foreignpolicy – 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.