the Central Asian region through Afgha­nistan and has to opt for the “knight’s move”.

The logic of the “knight’s move” of India implies a direct marine connection between the Mumbai harbor and the Iranian harbor in Chabahar. With the railway (which is rapidly being built),  goods are trans­ferred to Afgha­nistan and the Central Asian republics, and further to Russia and Europe, in this way bypassing Pakistan through the sea.

The Indian rush towards Central Asia contains not only the trade/economic component, but also covers the following “peace­making” aspect:

1) Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan 

The first meeting between the foreign ministers of India and the five Central Asian countries took place in Samarkand in January 2019, organized by the Indian side upon the invitation of the Afghan foreign minister to this meeting (in a “5 + 1 + 1” format). The meeting addressed not only the creation of a trans-Afghan transit zone, but also the regulation of the Afghan crisis. This encounter has led to the creation of various strategies for resolving the long-lasting conflict in the region.

Neither the Soviet nor the NATO attempts to foster recon­ci­liation in Afgha­nistan have been successful so far. The country remains unstable, which causes concerns among Afghanistan’s nearest neighbors. The above-mentioned minis­terial meeting of the Indian Minister, Ms. Svaraj Sushma, with her Central Asian colleagues in Samarkand seems to have become a catalyzer for negotia­tions in Doha and Moscow.

Two other factors regarding Afgha­nistan need to be taken into consi­de­ration. First, the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Afgha­nistan and the accession of Iran into the SCO in the near future will lead to success of the Indian mediation. Delhi, by having not only good relations with Afgha­nistan, but also a large amount of experience with resolving conflicts and crises situa­tions non-violently, has more chances to influence the peace­making process. The forty-year war in Afgha­nistan, with an active military inter­vention of the world super­powers, has completely exhausted the ability of these powers to resolve the conflict. Second, the joint Indian-Central Asian effort to achieve peace and social harmony in Afgha­nistan is guided by the principle of non-inter­fe­rence in internal affairs of a sovereign state (“panja shila” concept).

2) Invol­vement of Iran into the process of peace creation in Afghanistan

By entering Central Asia through Iran, India can actively involve this country in the trade-economic relations of the region and the whole Central Asia. The invol­vement of Iran in Central Asian affairs accele­rates this country’ entry into the SCO. Iran’s accession to the SCO (accom­panied by a withdrawal of the American (NATO) army from Afgha­nistan) creates a relatively “peaceful environment” around Afgha­nistan. Further resolution of the Afghan conflict will depend on this autho­ri­tative organiz­ation. The SCO can initiate the convo­cation of an Inter­na­tional Confe­rence on Post-Conflict Develo­pment and Recon­struction of Afghanistan.

3) Regional economic integration

The gradual peaceful (economic) entry of India into post-Soviet Central Asia will also lead to a softening of the tough compe­tition in the strategic “Russia-China-USA” triangle, and will contribute to its trans­for­mation into a stable “Russia-China-India-USA” quadrate. The Central Asian region, which does not have a direct access to the seas, will receive a conve­nient access to world ports due to the Iranian-Indian efforts to create modern road infra­st­ruc­tures from the harbors of the Indian Ocean.

India is starting its own game with a “knight’s move” which will lead to a funda­mental change of the strategic confi­gu­ration in Central Asia.

This is the second entrance of India into Central Asia. 2,000 years ago, peaceful Buddhism was born in India and spread through Central Asia to the whole world. In today’s violent and uncertain world, a new humanistic spirit is needed. That will hopefully be the spirit of Gandhi and the “spirit of non-violence”.

SEnECA Blog Contri­bution by Dr. Abdugani Mamada­zimov, CSR Zerkalo