Engaging with Central Asia vital for China and India

Author: Adil Khan Miankhel, Canberra

The Central Asia Republics (CARs) of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan occupy an important place in the geopolitical frameworks of India and China. Both India and China have initiated a new wave of diplomatic engagements with the CARs after the announcement of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China launched a new ‘5+1’ dialogue arrangement with all five CARs in July 2020. China was late to work with the CARs in this new format, having only engaged with the countries at the bilateral and multilateral levels going back to 2004. The first ‘5+1’ meeting focussed on COVID-19, trade and investment.

China’s second meeting took place on 12 May 2021. The meeting focussed  on cooperation, COVID-19, and adopting an inclusive political approach in engaging with Afghanistan. In the same format, President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with Central Asian leaders on 25 January 2022 seeking cooperation in combating terrorism and strengthening regional security.

India was also late to engage the CARs through the ‘5+1’ format. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last visited Central Asia in 2015. After the US exit from Afghanistan, the second meeting was held on 10 November 2021 in the ‘5+1’ format at the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan. The third meeting took place in December 2021.

India hosted the first virtual meeting of the India–Central Asia Summit involving the heads of states in the ‘5+1’ format. It was held just two days after China held its meeting at the same level. The major focus of the summit was developments in Afghanistan and the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran, a rival port to Gwadar Port in Pakistan being built with Chinese investment.

China has labelled the ‘5+1’ forum as engaging with friendly neighbours — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share a border with China. India has characterised their Central Asian relations as engagement through the ‘Extended Neighbourhood’ policy. Both China and India see geopolitical value and potentially competition in their overlapping Central Asian neighbourhood.

US presence in Afghanistan previously provided a buffer for China to pursue its own economic engagement activities with Central Asia. But with the US gone, and uncertainty about the behaviour of the Taliban regime, China formed the ‘5+1’ institutional arrangement to provide a buffer at its western border.

US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also proved to be an important factor for India’s renewed engagement with the CARs. India invested heavily into development projects in Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001. India did not feel the need to engage directly with CARs as a single group in any other format. India’s security paradigm requires securing its North-Western Frontier. This was previously achieved through US presence in Afghanistan and deep engagement with previous Afghan regimes. With the US withdrawal, engaging with CARs has become imperative for India from a trade and security perspective.

From a Central Asian perspective where economic and military capabilities to counter extremism and terrorism is limited, any arrangement will add value to their own security interests.

China has already realised the importance of engaging Afghanistan and has extended humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Until the cause of threat is neutralised through an engagement strategy, all institutional arrangements that ensure stability may not prove to be effective and sustainable.

Afghanistan still occupies a pivotal position in ensuring the stability of the region. The situation has currently become more precarious. If Afghanistan is left to its own fate, it may have spill over effects that could destabilise the whole region.

Dr Adil is an alumni of ANU and was Visiting Fellow at Crawford School of Public Policy, Australia National University.