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Central Asia: Fast track

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13 May 2010 15:43

Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, Special Correspondent for India's Mail Today, is the author of books on India's Northeast and Kazakhstan.

When Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev sought greater Indian involvement in his country during a meeting with PM Manmohan Singh in Washington on 12 April (see the Press Briefing section of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs website), it was not without reason.

China proposes to extend its new high-speed rail network, connecting 17 countries and comprising three major routes linking Kunming in China with Singapore via South Asia, Urumqi and Germany through Central Asia, and Heilongjiang with Southeastern Europe via Russia.

This plan entails far-reaching geopolitical ramifications, particularly for Central Asia.

The western route of such a network would connect Xinjiang with Germany, through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. China views the railway network as an instrument to link Asian and European markets, to tap into and ensure efficient delivery of Central Asian energy resources, develop its western regions, advance regional security and its global role.

China's growing influence, however, is viewed with serious caution in Central Asian capitals. Relations between China and in particular Kazakhstan have been tense over the last few months.

Notwithstanding major Chinese investments in their country, last January Kazakhs gathered in Almaty to protest a Chinese proposal to rent one million hectares of farmland from Kazakhstan for cultivation of rapeseed and soya. But the Kazakh Government made it clear that it intends to create a joint agricultural enterprises. There are apprehensions that this could encourage mass migration of Chinese to Kazakhstan.

It is no secret that a cautious President Nazarbayev seeks closer ties with India to match Beijing's presence in the region. At the 12 April meeting, President Nazarbayev evinced interest in seeing Indian companies play a greater role in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is planning 170 major projects in a variety of sectors (power, agriculture, civil construction, mining, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals), and has invited Indian companies to participate.

Kazakhstan also feels that India could benefit from a customs union between Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia. New Delhi, which has a nuclear MoU with Kazakhstan and a stake in an oil field, wants closer ties, Indian officials said, adding that an India Study Centre was opened at the Kazakh Humanitarian and Juridical University in Astana last month.

Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna began a visit Astana yesterday to expand bilateral ties and take forward the Nazarbayev-Manmohan meeting.

Photo by Flickr user Elsie esq., used under a Creative Commons license.

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