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The Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan Rashid Meredov, paid a short visit to India and held talks with India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar. The two leaders discussed bilateral and regional issues. Indian External Affairs Minister said the discussions underlined the strong convergence on regional issues.
Turkmenistan is one of the five Central Asian republics, which got independence in early 1990s from the erstwhile USSR. India considers Central Asia its extended neighbourhood. Turkmenistan’s unique geographical location in the region makes it a pivotal country in inter-regional engagements. The country links South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia together, as it neighbours Afghanistan in south and Iran in the west. Its Central Asian neighbours are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan has a Caspian Sea coast and this provides a gateway to Eurasia and Europe. Improving connectivity has been a priority for Turkmenistan. In 2016, the country built one of the largest airports in the region with a cost of about US$ 2.3 billion.
Demographically, Turkmenistan may be relatively a small country with about 6 million people but it carries significant economic heft. It has the world’s fourth largest confirmed natural gas reserves. It is also rich in oil, sulphur and other minerals. The World Bank estimates its GDP to be around US$ 40.5 billion. The administration of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is trying to diversify the economy and there has been focus on traditional sectors like oil and gas, agriculture, construction, transport and communications as well as on increasing activities in new sectors like chemicals, telecommunications and other high-tech areas. Turkmenistan is also implementing a digital economy programme 2019-2025 in a phased manner.
Turkmenistan pursues the policy of ‘Permanent neutrality’ in its engagement with the world. The policy has also been endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1995. India was a co-sponsor of the Resolution and currently Ashgabat is commemorating its 25th anniversary.
Owing to its unique geographical location and economic prospects, Turkmenistan can play a significant role in India’s engagement with Central Asia. The two countries share deep historical and cultural links spanning millennia. The famed ‘Silk Route’ connected the two civilizations. The links remained strong during the medieval period as saints and scholars from the region came to India. Shah Turkman Bayabani was a famous Sufi saint, who lived in India in 13th century. The famous landmark in Delhi ‘Turkman Gate’ was built in his honour in 17th century. Emperor Akbar’s mentor Bairam Khan was of Turkmen descent.
India and Turkmenistan enjoy cordial political and cultural relations. There has been exchange of visits at the highest political levels. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited India in May 2010. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Turkmenistan in July 2015 and several significant MoUs and agreements were signed. The Traditional Medicine and Yoga Centre was also inaugurated by the Prime Minister during his visit in 2015.
Despite cordial relations and strong people to people perception, the bilateral economic relations have not been to their potential. In 2018-19 the trade was about US$ 66 million. Lack of proper information about available opportunities on both sides and unavailability of direct land transport between India and Central Asia are considered among major hindrances. Instability in Afghanistan has also been a major hurdle in South Asia-Central Asia ties. Both countries converge on bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, recent developments raise prospects of widening bilateral ties. India is investing in Chabahar port of Iran. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan already have a rail link to Iran. Connecting Chabahar port with Iranian rail network will improve India’s connectivity with Turkmenistan and Central Asia. In 2018, India joined the Ashgabat Agreement, which creates an international transport and transit corridor between Iran and Oman from West Asia and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from Central Asia.
Similarly, recently progress has been made on long envisaged Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline. The Sales & Purchase Agreement was signed in 2012. Turkmenistan reported that TAPI construction in its territory is as per the schedule and in 2018 construction in Afghanistan was launched. Indo-Turkmen bilateral ties are set to expand in near future.
Script: Dr. Athar Zafar, Strategic Analyst on CIS