Shift To The Centre

A Central Asian giant larger than Western Europe, Kazakhstan is friendly with all its neighbours, especially Russia and China. Yet it is keen to further expand its influence throughout Asia, which, Wilder Alejandro Sanchez believes, could be good news for India

India and Kazakhstan – the third and fourth biggest nations in Asia respectively –have seen their diplomatic ties increase in significance this century.Now, should both governments decide that this relationship deserves to be a priority, the two countries have much to gain from each other on other levels too.

Kazakhstan will hold a presidential election in June but there is little doubt in my mind as to who will win. I believe that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will continue in his role as leader. His predecessor, the former first secretary of the Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected in 2015 with 98 per cent of the vote. He resigned last month, endorsing Mr Tokayev to take over. Voters are likely to support political continuity and elections in Kazakhstan are far less hotly fought than those in India.

Meeting Modi

Assuming he wins the vote in June, Mr Tokayev could meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon afterwards, if the two leaders participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Bishkek.

Trade between India and Kazakhstan reached USD$1.2 billion in 2018, a new record for the two nations. Indeed, Kazakhstan is India’s major trading partner in Central Asia and the two governments have enjoyed cordial relations in terms of diplomacy, defence (including joint peacekeeping operations), trade and people-to-people interactions since the Central Asian nation gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

India’s exports to Kazakhstan include coffee, tobacco and rubber, while Kazakhstan’s exports to India are mostly uranium, oil and steel.

Both governments have maintained a pro-trade policy and Kazakh Invest – a company that was founded to promote sustainable socio-economic development in Kazakhstan by inviting foreign investment in priority sectors– helped to organise a forum in Kolkata in early April to attract Eastern Indian investment.

Trade between the two countries could grow even more in the coming years, should India and the Eurasian Economic Union – of which Kazakhstan is a member – sign a free trade agreement.

Diplomatic friends

Diplomatically speaking, New Delhi and Bombay enjoy cordial high-level relations. For example, former longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev visited India in 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2009. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kazakhstan in July 2018. One important deal that came out of the visit was an agreement through which Kazakhstan will continue to provide uranium to India.

Kazakhstan is India’s major trading partner in Central Asia

As the two countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, their armed forces have carried out joint military exercises, the most recent of which were in Kazakhstan’s Otar region.

Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Kazakhstan in October 2018 and the two sides pledged to increase military-technical cooperation. While no major weapons deals are on the horizon, such agreements are always positive to maintain diplomatic momentum.

There is one particularly important defence-related initiative worth highlighting. Last October Kazakhstan deployed a contingent of 120 troops to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The Kazakhstani company operates as part of the Indian Battalion deployed to Ibl al-Saqi in south-eastern Lebanon. This underscores the close relations between the two militaries.

Furthermore, Indian students and academics travel to Kazakhstan to attend universities, particularly to study medicine. Medical students get on well with their hosts and have even staged celebrations of Diwali in the city of Aktobe, by the Ilek River in Northern Kazakhstan.

Yet despite the healthy trade and diplomatic ties, neither country is the other’s main commercial partner: Kazakhstan’s chieftrading partners are China and Russia, while India’s are the US, UAE and China. In other words, while Kazakhstan would certainly like to tap more into India’s market, the commercial priorities of both countries lie elsewhere, though the situation could change if an EAEU-India free trade agreement is ever signed.

Another area where more progress can be made is tourism. For example, The Astana Times reveals that Kazakhstan received 22,000 tourists from China and India in 2018.

To me that seems quite a limited number and there are surely many more people who would be interested to see this enormous and impressive country and deepen their friendships with its people.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues

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