Central Asia Steps Up Its Regional Diplomacy
Uzbekistan hosts two major summits this week with consequences for neighboring South Asia, particularly Afghanistan.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Central Asia increasingly plays a role in South Asia’s geopolitics, ominous signs emerge in Sri Lanka even as protests subside, and the United States makes slow progress toward releasing frozen Afghan bank assets.
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Why Central Asia Matters for South Asia
This week, Uzbekistan has hosted two major summits with consequences for South Asia. The first was an international conference on Afghanistan held on Monday and Tuesday. And now, the foreign ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a multilateral group that aims to promote stability across Eurasia—have gathered in Tashkent, the capital, for a meeting on Thursday and Friday focused on regional peace and security and global inflation.
The Afghanistan conference produced few tangible initiatives, but it did bring nearly 30 countries together to engage with the Taliban. The SCO meeting, which concludes Friday, is expected to pave the way for a leaders’ summit in Tashkent in September. The SCO meeting also brought Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, to the same table for the first time. Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Jamshid Khodjaev was also scheduled to visit India this week.
Each of these events underscores how Central Asia has emerged as a major factor in South Asia’s own geopolitics. The region affects South Asia in several key ways.
First, as this week’s meetings demonstrate, some Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have emerged as key diplomatic players. In recent years, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have held conferences on Afghanistan and hosted Taliban delegations. Central Asian states overlap in multiple groups with South Asian members, including the SCO—which added India and Pakistan in 2017—and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, an Afghanistan-focused entity.
Second, Central Asia has a major geographical impact on South Asia. Three Central Asian states border Afghanistan. The region serves as a gateway to Russia and to the Middle East, both of which are critical areas for many South Asian states. As I’ve covered before, Russia has good relations with most governments in the region—not just India—and many have refrained from criticizing its invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Middle East is a key source of energy imports, remittances, and other support, especially for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
It makes sense, then, that Central Asia has become a new battleground for India-Pakistan competition, especially because of the region’s oil and gas reserves. India and Pakistan lack sufficient indigenous gas supplies and seek to diversify their sources beyond the Middle East. This year, New Delhi intensified bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with Central Asian states through the launch of the India-Central Asia Summit. Meanwhile, Pakistan has emphasized geoeconomics, including efforts to tighten energy and trade links with Central Asia.
India and Pakistan have each pursued separate initiatives to increase links to Central Asia. India hopes to help develop the port of Chabahar in southern Iran to facilitate trade via Afghanistan. Pakistan aims to cooperate with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan on a new transnational rail project. Central Asian states have their own incentives to boost engagement with India and Pakistan; they seek greater access to each country’s warm-water ports for trade purposes.
But Pakistan may have a leg up on India, for which the most direct land route to Central Asia runs through Pakistani territory. Islamabad typically doesn’t give New Delhi transit trade rights. Undeterred, India has scaled up its presence in Afghanistan, including partially reopening its embassy in Kabul in part to improve access to Central Asia.
Finally, Central Asia—and especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—have emerged as quiet influencers in Taliban-led Afghanistan, which heavily depends on Central Asian energy. Nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan’s electricity is imported from the region, much from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; they could try to use electricity as leverage to push the Taliban to curb terrorist groups with a presence in Afghanistan that threaten them. Additionally, the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front is based in Tajikistan. Taliban forces, with help from allied Tajik militants, are building a new watchtower along the border, raising the risks of tensions.
Shifting geopolitics in South Asia has increased the likelihood that Central Asian states take on a greater diplomatic and commercial role, especially in Afghanistan. Contrary to predictions, China, Russia, and Iran have each taken a cautious approach and limited their footprints in Afghanistan since the United States withdrew troops last year. All this means Central Asia has an opportunity to step up its game. The geopolitics of South Asia shouldn’t just be seen through the familiar lenses of India-China and U.S.-China competition.
What We’re Following
Uneasy calm in Sri Lanka. Anti-government protests subsided in Sri Lanka this week after a new government took office, but its political crisis is still far from over. Last Friday, just days after Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed to succeed former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the military cracked down on protesters, forcing them out of a key demonstration area near the presidential secretariat in Colombo. Wickremesinghe had previously announced a state of emergency and described some protesters as “fascists.”
