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Keynote address by MOS Shri E. Ahamed at First India-Central Asia Dialogue

June 12, 2012

India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy

Excellency Madame Roza Otunbaeva,
Excellency Madame Dinara Kemelova, Deputy Foreign Minister of Kyrgyz Republic,
Distinguished scholars and academics from Central Asia and India,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an honour and privilege for me to speak to such a distinguished audience of scholars, experts and business leaders, in the beautiful city of Bishkek. I congratulate the Indian Council of World Affairs on putting together this pioneering dialogue forum and thank our friends in the Kyrgyz Republic for being gracious enough to host this event with so much aplomb and enthusiasm. We have had many events in India where we have welcomed scholars from Central Asia, but this is the first instance, where we have reached out to Central Asia’s intellectuals and opinion leaders in their own home, bringing to the table the rich knowledge and experience of India’s scholars and business persons.

Today’s event is also a fitting celebration of the two decades of India’s diplomatic relations with the Kyrgyz Republic, which has been our valued friend in Central Asia, and with which we now share a special bond after the recent bold experiment in parliamentary democracy.

In my remarks, I will dwell upon India’s vision of its role in Central Asia. Today, India is reconnecting with this neighbourhood, with which we are bound by the silken bonds of centuries of common history.

Central Asia, over the last two decades in general and recently in particular, is witnessing an unprecedented integration into the global economic and political mainstream. We, in India, rejoice in this trend of the expanding influence of Central Asia, particularly on the world energy scene. We recognise Central Asian countries as close political partners in our 'extended neighbourhood', a precept which has become a key element of our foreign policy.

Our civilisational bonds with Central Asian countries have been translated into warm and friendly relations, with India being among the first countries to open diplomatic missions in all the five capitals. We have had a robust exchange of visits of our leaders, and have signed numerous cooperation agreements. Our policy has been marked by deepening relationships based on political, economic and technical cooperation as a partner, rather than a mere contender for the region's vast oil and gas resources. We have shared our experiences and expertise, built capacity and focused on training through our ITEC and other assistance programmes.

India's cultural heritage is deeply rooted in the Eurasian past. Indian traders and travelers had actively traded along the Silk Route and Buddhism had flourished across the vast Eurasian steppe. History is full of friendly interactions between India and Central Asia, through movement of people, goods and ideas, including spiritual interfaces that enriched us both. The fondness for Indian culture is expressed in Central Asia’s deep interest in Indian cinema, music, and art. This interest intensified further in Soviet times.

However, in the last few decades, we have been struggling to build economic links that match our political and cultural interaction. Our trade with the whole region is at a relatively low level of around 500 million US dollars. We face some natural obstacles like limited land connectivity and the limited size of the Central Asian markets. India has thus not seen the sort of commercial interaction in Central Asia, which we saw in Southeast Asia, East Asia and West Asia. This has led to a joint quest for innovative answers, some of which we look upon this dialogue to throw up.

India is now looking intently at the region through the framework of its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which is based on pro-active political, economic and people-to-people engagement with Central Asian countries, both individually and collectively.

I believe that India's active presence in the region will contribute to stability and development in the entire Central and South Asia region. In this analysis, we must factor in the regional situation and especially the challenge of rebuilding the Afghan nation. A cooperative approach for embedding Afghanistan into a more meaningful regional economic and security framework, would have benefits for the entire region. One way is to work towards converting Afghanistan into a hub for trade and energy, connecting Central and South Asia. The landmark agreement for the construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline has put the spotlight on the importance of Central Asia for India's future energy plans. It would also greatly benefit Afghanistan.

Central Asian countries could also gain from the techno-economic- potential of India, which could be accessed in cooperative, mutually beneficial partnerships. Central Asia’s desire for diversifying hydro-power and energy export routes would correspond with India's quest for diversifying imports. India will be keen to invest in setting up downstream production facilities, instead of exporting raw materials out of the region through expensive pipelines. The approach could differ from those seeking exclusively to pump out Central Asia's riches.

