05 July 2005

India set to take big leap in Central Asian backyard

5 July 2005
The Hindu

India set to take big leap in Central Asian backyard

"SCO will help revive the interflow of ideas and commerce that marked the Silk Route era"

Siddharth Varadarajan

ASTANA (KAZAKHSTAN): When India is formally granted observer status to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Tuesday, it will join the ranks of a forum that is emerging as the principal basis for strategic interaction between Central Asia and the big and medium powers which surround the region.

In remarks to the local press upon his arrival here on Monday, External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh seized upon the significance of China, Russia and India — as well as Iran and Pakistan which also become SCO observers — working together as Asian powers to build linkages across the vast continent. Closer interaction by countries secure in their "Asian identity" would help "revive the intense interflow of ideas and commerce that marked the heyday of the famous Silk Route era," he said.

The historical reference is not without significance, for the Silk Route was the high point of mutually beneficial economic and cultural interaction in an area which outside powers were later to embroil in the "Great Game" and seek to dominate.

"Not a closed alliance''

The SCO was not a closed alliance or union, nor was it directed against any state or power, Zhang Deguang, the forum's secretary-general, told Mr. Singh during a courtesy call. However, the Indian side is well aware of the implications any Asian strategic architecture which excludes the U.S. is bound to have. Senior officials said it was significant that the only country bordering Central Asia not to be represented at the SCO — with the exception of the maverick Central Asian Republic, Turkmenistan — was Afghanistan, which had been invited last year but failed to turn up. With the United States very much in control of the broad contours of the Hamid Karzai Government's external relations, Kabul staying away obviously meant Washington was cool to the idea of the SCO.

Appreciating the role played by the host country of this year's SCO summit, Mr. Singh said India accorded the "highest priority" to developing relations with Kazakhstan and Central Asia. "We have followed with deep interest the proposals of President Nazarbayev for the establishment of a Central Asian Union. This initiative is part of the larger process currently under way in Asia for the creation of an Asian Union... It is in this context that we have shown our interest in participating in the work of the SCO."

Strategic significance

Mr. Singh also met Chinese President Hu Jintao here on Monday. According to a senior Indian official, Mr. Hu said India's participation in the SCO as an observer would enhance friendly relations with all member-countries. In particular, the SCO provided a new platform for enhancing Sino-Indian bilateral relations.

In the context of U.N. reforms, the Chinese President said Beijing favoured the world body devoting more attention to developing countries. China would not become an obstacle to India playing a bigger role in world affairs. As close neighbours and the biggest developing countries, the drawing together of India and China would have a strategic significance far beyond the bilateral, the senior official quoted Mr. Hu as saying.

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