None of this will endear Wickremesinghe—already unpopular for his ties to the Rajapaksa family—to the Sri Lankan public. Neither will his choices of cabinet ministers, many of whom served in the previous government. With the new government now in place, negotiations are likely to pick up on a much-needed new International Monetary Fund agreement, but Sri Lankans likely won’t take well to the austerity measures that would accompany it.
All this suggests fresh street protests aren’t too far off. Demonstrators could be further triggered after a government spokesperson on Wednesday said that Rajapaksa—currently in Singapore—intends to return to Sri Lanka, although he didn’t indicate when.
More bad news for Pakistan’s government. This week, Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) suffered another political defeat, just days after it lost 15 by-elections in Punjab, its stronghold province. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected the PML-N’s position that its chief minister in Punjab, Hamza Shahbaz, could remain in power without a majority in the provincial assembly; it ordered the opposition-backed Parvez Elahi to replace Shahbaz.
This setback came as a beleaguered Islamabad struggles to rein in soaring inflation and debt. Last Friday, Pakistan’s currency suffered its sharpest weekly drop since 1998. Some analysts are now asking if Pakistan, with twin political and economic crises, could end up like Sri Lanka. That’s unlikely in the near term, especially as Pakistan is close to receiving a new IMF loan to avoid a default. Pakistan’s debt also isn’t as severe as Sri Lanka’s, although nothing can be ruled out further down the road.
Taliban expands crackdown on journalists. Taliban intelligence officials arrested a local radio journalist in Faryab province on Monday, according to local reports, with no reason cited for the arrest. The arrest came days after sources in Nangarhar province reported the beating of a female journalist. The Taliban have routinely arrested and interrogated journalists since they took over Afghanistan last year. As of May, 6,000 journalists had lost their jobs and nearly 300 media outlets had shut down.
Foreign correspondents, including women, have continued to report from Afghanistan and have faced fewer barriers than Afghan media personnel. This makes the experience of FP columnist Lynne O’Donnell all the more concerning: O’Donnell recently visited Afghanistan and was forced by Taliban intelligence agents to tweet apologies for her reporting, which they said was false. It remains to be seen what this could portend for other foreign journalists, but the stakes are high: Afghanistan badly needs free and independent journalism.
Under the Radar
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that U.S. and Taliban officials have “exchanged proposals” for the potential release of nearly $4 billion in Afghan Central Bank assets currently frozen in U.S. banks. But Washington is keen to avoid these funds ending up in the hands of the Taliban regime.
Figuring out how to provide funds to ease Afghanistan’s economic crisis without running afoul of U.S. sanctions on the Taliban has been a major policy challenge for Washington. Some U.S. government discussions focused on how to get overseas assets back into the country but out of reach of the regime. In February, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order to protect $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan bank assets from litigation pursued on behalf of some 9/11 victims’ families to gain access to those funds as compensation.
The news about exchanging proposals is therefore good, but the two sides are far from an agreement, according to Reuters. The United States wants the funds deposited in an independent trust fund outside of Taliban reach, while the Taliban want to control the fund themselves. Washington is unlikely to budge.
A Dhaka Tribune editorial urges unvaccinated Bangladeshis to get their COVID-19 shots. “With recent spikes in cases we are once again reminded that COVID-19 as a threat is still clear and present, and only through cooperation and collective action can we finally leave this virus in the rear-view mirror once and for all,” it argues.
The Print editor D.K. Singh warns that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces big internal challenges, despite its electoral successes: “The BJP is looking like a house in disorder. There are broadly two camps emerging in the ruling party—those who enjoy the blessings of the high command and those who don’t. And the trust deficit between the two is deepening,” he writes.
Journalist Arifa Noor writes for Dawn about the importance of Pakistan’s youth vote, given young people’s demographic dominance. “There have been reports … about the absence of the interest of the youth in the electoral process,” she writes. “But this can change only if the parties want to and will reach out to and motivate the youth.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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