2023 Research and Study

  • Commentary
  • publication date:2024/05/01

How to Connect to “Near Yet Far” Central Asia: India’s Central Asia Policy and Connectivity Options through the Middle East

MEIJ Commentary No.5

Ryohei Kasai,

Visiting Associate Professor,

Center for South Asian Studies, Gifu Women's University



Having enjoyed recent years of high economic growth, and with its population now the largest in the world, India is also rapidly enhancing its presence in global diplomatic affairs. While strengthening its relationships with Japan, the U.S. and Australia individually, as well as via “the Quad,” India has also come under focus for maintaining close ties with Moscow, even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most recently, India hosted the G20 in 2023, while also holding the “Voice of Global South Summit” twice, in January and November of that year, thereby promoting itself as a “leader” of developing nations.

Within this context, India has also focused on strengthening relationships with its “extended neighborhood.” Extended neighborhood is a geographical concept that is unique to India, serving to indicate the region that extends beyond the countries which neighbor India’s own immediate neighbors. According to S. Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs, it refers to “the island nations of the Indian Ocean, South-East Asia, Central Asia, and the countries of the gulf coast.[1] What is perhaps most deserving of our attention here is the inclusion of Central-Asia. India had already worked to strengthen its relationships with the nations of South-East Asia under the “Act East” policy. Similarly, India has previously sought closer ties with the nations of the gulf coast, not only with an eye towards energy demand or labor power, but towards national security as well. By contrast, however, India had never taken a clear diplomatic stance with respect to Central Asia.

For India, Central Asia is a “close” region. For example, the distance from Delhi to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, is approximately 1350km. This might seem far, yet it is closer than the distance from Delhi to Calcutta (approximately 1470km), or the distance from Delhi to Bengal to Bengaluru (approximately 2150km). Moreover, India has historical and cultural ties to Central Asia, as indicated by examples such as Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal empire, who was born in present day Uzbekistan. On the other hand, as I shall discuss further below, because Central Asia is difficult to access via land, it is still a “distant” region.

Although India is deepening its involvement in Central Asia from economic and strategic perspectives, its “near yet far” status has served as a bottleneck. In this paper, therefore, I will provide an overview of India’s recent policy towards Central Asia, followed by an examination of its ongoing work to improve its connectivity with the region, and a consideration of problems to be resolved.


India’s Enhanced Involvement in Central Asia in the Second Half of the 2010s

India’s enhanced involvement in Central Asia is most apparent at the diplomatic level. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian nations became independent. It was at this stage that India established diplomatic ties with each individual country. However, excluding certain specific issues such as anti-terrorism policy or responses to the situation in Afghanistan, India’s relationship with the region has been quite limited. In the second half of the first decade of this century, under the administration of the Indian National Congress, India outlined a “Connect Central Asia” policy, which sought to enhance its engagement with Central Asia. However, the policy was largely ineffective, and there was little progress when it came to actions that sought to actually “connect” with the region.

It is in the second half of the 2010s that we begin to see change on this front. With the victory of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the inauguration in May 2014 of Narendra Modi’s administration, India redoubled its existing efforts at omnidirectional diplomacy. At the same time, many other countries around the world decided to engage more with India. Central Asia was no exception, with the emergence of stronger bilateral as well as plurilaterial relationships.

At the time of the 7th BRICS summit, held in the city of Ufa, Russia, in July 2015, Prime Minister Modi visited all five Central Asian nations. By contrast, during the Manmohan Singh administration of 2004-14, the Prime Minister made no visits at all, apart from visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It would seem, therefore, that the Modi administration is placing greater emphasis on Central Asia. Furthermore, from 2005 India participated as an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), becoming a formal member in 2017 (in each case at the same time as Pakistan).

Furthermore, towards the end of June 2022, India invited the leaders of the five Central Asian nations as guests of honor to its Republic Day Parade,[2] seeking to use this opportunity to host the first “India and Central Asia Summit.” However, the visit was canceled due to the timing overlapping with the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The summit was held online on January 27, with an agreement to continue to hold summits every two years, and to expand cabinet minister level gatherings.


The Key Reason India is Placing Greater Emphasis on Central Asia

If we consider the backdrop to this greater engagement with Central Asia by India, what key reasons do we find?

The strengthening of economic relationships is touched upon in India’s written agreements with various countries. Yet looking at the present situation we must conclude that these relationships are still functioning at an extremely limited level. India’s foreign trade statistics for 2022/23 are revealing with respects to where Central Asian countries rank as trade partners: there was 640 million in trade with Kazakhstan (98th place), 330 million with Uzbekistan (120th place), and 190 million with Turkmenistan (132nd place).[3] However, in 2011 India signed an agreement with Kazakhstan on cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of atomic energy. It subsequently began importing uranium from that country, which by 2019 provided 80% of India’s imported uranium.[4] This has made Kazakhstan an indispensable partner for the purposes of increasing nuclear energy, which India is using to help support its growing population and economic development.

India is also devoting more attention to Central Asia to enhance regional security, or more specifically, to help combat terrorism. Central Asia does not share a direct border with India. Nevertheless, India is likely concerned about Central Asia’s involvement with its own neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as any possible influence on Kashmir. The “Delhi Declaration,” announced after the previously mentioned “India-Central Asia Summit,” mentions the words “terrorism” or “terrorist” 18 times. Thus, we can conclude that terrorism is a key concern for India.

