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Thursday, June 29, 2006

India: The new Central Asian player

As Central Asia evolves, India is attempting to stake its claim in the region through the establishment of a new air base.

Commentary by Stephen Blank for Eurasianet (29/06/06)

India’s move to establish an air base in Tajikistan is adding a new wrinkle to the geopolitical struggle unfolding in Central Asia. Some of India’s strategic interests coincide with those of the United States, but others appear to encourage stronger Indian-Russian ties. As a result, geopolitics in Central Asia stands to become more complicated.

Reports began circulating in April that the Indian air base at Ayni (also called Farkhor) in Tajikistan was operational. Both Indian and Tajik officials issued immediate denials, but they did admit that India had been renovating the base since 2002. Moreover, Russian sources confirmed that indeed such a base existed and that it was co-located with the Russian air base at Ayni, which is part of Russia’s own determined drive to rebuild its military presence and capabilities in Central Asia.

When fully operational, the Indian base is expected to host between 12-14 MiG-29 fighter bombers, according to various reports. India’s intention to open its first base located on foreign soil was first reported in 2002. At that time, some reports claimed, that the Ayni facility was already operational, and, therefore, could have been used for operations against either Islamic militants operating in Central Asia or Pakistan. Indeed, the origins of this base lie in Pakistan’s closure of its air space to India during their crisis of 2001-02, and India’s resolve to get around this restriction for both its commercial and military aircraft, while also gaining an ability to strike in Pakistan’s rear.

The potential implications of this base go far beyond the Indo-Pakistani rivalry on the subcontinent. First of all, the Ayni base is a tangible manifestation of India’s move to project its power in Central Asia, a policy goal formally enunciated in 2003-04. It not only signifies India’s determination to play a role in Central Asian security, but its genuine ability to do so.

At the same time, the Ayni base represents a major element in India’s efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan, and to enhance New Delhi’s ability to contain Islamic terrorism both in South Asia and Central Asia. India obviously will not accept being confined to an exclusively South Asian geo-strategic role any longer.

But India’s determination to project power throughout Central Asia is not just for military purposes. Access to Central Asian energy is vitally important for India. New Delhi seeks access to Kazakh oil and gas and involvement in "mega-projects," such as a pipeline from Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, and another linking Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. Either or both of these pipelines would substantially improve India’s reliable access to energy supplies, while encouraging better Indo-Pakistani relations.

In addition, India wants to develop a new power grid that integrates Central Asian states with those of the subcontinent, an idea that has received strong backing from the United States of late. While India would use a new grid to enhance its overall economic profile in Central Asia, Washington sees the project as a way to counter the growing economic and political influence of Russia and China in Central Asia.

The importance of India’s Ayni base does not end here. Its appearance suggests that India’s long-standing strategic ties with Russia remain on a sound footing. This, of course, could complicate New Delhi’s power-grid plans, as Moscow is unlikely to be supportive of any project that diminishes its regional political or economic influence. It is unclear how far India is willing to push to realize its power grid plan. In the strategic sphere, India and Russia share a common enemy in Islamic terrorism, and India needs Russian energy as much as Russia needs Indian diplomatic support and arms deals. At present, the US government is maintaining a low-key approach toward India, refraining from applying pressure on New Delhi to make a decision. Indeed, as President George W Bush’s visit to India in April underscored, Washington seems intent on using carrots rather than sticks to sway New Delhi.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see what Pakistan and China make of India’s actions. Pakistan is still turning a blind eye to Taliban organizing in Afghanistan and China is still selling it much weaponry and providing significant diplomatic support. Although both India and Pakistan are observers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is undoubtedly wary of the Indian presence at Ayni. Moreover, Indian policy intellectuals continue to view China as a strategic rival in Central Asia, as well as closer to home. Thus, India’s power-projection ambitions are in a certain sense directed toward China.

Finally, India’s Ayni base helps illustrate one of the ways in which the regional security agenda is being militarized. The proliferation of foreign bases in Central Asia, it ought to be stressed, predates 11 September and the US strategic move into the region. The presence of so many bases is prompting a far-ranging re-evaluation of the region’s geo-strategic importance.

Not only is Moscow ensconced in numerous bases, either through bilateral arrangements or via the Collective Security Treaty Organization, China too is seeking military facilities, reportedly in Kyrgyzstan, and for sure in Uzbekistan. India’s base, seen in this context, is merely the latest example of foreign governments’ thirst for military bases. The base at Ayni tells us that not only is another major player throwing down a marker in the so called new Great Game, the game itself is becoming larger, deeper, and ever more intense.

EurasiaNet (www.eurasianet.org) provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The website presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, utilizing a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region. The aim of EurasiaNet is to promote informed decision making among policy makers, as well as broadening interest in the region among the general public. EurasiaNet is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.
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