With N-deal in limbo, India turns to Central Asia

March 16th, 2008 - 12:45 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Manish Chand
New Delhi, March 16 (IANS) With the nuclear deal slipping into limbo and the tri-nation pipeline involving Iran heading nowhere, India is set to ramp up its diplomacy in energy-rich Central Asia as Vice-President Hamid Ansari goes to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan next month. Ansari, a former career diplomat, will begin his weeklong visit - his first overseas tour since he became vice-president last year - on April 4, official sources told IANS.

Cooperation in oil and energy sectors is high on the agenda, the sources said.

Ansari’s visit to the two gas-rich countries comes at a time when two of India’s important diplomatic initiatives aimed at ensuring energy security for the country - the India-US civil nuclear deal and the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline - appear headed for an uncertain future.

With China increasing its presence in the region and also entrenching its hold in the oil-rich countries of Africa, India has finally woken up to the huge potential of Central Asia that could emerge as an alternative energy hub of the world.

Ansari’s visit to Turkmenistan will be the first high-level visit to it by an Indian dignitary at this level in a decade and will give India a sense of the currents of change sweeping the Central Asian country following elections last year. The country had retreated into isolation for two long decades under former ruler Saparmurat Niyazov, who had declared himself ‘president for life.’

The visit by Ansari, a former Indian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, follows a meeting of the joint commission here in January that explored ways of deepening cooperation across a broad spectrum of areas, including coal, oil and gas, education, science and technology.

During a visit of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to Turkmenistan last year, the sides firmed up a roadmap to take forward cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector.

Turkmenistan is keen on Indian participation in the production sharing agreement (PSA) in the off-shore Caspian Shelf for oil and gas blocks and service contracts for Indian companies in the on-shore hydrocarbon facilities.

In Kazakhstan, the focus will again be on the hydrocarbon sector with OVL Videsh, the overseas arm of Indian oil major Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) keen on participation in oil blocks. With the tri-nation IPI pipeline still a pipedream, the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline will also be high on the agenda when the two sides hold talks in April.

Kazakhstan could also be important to New Delhi for another reason: it is among the world’s top three producers and suppliers of uranium, along with Australia and Canada.

Ansari’s visit to the two countries will seek to bolster strong historical and cultural ties between India and Central Asia in the context of new opportunities in the energy sector and the larger strategic challenge of countering terrorism in the region which has become a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

India signalled its growing stakes in the region when it participated as an observer at the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes Russia, China and the four Central Asian nations, for the first time in the history of the regional grouping.

India’s diplomatic thrust in the region got a boost after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Uzbekistan two years ago. India has also set up a military base at Ayni in Tajikistan that underscored the strategic dimension of ties between the two sides.

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