It is also important to remember that India has never been prescriptive in its political approach. We represent our unique liberal democratic values, particularly in the Asian context. We believe in a nation-building model based on participatory democracy, economic growth, building civil societies, pluralistic structures, ethno-religious harmony and the rule of law.

Against this backdrop, let me outline some of the elements of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, which is a broad-based approach, including political, security, economic and cultural connections :

  • We will continue to build on our strong political relations through the exchange of high level visits. Our leaders will continue to interact closely both in bilateral and multilateral fora.
  • We will strengthen our strategic and security cooperation. We already have strategic partnerships in place with some Central Asian countries. In focus will be military training, joint research, counter-terrorism coordination and close consultations on Afghanistan.
  • We will step up multilateral engagement with Central Asian partners using the synergy of joint efforts through existing fora like the SCO, Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and the Custom Union. India has already proposed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement to integrate its markets with the unifying Eurasian space.
  • India looks to Central Asia as a long term partner in energy, and natural resources. Central Asia possesses large cultivable tracts of land and we see potential for India to cooperate in production of profitable crops with value addition.
  • The medical field is another area that offers huge potential for cooperation. We are ready to extend cooperation by setting up civil hospitals/clinics in Central Asia.
  • India’s higher education system delivers at a fraction of the fees charged by Western universities. Keeping this in mind, India would like to assist in the setting up of a Central Asian University in Bishkek that could come up as a centre of excellence to impart world class education in areas like IT, management, philosophy and languages.
  • We are working on setting up a Central Asian e-network with its hub in India, to deliver, tele-education and tele-medicine connectivity, linking all the five Central Asian States.
  • Our companies can showcase India's capability in the construction sector and build world class structures at competitive rates. Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, have almost limitless reserves of iron ore and coal, as well as abundant cheap electricity. India can help set up several medium size steel rolling mills, producing its requirement of specific products.
  • As for land connectivity, we have reactivated the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). We need to join our efforts to discuss ways to bridge the missing links in the Corridor at the earliest and also work on other connecting spurs along the route.
  • Absence of a viable banking infrastructure in the region is a major barrier to trade and investment. Indian banks can expand their presence if they see a favourable policy environment.
  • We will jointly work to improve air connectivity between our countries. India is one of the biggest markets for outbound travelers estimated at USD 21 billion in 2011. Many countries have opened tourist offices in India to woo Indian tourists. Central Asian countries could emerge as attractive holiday destinations for tourists and even for the Indian film industry which likes to depict exotic foreign locales in its films.
  • Connections between our peoples are the most vital linkages to sustain our deep engagement. I would particularly like to emphasise exchanges between youth and the future leaders of India and Central Asia. We already have a robust exchange of students. We will encourage regular exchanges of scholars, academics, civil society and youth delegations to gain deeper insights into each other’s cultures.

India thus stands ready for a deep, meaningful and sustained engagement with Central Asia. We need our Central Asian friends to create favourable visa conditions to accept India’s benign presence. Perhaps the governments of all the five states will agree to simplify these procedures.

India’s Connect Central Asia Policy will be consonant with our overall policy of deepening engagement in Eurasia, our policy of strengthening relations with China, with Pakistan, and building on our traditional relationship with Russia. We hope that our membership in numerous regional forums including at the SCO, would bolster India's renewed linkages with the region.

Collectively, we must also think about creating a cooperative security structure for maintaining peace in Asia. Our policy of peaceful coexistence and of playing a constructive and meaningful role in the United Nations (now also as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council) will drive us to work with a deep sense of responsibility on all global issues. India's engagement in Central Asia, therefore, must be seen in the context of a quest for a world order which is multi-polar.

With these remarks, I invite the galaxy of experts and thinkers present here to take the stage and deliberate more on some of these ideas. I wish the seminar all success.

June 12, 2012

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