India’s Central Asia Soft Power
Image Credit: Wikicommons / Deepak

India’s Central Asia Soft Power


After its ambitious plans for an air base in Tajikistan were thwarted, India appears to be reorienting its military strategy in Central Asia toward a more modest, soft power approach.

India began renovating an airfield at Ayni, just outside Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe, in 2004. While it never publicly announced its intentions for the base, Indian press reports said New Delhi planned to station a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets there. It would have been India’s first foreign military base, and a dramatic entrance into the geopolitically volatile Central Asian region.

Indian analysts have spoken about the base’s opening in grand terms. ‘Once called the white elephant of Asia, India’s strategic aspirations have now finally come of age,’ wrote Shiv Aroor, an Indian journalist who obtained classified information about India’s plans in 2007. ‘The country’s first military base in a foreign country will be declared ready for use next month…Bare minutes from Tajikistan’s border with war-torn Afghanistan, the base gives India a footprint for the first time ever in the region’s troubled history.’

In 2001, India set up a small field hospital in Farkhor, Tajikistan, just two kilometres from the border with Afghanistan, to treat the Northern Alliance fighters India was backing against the Pakistan-supported Taliban. But the US defeat of the Taliban obviated the need for that facility, and India was thought to be seeking a way to strategically balance Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.

Work by Indian engineers at Ayni continued at least through last year, and has included renovations of the airfield’s runways and hangars. India reportedly spent $70 million on the base. But at the end of last year, Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi announced that the country was negotiating with Russia – and no one else – over the use of the air base.

Tajikistan is heavily dependent on Russian aid, and its fragile economy is kept afloat by remittances from Tajik labour migrants in Russia. Moscow has used that as a form of leverage over Dushanbe, occasionally threatening to restrict visas for the labour migrants if it doesn’t get its way in Tajikistan. And it’s a widespread – though uncorroborated – belief in Tajikistan that Russia pressured the government to not allow India to use the base. Some believe that Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, never intended to allow India to use the base but used New Delhi’s interest as a bargaining chip with Russia: Now that Russia is the only apparent candidate for Ayni, Rahmon is demanding that Russia, which uses other military bases in the country at no charge, start to pay rent on them.

And last month, when a top Indian Air Force officer, Air Marshal Kishen Kumar Nakhor, visited Dushanbe, Tajikistan foreign ministry officials said ahead of time that the issue of Ayni wouldn’t even be on the table.

Since that setback, though, India has shown signs of changing tack in its military outreach strategy in Central Asia. During Nakhor’s visit to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s defence ministry announced that India would build and equip a hospital for Tajikistan’s military officers. And in July, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and announced plans to open a joint high-altitude military research centre there, as well as an initiative to train Kyrgyzstani soldiers to serve in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Those may seem like unimpressive efforts, especially compared with the prestige of a foreign airbase, and indeed they do seem to signal a reduction in ambition. But unlike the air base, they are likely to bear fruit. India, which has a long history of military ties with the Soviet Union and Russia, doesn’t set off the same alarm bells in the Kremlin as does the United States, whose military forays into Central Asia have been steadfastly opposed by Russia. But even so, the prospect of an Indian air base in what Russia considers to be its sphere of influence was a bridge too far.

Russia still wields considerable influence in Central Asian capitals and especially in the region’s militaries. But lower-profile initiatives like military hospitals and research centres will allow Indian military officers to build relationships with their Central Asian counterparts in a manner less threatening to Russia. This may not cause the same splash as an airbase, but in the long run, it’s more likely to be successful. 

December 11, 2011 at 01:05

Dear Huang,
By “50 centers” Rictal is talking about something else. It is well known that China keeps a huge army of paid Authers, Internet hackers etc. Some authers are paid 50 Cents to write an article and they are called 50 centers. If you do’nt know about it, then you are obviously not one of them.

