Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 69

From April 4 to 6 Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov visited New Delhi to conduct negotiations with the Indian government and to sign 12 agreements with India. These accords ranged over such diverse fields as defense, education, trade, industry, tourism, and the struggle against terrorism. But undoubtedly the defense, anti-terrorism, and economic agreements were the most important results of this trip, Karimov’s third visit to India. However, this latest trip probably signifies something new, namely Karimov’s recognition of India’s growing interest in, and capabilities toward, Central Asia.

India openly calls Central Asia part of its extended strategic neighborhood where it will seek to use all potential instruments of power to expand its influence and presence and as a major — and potentially more secure — source of its energy needs, not to mention other raw materials. Therefore since 2000 India’s governments have steadily expanded contacts with Central Asian regimes and vigorously pursued New Delhi’s interests in access to trade, energy, and even military bases, as in Tajikistan’s case. Like India, Uzbekistan suffers from actual and/or potential terrorist threats and these converging interests clearly were on view during the trip. For example, India won Karimov’s assent to participate in the exploration of oil and gas reserves in Uzbekistan. Both sides also agreed on the importance of quickly realizing an international transport corridor through Afghanistan so that goods could move more quickly between their states.

Both sides obviously wish to strengthen the Afghan government against remnants of the Taliban, and Tashkent also supports India’s proposed convention against terrorism and has agreed to coordinate efforts through the joint working groups on fighting international terrorism. Uzbekistan supports India’s campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, and both sides will cooperate in defense and defense-related technology, i.e. arms sales, either by Uzbekistan using old Soviet equipment, or from India to the Uzbek military. This last item reflects India’s determination to become a major player in the export of conventional arms abroad, not least to Central Asian governments and militaries. Both sides also wish to expand bilateral trade, now currently estimated at $150 million, and India is keen to expand its investments in Uzbekistan’s social sector while setting up an information technology institute in Tashkent.

On the face of it, this visit and the agreements ensuing from it appear to be an example of the routine activities of high-level governmental leaders. But one can easily find deeper motivations for it. Clearly Karimov feels comfortable with India and values its increasing ability to provide another alternative for the large-scale economic and military assistance that Uzbekistan needs. Karimov has made a career of veering from patron to patron, moving from Washington to Moscow, Beijing, and now New Delhi whenever a patron pressures him to do something that he is reluctant to do. Thus in 2004, when U.S. agitation for reforms and liberalization grew too vocal, he signed major defense and economic agreements with Russia and China. But clearly Karimov does not wish to be aligned only with those capitals, especially as the Ukrainian and Kyrgyz crises show that he cannot rely on them to provide him with the support he and his family might need in a pinch. Washington, too, is now not nearly as amenable to his refusal to reform as was earlier the case. Thus, he needs a new patron.

India, a rising power with growing economic and military capability, converging security interests, an unwillingness to sermonize about human rights in public, and a rising hunger for reliable energy sources, makes a perfect foil for him. At the same time Uzbekistan, the most central and strongest military state in Central Asia, is a key target of India’s efforts to carve out an enduring niche as a major provider of assistance and security to Central Asian states. The greater influence India can bring to bear in Central Asia or is perceived to be able to harness, the stronger it becomes regionally, as well as toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also adds another potential source to its need for energy so that India will not be trapped into an excessive dependence on potentially unreliable supplies of energy from the Gulf. Thus, this visit reflects the underlying dynamics of the rapidly shifting Central Asian geopolitical and economic competition or new great game as well as the opportunities available to Central Asian rulers to exploit the great power competition for influence, access, and energy in Central Asia. Therefore it is unlikely that we have seen the last of these visits, either by Karimov or by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, let alone their ministers. The wheel of this new great game will most assuredly keep turning for these two players as well as their other partners and rivals.

(Planetguru.com, April 5; Financial Express.com, April 6; Press Trust of India, April 5; Asia Pulse Limited, April 7)