In relation to the above, India is also seeking to coordinate with Central Asian countries with respect to the situation in Afghanistan following the return to Taliban rule. In December 2022, Delhi hosted the first India-Central Asia Meeting of National Security Advisers. A major subject of discussion at this meeting was also how to respond to the situation in Afghanistan.


Efforts to Improve Regional Connectivity

In attempting to access Central Asia via the continent, India is faced with the obstruction that is Pakistan.[5] If relations with Pakistan were good, then it would be possible to reach Central Asia more or less directly, traveling a distance similar to the shortest route mentioned in the introduction. This would likely help further promote economic development and interchange of people. However, for the past 15 years India has suspected that an extremist group based in Pakistan was involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008. Moreover, in February 2019, India launched an air strike in Pakistan as retaliation for a terrorist attack that occurred in Kashmir. This is not to mention that the militaries of both nations have directly clashed over the past three years. In short, far from being positive, the relationship between India and Pakistan is highly antagonistic. Previously, there was a plan to develop a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan (called TAPI, for the first letters of each of the nation’s names). Today such an idea is not regarded as even remotely feasible.

For this reason, it was natural that India would seek a way to access Central Asia while avoiding Pakistan. The first approach promoted was to access Iran via sea from ports such as Mumbai, and from there to take a route through Afghanistan. It was principally to improve access to Afghanistan that India participated in the development of Iran’s southern port of Chabahar, near Pakistan’s border. However, this in turn is in anticipation of developing links to Central Asia.

As it happened, the situation changed significantly in August 2021, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan once more. While India had enthusiastically supported the administrations of Karzai and Ghani, it had virtually no contact with the Taliban, while Pakistan maintained a degree of influence with the group. With not only India but the broader international society avoiding the establishment of diplomatic relations with the provisional Taliban government, conditions are no longer favorable for strengthening international connectivity through this direction.[6]


The Potential for an International North-South Transport Corridor

Recently, attention has been increasingly directed towards the idea of an “International North-South Transport Corridor” (INSTC). According to this proposal, a route could be established from India’s Mumbai, via sea, to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. From there, the route would pass over land through Iran and the Caucasus, before reaching Saint Petersburg in Russia. The total length would be some 7200km. In 2000, the three nations of India, Russia, and Iran signed an agreement on working to establish the INSTC, with countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia joining later. However, so far these discussions have not resulted in actual trade commencing via such a route. In July 2022, it was reported that goods from Russia were transported to India for the first time via the INSTC route. Yet it appears that this undertaking was not subsequently followed up. It is worth noting here that the transport of goods at that time did not begin via the initially proposed main route via the Caucasus, but instead moved from Russia to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan before passing on through Iran.[7] This was apparently achieved by using a railway established between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran in 2014 (known as the KTI line).

India has also made its position clear on wishing to utilize the INSTC to strengthen its connectivity with Central Asia. In a speech given at the SCO summit held in July 2023, Prime Minister Modi argued that the INSTC would “become a safe and effective route for delivering access to the Indian Ocean to the landlocked countries of Central Asia.” At the same time, while pointing out Iran’s entry into the SCO, Modi advocated for making the greatest possible use of Iran’s port of Chabahar.[8] As mentioned above, the INSTC began as an idea for a transport corridor linking India and Russia. Here, however, we see it gaining a new significance from the added role of enabling greater access to Central Asia. In April 2016, the Ashgabat Agreement, signed by countries including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, extoled the importance of facilitating greater trade and transportation in Central Asia. It should be noted that India also became a signatory of this agreement in 2018.[9] If these different initiatives are effectively coordinated, they will surely serve to make Central Asia a more accessible and important region for India.



In this paper I have outlined that, while India seeks to enhance its engagement with Central Asia, the challenge of actually linking with the region is hindering these efforts. While the initially hoped for route was to pass through Afghanistan via Chabahar, this plan was stymied by the return of Taliban rule. As we have seen, this approach was then replaced with the alternative proposal of the INSTC eastern route; namely, to pass through Iran to Turkmenistan, and then Kazakhstan.

The challenge moving forward is whether or not this route is actually capable of being established. While goods were sent from Russia to India via the INSTC route in July 2022, it seems that similar attempts have not been made since. Along with the technical challenges of using infrastructure such as roads, railways, and ports (adding to the financial difficulties derived from economic sanctions leveled against Russia and Iran), political reasons are also likely to have contributed to this lack of progress. For example, with Russia’s drawn-out invasion of Ukraine, India is becoming wary of strengthening the existing perception that it is too friendly towards the Kremlin. Then there is also uncertainty surrounding the situation in Iran, not to mention the differences in thinking between the Central Asian countries. With respects to the INSTC, there is also a western route (the Caucasus) and a route crossing the Caspian Sea. Involved parties will likely need to decide which direction to prioritize. For India, which initiatives it takes in order to surmount these challenges will likely serve as a touchstone for its future engagement with Central Asia.



Author’s Biography

Ryohei Kasai is a Visiting Associate Professor, Center for South Asian Studies, Gifu Women's University. He also serves as a Director of the Japan-India Association.


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  • [2] India became a republic on the January 26, 1950, when its constitution was promulgated (its Independence Day celebrations are held on August 15). In memory of this day, January 26 of each year is celebrated as “Republic Day,” with a large parade held in central Delhi. It is normal for India to invite the leaders of foreign countries of importance as special guests. Previous attendees include Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • [3] These details were gathered by the author from the foreign trade statistics website run by India’s Department of Commerce, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. (
  • [6]  However, in December 2023 China accepted the credentials of an ambassador sent by the Taliban regime to reside in China, which arguably amounts to its effective recognition of that government.