Modi heads for Central Asia; energy, connectivity, anti-terror on agenda


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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the five ‘stans” of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — next week will see energy security high on the agenda plus talks on the North-South connectivity corridor that will give India access to the resource-rich region and beyond.

Forming a joint front against emerging extremist and terror threats would also figure high on the agenda for the talks, sources here said.

Modi, who is to visit the five Central Asian republics and Ufa in Russia for the BRICS and SCO summit, will be on an eight-day tour from July 6 to 13. He wiill visit Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan ahead of the July 8-10 back-to-back BRICS and SCO summits.

Modi’s visit would help in re-engagement with a resource-rich region that India has not really engaged with but where China has fast spread its reach through major infrastructure projects, like pipelines, and with unfolding plans like the ‘One Belt, One Road’ economic linkage project.

The five countries are part of the old Silk Road, the ancient trade route through which not only silks and spices were ferried but was also a pathway for exchange of ideas, art, architecture and spiritual beliefs.

The five land-locked countries, once part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, are very keen on Modi’s visit — as their envoys mentioned during a talk earlier this week.

Prime ministerial visits to the region have been few and far between, with the last visit being by Manmohan Singh who barely stopped over at Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2011 while on way back from Sanya, China, where he attended the BRICS summit.

For the five republics, relations with India would prove to be a balancing factor, with both China and Russia pushing to gain more influence and firmer foothold.

Talks during Modi’s visit would also focus on terrorism, which is a common concern, and tackling the rising influence of the Islamic State terror group. Over 1,500 youth from the region are reported to have joined the jihadist organization and are fighting in Syria and Iraq. The five countries, which follow moderate Islam and are secular in nature, are concerned about the spread of the Islamic State’s influence among its youth.

In Kazakhstan, where Modi would visit July 7-8, talks would largely focus on energy cooperation and uranium mining. Modi’s visit to capital Almaty would coincide with the first drilling for oil in the Satpayev block, in which India has 25 percent stake. ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) — the overseas arm of state-run ONGC — had in 2011 picked up 25 percent stake in the Satpayev oil block in the North Caspian Sea.

Both sides are set to ink a major agreement for joint exploration and mining of uranium in Kazakhstan, which has the world’s largest uranium reserves. Cooperation in the field of expanding the country’s 15,000-km railways track is also on the anvil.

In Uzbekistan, where the prime minister visits first, the talks are expected to focus on joint ventures, besides boosting trade.

In Turkmenistan, the $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline project would top Modi’s agenda during his July 10-11 visit to Ashgabat.

The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, which is gathering speed after many years of no movement, is expected to bring Turkmen natural gas from its giant Dauletabad and Galkynysh gas fields to Pakistan and India.

The legal framework for the pipeline project would be finalized by September after which the consortiums are to be announced. The project is expected to take off in December, according to the country’s envoy here Parakhat H. Durdyev.

Fertilisers is another major area of cooperation between the two countries. India is to set up a urea manufacturing unit in Turkmenistan. Later, a potash manufacturing unit would also be set up in the country, Durdyev sad.

Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are keen to have India on board the CASA 1000 project, under which the hydropower energy of the two countries can be tapped. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are rich in water sources cascading from the mountain ranges.

Both the countries are also keen to see the North South Transport Corridor kick off. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the corridor project, a multi-modal corridor project which aims to connect Mumbai with St. Petersburg in Russia, while touching Iran’s Bandar Abbas port.

Kazakhstan is also a member of the corridor project, which has held two dry runs, including one last year.

The five countries are also looking for Iran’s Chabahar port to be upgraded fast by India and made operational, so that connectivity to their region could be boosted.

The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme — under which India carries out capacity building training programmes in recipient countries for their people — is also much sought after by the five Central Asian republics.