India and Pakistan’s foreign policy battle in Uzbekistan
by Joe Mawer
India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads since their independence. From 1947, there have been four wars between the two countries over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In modern times this conflict can be seen in the competitive foreign policies that both countries have adopted in Central Asia. Context in this situation is really important as other countries’ involvement in Central Asia is far greater. China is vastly outspending India and Pakistan, with plans to link up Central Asia with the ocean. There is a plan to construct a railway between Urumqi in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan. China also has had a role financing infrastructure within Uzbekistan with the Belt and Road Initiative. This has resulted in Uzbekistan having more high speed rail than America. At a recent meeting between all five Central Asian nations and China, Uzbekistan reinforced its need for the railway line with Xinjiang. Russia also has lots of influence over the region, with military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Russian military were also involved in protecting the Kazakh regime in the recent protests there. Also, the spectre of Russian imperialism hangs over Uzbekistan as many of the problems that the Soviet Union caused in the region remain, most notably the Aral Sea, which shrunk to being almost non-existent. Turkey, South Korea, and Germany also have very close relationships to the region as they have ethnic connections there. This shows that whilst India and Pakistan are both significantly increasing their involvement in Uzbekistan and Central Asia, they are not delivering the same level of involvement as other nations. However, it is still important to look at these relationships as India is considered by some to be a rising global power and Pakistan is also a major regional player.
The best example of the foreign policy competition between India and Pakistan in Central Asia is in Uzbekistan. India historically had strong relations with Uzbekistan before the period of Russian colonisation. The two countries have many cultural ties, with shared food such as Samsa/Samosa and the Tandoor oven that is used for cooking. Much of the culture was shared through traders travelling through Central Asia on the legendary Silk Road. In recent years, India has focussed on the rebuilding of relations with the Central Asian nations and to do this India have used slogans such as ‘Look East’, ‘Gujral Doctrine’, ‘Extended Neighbourhood’ and ‘Connect Central Asia’. Uzbekistan has reciprocated with a visit by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan, to India in 2018. On this visit there were numerous deals agreed. The main way that India is trying to compete for influence in Central Asia is through proposed road and rail links that would connect the Iranian port city of Chabahar with Central Asia and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is one of two doubly landlocked countries in the world, meaning that to get to the sea, Uzbek goods have to pass through at least one other landlocked country. One of the reasons that many industries have not moved to Uzbekistan despite cheap labour, a young, well-educated population and massive amounts of natural resources, is that it is very difficult to transport goods to and from the region. This plan will mean that Uzbek goods can travel round the world far easier and will make Uzbekistan a far export led nation. This will not just be in natural resources and cotton, which the Uzbek economy is currently based on, but other industries such as pharmaceuticals. Indian- Uzbek economic relations have boomed with $442.6 million of trade turnover being done between the two nations in 2020, increasing from only $87 million in 2019. Part of this relationship is India helping to diversify the Uzbek economy with many skills being exchanged with India helping Uzbek universities. The move to be closer to Uzbekistan is also strategic for India as it sees itself bordering the Central Asian region. The disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, which India claims all of, has a 330km border with Afghanistan. This means that India sees the instability occurring in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban getting into power as a problem for India, even though it doesn’t affect them domestically at this present moment. Making the security relationship closer means that India’s foreign policy push does not just affect one strand of the relationship, but has a more all-encompassing effect. Due to this, India has become far more interested in Uzbekistan as a regional peacemaker. This is a position that Uzbekistan has portrayed itself in since the death of former President Islam Karimov, with agreements over contentious borders and increased infrastructure with bordering countries being built. India has gotten involved in Afghanistan by supporting the Tajik efforts to combat the Taliban. Moreover, both India and Uzbekistan are in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), which is a Chinese led security organisation and, in 2019, they signed an agreement that meant that they completed joint exercises which involved counter insurgency and counter terrorism.
Pakistan has also tried to improve relations with Central Asia. The relationships that have been building between Pakistan and Central Asia have built a connection with this region focussed on infrastructure. Pakistan and Uzbekistan have had a closer relationship since independence, as Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognise Uzbekistan’s independence from the USSR. Pakistan also shares the cultural similarities with Uzbekistan, such as a shared Islamic faith, similar food, and architecture. India’s interest in Uzbekistan, on the contrary, has been far more recent. At present, Uzbekistan and Pakistan have had a close relationship, especially with Pakistan trying to court them. This is highlighted by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stating that ‘I know more about the history of Uzbekistan than most people in Uzbekistan’ at the recent Uzbekistan-Pakistan summit. The best example of direct foreign policy competition between India and Pakistan is working with Central Asia to improve trade access to the oceans and therefore into global markets that these countries have never had access to before. Mubeen Adnan and Bushra Fatima highlight Pakistan’s geopolitical advantageous position as ‘For Central Asian Republics, the shortest sea route is the Arabian Sea through seaports of Pakistan. Central Asia can access this port by rail as well as by road link to Gwadar Port.’ It is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is a major part of the Pakistani plan for industrial development. By including Central Asia, it means that this plan will not only affect the bilateral relations between China and Pakistan, which are necessary for Pakistan in countering the effects of India, but it spreads its economic and diplomatic impact far wider. This though has not been embraced as much by Central Asian nations as they would have done before as it makes India far more active with the region in pushing a different route. Moreover, this has also come at a cost for Pakistan as in return for Afghanistan to allow access to Central Asia, Afghanistan now has access to trade with India. Although there have been very positive noises coming from many high- ranking members of the Pakistani armed forces, there have not been joint military drills like India has had. Like Pakistan, Uzbekistan has also had troubles with Islamic extremism over the years. The Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU), have committed several terrorist atrocities in Central Asia and once even operated out of the FATA region of Pakistan for a period of time. Overall, although Pakistan has been strengthening relations in Central Asia, it has fallen behind India in terms of strategic importance for Uzbekistan. This is partially due to Pakistan’s smaller size, as India has a far larger population and markets. This is shown with Pakistani businesses only investing $35.5 million in the country. Pakistan is still an important ally, however they are not providing the same level of economic support as India.
This shows that in the global world that we live in, regional conflicts have become globalised. This though is not necessarily a bad thing in the case of Uzbekistan as it is benefitting other countries who are receiving increased investment because of this. It is also important to remember that Uzbekistan has agency and is not simply a pawn in this geopolitical game. Countries such as India and Pakistan are used to offset the impact that far larger investors, such as China and Russia have on them. Consequently, Uzbekistan’s has not had to make the concessions that its neighbours such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have had to do. Although India is a somewhat newcomer to Uzbekistan and the Central Asian region, compared to Pakistan, India’s programs are making a larger impact due to the larger investments being made. In terms of security, this has taken less of a strategic importance at the moment due to a period of little terrorist activity within its borders. However, with the Taliban running a country bordering Uzbekistan, this may be an increased priority in the years ahead. It will be interesting to see if the trend of India increasing its influence continues, or whether Pakistan will redouble their efforts in the region and become far more influential than India once again.