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Forging new bonds

Almost two months after returning from a meandering journey that took him to China, South Korea and Mongolia, Indian Premier Narendra Modi begins another hectic overseas tour on Monday in which he is slated to visit five Central Asian countries, attend two strategically important multilateral summits in Russia and talk about issues as diverse as trade to yoga.In a series of short trips, Modi will touch down in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, covering a cluster of strategically-positioned, fossil fuel-rich nations not far from India’s borders where China has established robust trade and investment ties. In between, he’ll visit Russia for the annual Brics summit.Modi’s main focus is going to be energy: Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, for instance, and Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium. 

In recent years, India’s plans to invest in Kazakhstan’s oil projects have been waylaid by proposals from China, which has a major presence in the country’s oil and gas production.Efforts to ramp-up the flow of these key resources to India have also been complicated by the region’s security risks and geopolitics. A long-pending project with Turkmenistan, for instance, involves constructing a gas pipeline from that country over Taliban-hit Afghanistan and across India’s rival neighbor Pakistan, to India.The Indian government is looking to kickstart work on the pipeline. In April, during a visit by India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, Turkmenistan pledged to begin construction of it this year. It seems clear that India, along with Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia, would be made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) unless there is a last-minute political hitch. 

Prime Minister Modi will be attending the Ufa Summit of the six-nation SCO, an emerging  but powerful multilateral organization, right after the BRICS Summit. Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had attended the BRICS and SCO summits in Yekaterinburg in 2009, albeit as an Observer. Unless Modi has been assured of full SCO membership for India, he would not have agreed to stay back after the BRICS Summit.It’s not just the pipeline. Modi is hoping to push through other infrastructure projects too that would connect Central Asia to India – regions that are not far apart on the map but have remained inadequately linked by roads, railways and ports, diminishing opportunities for trade and investment. India is keen for the value of imports from Uzbekistan, which are currently low, to increase. 

This is because it wants to import some of Uzbekistan’s uranium to help power 10 nuclear reactors eligible for imported fuel.During a visit to India by Vladimir Shkolnik, Kazakhstan’s minister of energy, in June, the two countries agreed to explore the possibility of linking the new railway between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to the International <g data-gr-id="48">North South</g> Transport Corridor that will connect India with Central Asian countries among others.A North-South transport corridor that would help move cargo through a more straightforward and cheaper route between Russia and Central Asia on the one hand and India on the other has been in the offing for years. While some infrastructure has been built, big gaps remain. India is hoping to recruit more partners to help fill them.Both India and Tajikistan think the trade between them should be greater, but the lack of a surface transport corridor between the two constrains their ability to interact more.One crucial link country in this long-term foreign policy thrust is Iran, which has been off limits because of Western sanctions aimed at driving Tehran to end its nuclear program. 

As Iran and its U.S.-led opponents moved toward a deal this year that would end the deadlock, India in May sought to reinvigorate a port project in Iran’s eastern Chabahar region. Once completed, the port would become a central and vital part of the planned corridor.These questions of connectivity are important for India’s trade prospects, but they also have immense geopolitical  significance. This week, he will meet Chinese leaders during the Brics summit in the Russian city of Ufa, where the leaders will discuss, among other regional and global issues, their recently-formed bank. The New Development Bank as it is being called is headquartered in Shanghai and will have an Indian banker as its first head.This trip of his promises to unleash the huge potential of ties between India and Central Asia and also resolves some glaring bottlenecks.
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