On Saturday, Georgetown University’s India Initiative hosted its inaugural India Ideas Conference. This was a day long event featuring panel discussions and keynote lectures intended to facilitate a dialogue between American and Indian leaders in government, business, and civil society on this year’s theme, “Innovation in India.”
In the years immediately following independence and the Partition, India was unable to establish strong relationships with countries across the world, due to the global geopolitical landscape and its own internal politics. After the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, both India’s economic significance and international engagement vastly increased. Nevertheless, the Indian relationship with Central Asian nations has historically faced many obstacles. This was due to both the effects of the Partition as well as India’s inability to trade directly with the region due to Pakistan’s unwillingness to allow the transit of Indian goods through Pakistan. Today, India is developing the Chabahar port in Iran, which grants it access to trade with Central Asia via Afghanistan. Additionally, India has maintained its age-old relationships with the surrounding Middle Eastern nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE.
To discuss the nature and evolution of these geopolitical relationships, the India Ideas Conference organised a panel called “India, Middle East, and the -Stans”. The panel featured Raj Wadwhani as moderator, a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy who has previously worked extensively with the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai as Political and Economic Section Chief. The panel also included Andrew Kuchins, a Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program, and Sameer Lalwani, a Senior Associate and Deputy Director for Stimson’s South Asia program.
Kuchins began the conversation, speaking of the current geopolitical climate within Central Asia. He mentioned that from a geographical standpoint, Uzbekistan is key to Central Asian cooperation. In the past, Uzbekistan has been an impediment to regional progress because of former Uzbek President Karimov. Since his death, however, the nation began to liberalize and open up. Now, the Uzbek-Kazakh relationship will be most important one in the region.
Lalwani continued by stating that from the outset, India has not made its priorities clear. As India grows, it continues to develop economic power to rival its hard military power. In terms of soft power, however, India seems to be lagging behind.
Lalwani questioned the significance and value of the India-Central Asia relationship, given that the latter contributes one tenth of the economic value to India that Southeast offers (60 billion vs 600 billion USD). Thus, from an economic standpoint, India might be better off investing economic and diplomatic resources on other sub-regions of Asia.
Adding to the reservations regarding the lucrative nature of India’s relationship with Central Asia, Kuchins asserted that connectivity to Central Asia is not a priority in and of itself. Rather, the trade route’s true benefit derives from it being a gateway to the West. Lalwani argued that Central Asia isn’t a big market – it’s more of a stop along the way than a destination for India.
On the other hand, the Kuchins seemed more optimistic with regards to the strengthening relationship with the Middle East. When asked about the scope of India’s collaboration with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, Kuchins emphasized the importance of India’s Chabahar Port in Iran, saying that India is investing a lot into the project because it is India’s gateway to Afghanistan. Lalwani disagreed, on the other hand, arguing that India isn’t necessarily taking it too seriously and that in his eyes Chabahar will not be significant for at least another five years.
The panelists agreed that the region has a lot of potential in pioneering projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan Pipeline that could catalyse investment and trading opportunities within the region. Given such ambitions, the panel declared it evident that creating successful conditions for such economic ventures requires cooperation between every nation.