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'Afghanistan can be rebuilt by making it trade, energy hub'

E Ahamed 

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 that 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.

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. 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...

Central Asian countries could also gain from the techno-economic potential of India, which could be accessed in cooperative, mutually beneficial partnerships... 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 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eurasian Economic Community and the Custom Union. India has already proposed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement to integrate its markets with the unifying Eurasian space.
  • 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. India would like to assist in the setting up of a Central Asian University in Bishkek, which 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. 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 travellers estimated at $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...

India, thus, stands ready for a deep 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.

Keynote address by Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed at the first India-Central Asia dialogue, in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan on June 12

First Published: Sun, June 17 2012. 00:04 IST