India's Strategic Footprint in Central Asia: Part I

  0 comments   |     by Saurav Jha on April 11 , 2012

India’s engagement with Central Asia on strategic military concerns is gathering pace, with visits by high-ranking Indian defence officials and security cooperation deals underscoring the immense value New Delhi attaches to its growing military relationship with the region. The strengthened Indian presence in the area is driven by New Delhi’s desire not only to protect its emerging investments in Central Asia, but also its interests in Afghanistan after NATO withdraws in 2014.

In both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, India is stepping in to resurrect former Soviet sectors -- military as well as civilian -- in addition to providing much-needed training to organicallygrow a military presence beyond its borders just north of Kashmir. The centrepiece of India’s power-projection activities in Central Asia is the Ayni airbase, just south of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. India began to modernize the base beginning in 2002, but its status since the renovations were completed in 2010 has remained the subject of confusion. Russia reportedly objected to India’s use of the former Soviet base and had entered into negotiations with Tajikistan to use the base itself. Official statements out of Dushanbeseemed to rule out use of the base by IndiaHowever, an Indian official directly involved in renovating the airfield told World Politics Review that an Indian air force contingent, including Indian Mi-17 helicopters and leased Russian fighter jets, is currently deployed to the base under joint Indo-Tajik control. The Russian equipment will be maintained by Russian contractors, creating “a sort of joint control over these assets.” His comments echo recent reports of negotiations between the three parties for joint use of the base.

India has spent almost $70 million, including equipment costs, to completely repave and extend the runway at Ayni, set up air traffic control and perimeter fencing and builds three hardened shelters -- all, the Indian official confirmed, with an eye to supporting fighter-jet operations. That might be the real reason behind Tajikistan’s reticence to officially clarify the status of the base. While Ayni will allow India to watch over northern Afghanistan in the aftermath of a NATO withdrawal, it can also provide coverage for Indian fighter aircraft over northern Pakistan and western China, areas that lack robust air defence networks. Tajik officials might be downplaying their involvement in the base out of deference to Beijing and Islamabad’s sensitivities. 

Anticipation of conditions in Afghanistan following the U.S. and NATO withdrawal also explains the Indian army’s desire to reopen its former 25-bed military hospital at Farkhor on the Tajik-Afghan border. Talks with Tajikistan on the hospital, which served Northern Alliance fighters during the Taliban period, have gathered pace. The hospital will add to the existing personnel-oriented aid that India currently extends to the Tajik army, which includes language and IT training. Tajikistan is also one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Program, which has seen a steady stream of Tajik officers graduate from Indian military academies. India’s experience with counterinsurgency, in particular, is valuable to the Tajik military, which faces terrorist activities that increasingly resemble the civil war of the 1990s. For India, preventing the radicalization of the Tajik army and ensuring stability in the Ferghana Valley are prime considerations. India also wants to ensure the safety of the power-transmission infrastructure that Indian companies are setting up in Tajikistan, which will enable Tajikistan to export hydroelectric power.

Even as India establishes it first military outposts in Tajikistan, it is simultaneously looking to set up a major defence R&D presence in Kyrgyzstan. The former Soviet torpedo-testing facility at Karakol in the eastern corner of Issyk Kul Lake seems set for a big upgrade as part of these plans. According tothe chief controller of India’s Defence Research and Development Organization, “An Indian delegation would be visiting Kyrgyzstan soon to make an assessment of investment needed for the project and the terms and conditions for co-developing it.” India has tested torpedoes in this facility since 1997 and now wants to make it a major station for developing next-generation unmanned underwater systems. 

 The Kyrgyz-Indian Mountain Biomedical Research Centre was also inaugurated in July. The joint venture will initially focus on researching the high-altitude acclimatization of various ethnic groups, but its findings can be applied to enhancing soldier performance at high altitudes and the remediation of mountain diseases -- areas in which India has expended considerable effort since the 1962 Himalayan War with China. Over time the centre may also facilitate the transfer of Indian knowhow in animal husbandry and high-altitude agriculture.

As in Tajikistan, India is also helping the cash-strapped Kyrgyz military with training support. For now, India is set to help prepare Kyrgyz conscripts for U.N. peacekeeping operations by introducing English-language proficiency. But during Kyrgyz Defence Minister Gen. Abibilla Kudaberdiev’s visit to India this year, officials announced that India was willing to further support Kyrgyzstan in strengthening its defence and security capabilities.

Significantly, many of India’s defence-led initiatives clearly go beyond the military realm, aiming to create advanced if modest human-resource pools in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. India’s service-oriented and technologically superior capabilities are highly sought after by many developing countries that find India’s expertise uniquely suited to their own development goals. Rather than initially focusing on big-ticket resource projects, India offers the promise of helping countries incubate modern, technology-intensive sectors and enabling them to bridge the digital divide. Indeed, this capacity has often allowed India to carve out a major domain for itself in the face of China’s greater monetary muscle, as evidenced by developments in Africa, Latin America and even Afghanistan.

India ultimately approaches strategic military cooperation as a corollary to strategic economic cooperation, not as an end in itself. In Central Asia, that approach seems to be bearing fruit.

Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. He can be reached at sjha1618@gmail.com.

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