Next week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pay a state visit to Central Asian countries, followed by his attending an Asian summit with China and Russia. Modi-watchers will enjoy watching him display an ability to oppose ISIS, charm Islamic nations, and maneuver with Asia’s powers.
According to “The Hindu,” in an eight day trip Modi will visit Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (also known as “the Stans”). He will discuss counter-terrorism cooperation, as those states gear up to battle the rise of ISIS.
Interestingly, after that, he has another destination. Russia is hosting summits of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Modi will attend.
What does all this long list of countries signify?
First, those Central Asian countries may face an increasing problem with ISIS recruiting. And, they have long faced risks of jihadist terrorism (much as Afghanistan did). Modi can offer cooperation in their efforts.
There is an unstated message here. Modi’s BJP party includes a faction of hard-line Hindu nationalism unfriendly to Islam. This hard-line stance applies differently to the Moslem community in India, to Pakistan as a state, and, to how Pakistan’s own ISI (intelligence service) backs Islamic terrorism. So, Modi faces an ongoing challenge within his own party to show tangibly to that hard-line faction. He must show that he has not forgotten their electoral support, on the one hand, while trying also to show the Moslem community in India, and the Islamic nations of the world, that his administration, and he himself, are not extremist.
What better way to balance these needs, than this tour of Islamic Central Asia? On the one hand, he engages in friendly constructive relations with the Central Asian states, showing he is not an extreme Hindu nationalist. On the other hand, he cooperates with those nations to combat jihadist terrorism, mollifying those in his party?
On a different note, the trip has a little of the flavor of how the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, conducts tours to advance China’s tapping of natural resources abroad. Perhaps Modi could try to arrange development cooperation the same way. For example, these countries have vast reserves of natural gas. There have long been discussions of international pipelines in this region. By substituting their natural gas for India’s own coal, India could advance its economy while controlling, a little, its enormous projected contribution to global warming.
And, the end of the trip, to the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, matters greatly. There is too little awareness in the United States of the SCO. It is China’s way to build political and economic relationships with Central Asia – with Russia alongside it, benign and not jealous, as this proceeds. Take an example that America knows well – Afghanistan – which I visited for the Commission on Wartime Contracting in 2011. As the United States inevitably winds down its involvement in the years and decades to come, Afghanistan may shift more into the sphere of China and Russia. The Shanghai organization provides the smooth path for that kind of shift.
India is only an “observer,” not a full member, of the SCO. But, having Modi come renders the status of “observer” obsolete. Modi’s is signaling that India has different forums and ways to relate to China. The nations are still at odds over their own territorial dispute, and, over China’s assertions of power in the South China Sea. But, on the other hand, India can take part in a more China-friendly discussion at the SCO about Central Asian development. So, Modi shows China he has access to both sticks, and carrots.
There is always the question of how all this will strike Pakistan. Will it feel that Modi is isolating it? For years we have seen in Afghanistan plenty of evidence that Pakistan intensely dislikes Indian efforts to build a connection with Afghanistan that will counter Pakistan (especially when the United States winds down its involvement).