Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov recently drew attention to the great power rivalries in the region by recalling an old saying of the Central Asian steppes: 'A lone man would get eaten by the wolf'. He did not name the predatory wolf, but no one needed to second-guess.
Karimov was explaining the rationale behind the Uzbek decision to forge closer links with Russia and other countries in the post-Soviet space in the recent past, following the souring of relations between Uzbekistan and the United States due to the covert US support of Islamist elements involved in the uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan in the Fergana Valley in May last year.
Karimov put down the Andijan uprising, and, thereafter, summarily evicted the American forces from the Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan. Not surprisingly, Washington remains wedded to an agenda of "regime change" in Uzbekistan. The Western governments and financial institutions have since adopted a policy of isolating Uzbekistan diplomatically and politically.
Therefore, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Tashkent at the present juncture becomes conspicuous as an indulgence in "independent foreign policy".
It comes hardly six or seven weeks after President George W Bush made a stirring call from the ramparts of Purana Qila in Delhi that India should join hands with the US in the spirit of their strategic partnership, in lighting the torch of freedom and democracy in areas of darkness in the contemporary world, such as Central Asia.
Uzbekistan would have every reason to feel gratified that New Delhi has not allowed itself to be influenced by the hostile American policy.
Over the Andijan events in particular, Delhi remained an attentive interlocutor for Tashkent appreciative, even if mutely, of the imperatives of regional stability and security.
But as the prime minister prepares for the visit to Tashkent, the policy makers in Delhi will have to contend with some hard realities on the ground.
To begin with, Indian presence in the region remains thin in comparison with not only major powers like Russia or China but even Turkey, Iran, South Korea etc.
China and Russia are jointly refining the instruments of regional integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which groups the Central Asian countries (minus Turkmenistan). China has pledged $ 900 million for financing SCO projects.
At the same time, Russia is playing the lead role, riveted on an emerging Russian-Kazakh axis, in propelling the Eurasian Economic Community as the main vehicle of integration among the post-Soviet republics. The Eurasian Development Bank that was recently created between Kazakhstan and Russia with a paid-up capital of 1.5 billion dollars is expected to finance the EAEC projects.
The two integration processes SCO and EAEC will acquire a new dynamic in the coming months. They run on parallel tracks and may begin to converge. The SCO summit meeting in Shanghai in June, scheduled to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the regional initiative, could be a turning point.
Russia and China have opted for a policy matrix that dovetails their regional integration processes with their respective bilateral ties with the Central Asian states.
India, in comparison, has hitherto positioned itself outside of these integration processes, looking in. But the aloofness of a benign bystander may no longer suffice as the regional integration processes gain traction.
The Indian prime minister's agenda in Tashkent could conceivably help focus attention on some of these systemic issues hampering India's Central Asia policy.
The potentials of cooperation with Uzbekistan in the energy sector should be engaging the Indian policy makers, but it poses an even greater challenge. Despite much sloganeering, the ground reality is that India has not so far made any significant headway in Central Asia in the energy sector.
Recently, particularly over the past year, Uzbekistan has been casting its net far and wide, seeking out collaborators for prospecting its energy reserves. (Some say Uzbekistan is floating on a sea of oil and natural gas.)
After securing a solid presence in Kazakhstan's energy sector, China has turned attention toward Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. China's moves have been breathtaking.
China has met with considerable success in pursuing a strategy of advancing loans and making investments in the Central Asian countries in developing their economies as a whole, leading to enduring relationships with huge fallouts in the energy sector.
Beijing made its first serious investment in the energy sector in Uzbekistan during Karimov's visit to that country in May. China since followed up with a similar investment offer to Turkmenistan.
After a recent 6-day trip to China, Turkmeninstan President Saparmurat Niazov signed an an agreement on cooperation in energy. Niazov said Turkmenistan hoped to supply 30 to 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China annually from 2009.
China's President Hu Jintao and Niazov also simultaneously signed an agreement on a pipeline project that would bring the gas supplies from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan. Alongside, China is pressing ahead with the construction of a railway line linking Uzbekistan and China's Xinjiang province via Kyrgyzstan.
India in comparison lacks any such grand strategy toward Central Asia. Apart from occasionally conceiving an odd instrument or two of export promotion such as a 5 million or 10 million dollar credit line, India has not shown the willingness to get its feet wet in Central Asia.
Sadly, the region's profound goodwill toward India, which is a legacy of civilisational bonds, and India's immense "soft power" thereof, is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
Uzbekistan, in particular, merits focused attention.
It is a key country, accounting for 40 per cent of the region's population base. It has a scientific and technological base and an advanced level of social formation the legacy of the Soviet era. Nature has endowed Uzbekistan phenomenally with rare earths and minerals, many of them like uranium that are of great interest to India.
Russia produces some 2,900 tonnes of uranium, but the deposits are rapidly dwindling. On the other hand, Uzbekistan, which has extensive reserves of uranium, has been brought into an emerging framework of nuclear partnership with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Uzbekistan would provide Eurasia with "additional long-term possibilities for the building of a stable nuclear fuel energy base".
Russia is in the process of re-establishing the former Soviet nuclear energy bloc in Eurasia. Addressing the EAEC summit meeting in St.Petersburg on February 25, Putin announced that a priority area of collaboration for EAEC would be the "peaceful uses of nuclear energy".
India needs to do some fast thinking if it expects to get a toehold here.
India and Uzbekistan have closely worked together on issues of regional security. The overthrow of the Taliban regime led to a pause, but threat perceptions have resurfaced.
The US has failed to stabilise the Afghan situation. The Taliban is on a comeback trail. The Andijan uprising was perpetrated by extremist elements linked to Afghanistan. Besides, Islamist elements from Uzbekistan are operating out of Pakistan's tribal agencies.
NATO will assume control of Afghanistan in the second half of the year. Uzbekistan has frosty ties with NATO. So far, Karimov has largely succeeded in following a wise policy of insulating his country from the turmoil in Afghanistan. Much would now depend on NATO's effectiveness.
A degree of volatility has appeared lately in the northern Afghan provinces clashes in Faryab, killing of the head of the provincial council in Takhar, uncertainties in Jowzjan, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, etc.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have no difficulty in appreciating the Uzbek concerns that stability and security were core issues of Central Asia's transition; that political transition would have to factor the region's history, culture and traditions; and, that Western style liberal democracy might take a long time if at all to grow in the region's ancient soil.
India has done well to politely listen to the passionate American entreaties over the democracy project in Central Asia and to steer clear of it.
The author is a former Indian Ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998)