(Exclusive):In September 2016, India’s long-standing effort to deepen its strategic relations with Kazakhstan experienced an important breakthrough with an Indian-Kazakhstan joint military exercise conducted on Kazakh soil. The energy-rich regional giant is the key to India’s flagging “Connect Central Asia” policy that has placed its primary focus on the three post-Soviet republics that border China.
Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summer 2015 tour of the five Central Asian republics signaled New Delhi’s commitment to promote a higher level of strategic engagement in the region, the upgrade in India’s defense relationship with Kazakhstan is due primarily to the visionary foreign policy of its long-serving leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev. While the Kazakh president is likely to continue to deepen the level of his cooperation with New Delhi, the future of Kazakhstan’s strategic relationship with India may now rest on the success of the aging Nazarbayev’s bold domestic initiative to transfer power to the Kazakh parliament before he leaves the political scene.
On 25 January 2017, President Nazarbayev made a landmark televised address to the nation announcing a constitutional reform process that would devolve several powers of the presidency onto the country’s parliament. The 76 year old president has served for over a quarter of a century as the first and only head of state of the Central Asian republic located in the strategic heart of the Eurasian continent.
Spanning the western border of China and the eastern borders of Russia, Kazakhstan’s economic and security relationships play a strong role in defining the contours of Eurasia’s regional architecture. Kazakhstan’s stability and political autonomy in the post-Nazarbayev era will be key to the preservation of the fragile power equilibrium in the Eurasian landmass between the West, Russia and China. If Astana were to deviate from Nazabayev’s foreign policy orientation, particularly in the event that a power struggle to succeed the president left the triumphant contender beholden to either Moscow or Beijing, then the current relative balance among the global powers would be disrupted, with either Russia or China enjoying an inordinate advantage in the Eurasian strategic architecture. India’s ability to expand its strategic footprint in Central Asia and become a major actor in Eurasia could be significantly limited by such an outcome.
Nazarbayev’s ‘multi-vectored’ foreign policy for Kazakhstan — its careful three-way balancing among Russia, China, the EU and the United States — has helped maintain a sort of great power equilibrium in Central Asia. To preserve its autonomy and prosperity in the face of new political and economic challenges that began in 2014, Kazakhstan increased its efforts to ‘rebalance Westwards’, offsetting the threat of Russian hard power and of Chinese soft power by deepening its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and economic cooperation with the EU.
Kazakhstan is now turning to its relationship with India, at an unprecedented level, to help contribute to this balance, as indicated by the two-week joint military exercise aptly named Prabal Dostyk (‘Robust Friendship’). Involving a 20-member contingent from the Indian Armed Forces’ 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency exercises were conducted at Kazakhstan’s Spassk Training center in Karaganda from September 3-17, 2016. In addition to the significance of Indian troops operating on Kazakh soil, the exercise contributed to a new level of interoperability created between the Indian and Kazakh militaries.
Russia’s irredentist activities in Ukraine combined with the general revanchist rhetoric emanating from Moscow has continued to alarm Kazakhstan. Five months after the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned the legitimacy of Kazakhstani statehood at Russia’s annual national youth forum in late August 2014. In his speech, which coincided with Kazakhstan’s celebration of its Constitution Day holiday, the Russian president claimed that Kazakhs had no state before the leadership of Nazarbayev. Putin also implied that after Nazarbayev’s passing ‘Kazakhs’ — not Kazakhstan — would be part of the ‘greater Russian world’.
That same year, the precipitous drop in oil prices along with Western sanctions on Russia brought Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon-based economy to a virtual standstill, forcing the country to devalue its currency by 19 per cent in February.
China’s ambition to fill the economic gap in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics has also triggered concern in Kazakhstan and throughout the region. China has already collectively invested well over US$250 billion in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics through its Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. In November 2014, Beijing established a US$40 billion Silk Road infrastructure fund to further finance Chinese investments in Central Asia. While China was once welcomed as an important countervailing economic force to Russia, widespread concern within the Central Asian republics over Chinese economic hegemony has become palpable.
Now in 2017, with a resurgent Russia on one side and the economic juggernaut of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on the other, Nazarbayev is looking to maintain Kazakhstan’s autonomy and ensure its preservation beyond his own tenure.
The 2016 Prabal Dostyk military exercise constitutes marked improvement over the absence of such defense cooperation between New Delhi and Astana. Indeed, the joint India-Kazakh exercise fits into a larger pattern of Astana’s outreach to potential security partners as signified by the long-running, yearly Steppe Eagle exercises conducted by Kazakhstan in conjunction with the United States, the United Kingdom, other NATO members and NATO guests.
In contrast to New Delhi’s deepening security relationship with Astana, New Delhi’s delivery deficit in trade relations with Kazakhstan is quite troubling to those seeking to promote India’s presence in Central Asia. Since the debacle of India’s 2013 loss of an 8.4 percent stake in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field to China, India has failed to gain significant ground in the Kazakh economy. While the 2016 volume of India-Kazakhstan bilateral trade stood $618.4 million, the volume of China-Kazakhstan trade was over ten times larger ($7.9 billion). Russia’s bilateral trade volume surpassed India’s by twenty-fold (about $12.6 billion). Even Kazakhstan’s 2016 individual bilateral trade with each of the EU members Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and the UK was two to eight times that of India’s bilateral trade.
Although Indian policy analyst will point to the geographical barriers to India’s trade with Kazakhstan, it should be noted that Japan’s 2016 $1.1 billion bilateral trade with Kazakhstan was almost double the volume of India’s trade with the Central Asian republic. As India moves to full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2017, New Delhi could find itself constrained by Eurasian commercial framework oriented to the trade interests of Beijing and Moscow.
If New Delhi is to advance the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) as an Indian-driven effort to create a commercial land-sea route for trade between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, it would behoove New Delhi to increase its economic engagement with Kazakhstan. as the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway would constitute a vital link in the INSTC project.
In the figure of President Nazarbayev, Prime Minister Modi has a responsive partner to New Delhi’s commitment to a deeper engagement with Kazakhstan. The Kazakh president is now attempting to ensure a smooth leadership transition and the continuity of his policies by devolving many of the presidency’s authoritarian powers onto the country’s legislature. In his own way, Nursultan Nazarbayev may become a Central Asian version of Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, the 5th century BC leader of the Roman Republic who voluntarily relinquished his near-absolute authority and who served as an exemplar for the first US president George Washington as well as several other founders of modern Western democracy. If Kazakhstan’s political transition succeeds, not only will Nazarbayev rightly be deemed the ‘father of his country’ but he will have made a critical contribution to preserving the overall strategic equilibrium on the Eurasian continent. India’s strategic engagement with Central Asia and its future position within in the SCO may depend on it.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow in the Middle East and Asia at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Follow him @michaeltanchum