A splendid start

PM IN KAZAKHSTAN

The visit by prime minister Manmohan Singh to the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan took place last weekend against a regional setting of great volatility. It is a measure of the skill of Indian statecraft — or its audacity, depending on one’s point of view — that Delhi could plough a sequestered bilateral furrow at all toward Astana impervious to the regional turbulence.

First, the regional setting. A most dramatic happening was the killing last Friday, after a relentless manhunt lasting months in the remote Rasht Valley that forms part of the Pamirs in Tajikistan of the dreaded Islamist leader Mullah Abdulla who had returned to Central Asia from Afghanistan after an absence of a decade with a band of ‘foreign fighters’ trained by al-Qaeda. At one stroke it brought home what a botched-up ‘reconciliation’ of Taliban could mean for the stability and security of Central Asia.

Yet on Saturday, a high-powered delegation comprising Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Gilani, army chief Ashfaq Kayani and ISI head Shuja Pasha arrived in Kabul to explore just how the stalemate in the Afghan war can be turned into a window of opportunity to reintegrate Taliban into Afghan national life.

Indeed, on Saturday, too, North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formalising in Brussels the setting up of a Trust Fund that helps Russia equip Afghan armed forces with military helicopters. The western alliance is willing to spend close to $376.5 million in an enterprise that marks Russia’s ‘return’ to Afghanistan after a gap of 22 years. Quite obviously, the West is ‘co-opting’ Russia into the Afghan war without Moscow having to commit troops or to do any fighting.

Curiously, Russian parliament (Duma) held a hearing in Moscow last week to probe dispassionately whether the Arab spring would have any prospects of arriving on the Central Asian steppes — and what would follow if the pink-and-white tiny spring flowers of the Kizil Kum and Karakum killer deserts bloom in ecstasy.

Quite a plateful of food for thought, in other words, last week held out with regard to Central Asian security. However, what is extraordinary is that the India-Kazakh cogitation in Astana gingerly sidestepped all that stuff which goes into the making of the great game in Central Asia. Manmohan Singh’s visit once again underscored that Delhi prefers to conduct its diplomacy in the Central Asian region as if it never heard of the great game.

Come to think of it, this vector of the Indian regional diplomacy has so far paid dividends. Delhi could husband resources from being squandered in vainglorious projects and keep the mind focused on what mattered to India’s vital interests and to work on them calmly, steadily. Arguably, it wasn’t too difficult to do that, since masterly inactivity comes naturally to Indian diplomacy.

Influence

Singh’s Astana visit signifies that things might be about to change. We’re about to tip our toes into the Caspian oil. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Delhi succeeded in gaining traction for its relationship with one Central Asian capital — Astana. The prime minister’s visit underscores Delhi’s keenness to build on that traction.

India is doing the right thing as Kazakhstan is literally the powerhouse of Central Asia and is gearing up as an influential regional player under a visionary leadership. Most important, what Delhi is eagerly seeking is cooperation in the highly strategic field of nuclear fuel supply.

A report by Nomura International forecasts an impending deficit of uranium ore in the next 5-year period thanks to the global uranium demand growth driven by China, India, Russia and South Korea. From a price of $40 per pound of uranium at present, prices may average about $75 in the coming 5-10 year period.

Kazakhstan holds the world’s second largest uranium reserves, constituting almost one-fifth of the global reserves. In 2010 it produced 18,000 tonnes of uranium and by 2018 that is expected to go up to 30,000 tonnes. Kazakhstan is developing 21 new uranium deposits but is depending on Russia for uranium enrichment. (Russia enjoys 45 per cent of global uranium enrichment capacity). India can integrate into this matrix, given its robust strategic ties with Russia and with ties with Kazakhstan assuming strategic character.

Kazakhstan’s cooperation with China and Japan also offers a blueprint for India. China is already the largest buyer of Kazakh uranium. The two countries recently agreed to trade in 55,000 tonnes of uranium through the coming decade. They created an enterprise in 2009 to produce nuclear fuel. Japanese companies too are developing Kazakh deposits that can produce 1,60,000 tonnes uranium by 2050. Interestingly, Kazakhstan holds a 10 per cent share in Japanese-owned Westinghouse Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of nuclear power reactors.

The joint statement issued after Singh’s talks with Kazakh president Nurusultan Nazarbayev emphasised the “need for expansion of mutually beneficial cooperation” in the nuclear field. “India is going for a fivefold increase in electricity generation through nuclear power plants and up until 2014 Kazakhstan will supply more than 2,000 tonnes of uranium”, Nazarbayev said. That’s a splendid start on a long journey.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s support for India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is timely. The relationship with Kazakhstan can optimally advance if India combines the bilateral track with the SCO track. China met with phenomenal success doing so.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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