October 2, 2011 at 05:28

@ ozivan…good job!

pradeep singh
September 17, 2011 at 00:41

it;s the matter of time today china is capable tommoro india will be capable but one thing you all should know(china) india is king and it will be king no one can stop india! mind it…

September 15, 2011 at 13:38

“50centers”? What the hell is this center? Center of what? Making truthful remarks clarifying some of the misleading statements meant to deceive the readers about China is considered a CCP. Wake up! yelling “Democracy,freedom,human-rights”does NOT mean one is seeking for better political environment in China-the true effects will automatically be counter-productive and harmful to China’s gradual developnments. The West understands this reality no less than the Chinese Communist Party in rushing for a quick and destructive change. A valuable insight for those still foolishly uttering Democracy without any REAL knowlegde of how it works from one environment to the next by blindly demonizing China’s Socialism with Chinese Charactistics as evil or bad. Good or bad,time will tell. Right or wrong,time will be the judge of that.

September 10, 2011 at 13:19

India’s neighbours are trembling in this non-threatening threats.

September 9, 2011 at 19:47

@Huang. India has the right to aspire to any heights or dream to become a world super power. How she handles her people is entirely her own affair, something that is often sensitive without us understanding their history.

What is more important is that in her pursuit of excellence and development, she doesn’t harm others. And to date, India has not displayed any threatening behaviour.

From a Chinese to another Chinese, if you’re one.

September 9, 2011 at 19:30

I think it’s more because the Indians and Chinese bloggers realised that it’s pointless that we are at each other throats and being played against one and another. Some articles are written by some authors that are often slanted to stir dissensions amongst us.

If we can keep the peace, then it’s good. Of course, ocassionally we still get a stray commentator who disturbs the peace.

To them, I urge them to join the ” Indians & Chinese treat each other with respect and courtesy ” movement. It is my hope that any failings, accidents, mishaps, misfortunes etc in China or India should be treated with empathy and understanding by each side.

Morass Rictal
September 7, 2011 at 17:47

I don’t see too many Indian analysts / punters here on this thread.
Hmmm … guess they are all scared off by the CCP’s 50 centers.
Good … at least someone knows how to do their job right.
No point for guessing, who that is. LOL!
GO, 50 centers! Tell us more! We are all ears! Tell us more!

September 7, 2011 at 11:16

Sounds like “India has a dream!” that one day it will rule the World. “India has a big dream” that one day its dreamers(status hungry few with much to learn about the REAL World)will treat the people of the World the way they treat their so-called lower class. “India has a banana dream” that one day it will the World’s number one super soft power. Wake Up man! before someone wake you up and it would not be pleasant at all.

September 6, 2011 at 05:42

It is an absolute disgrace. India should spend 150% of its GDP on defence. Wherever it exceeds India’s GDP, we should borrow on the international markets, look how the USA supports its defence forces and its many super aircraft carriers. In that regard, India can borrow up to 2 trillion US$ each year. After that, we can still collect enough for arms from our dalits, instead of eating 2 meals a day, they can eat half a meal each day and the rest of the money can all go to buy foreign arms, the Lockheeds, the BAEs, and the Dassaults.

No wonder India is the world’s greatest democracy and its greatest super duper power. The rest of you, just like Greece are panicking. But, there is no need of that, no worry at all. PIIGS, Bordello, Chinks, Old Prussia, and Yankees, all, come to sugar daddy, India; we are willing to rush to your help! India shines while the world declines. Our prime minister has already pledged $300Billion US dollars of aid, virtually every single drop of dollars in our coffers. All we need is a few collection of the medieval castles on the Rhine and the Hudson equipped with the splendors of the ancient shining armor that stands no chance of a Hindi snake pipe warrior. Or better yet, sell BMWer to us for a song, that is, an Internet song. Also get Louis Vuitton, Old Spice, and Ford thrown in, just like our Jag. Our saved 5 rupee meals will be splendid enough to keep you all employed, after multiplying them by 1.2 billion.

With Indian democracy, nobody needs to worry, it’s sunshine everyday, everything can be overcome, and nothing cannot be done. Pray for India, submit to your fate under our Hindu Colossus, beg our 5 rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers.

Jai HInd!

September 5, 2011 at 23:59

Its all about the $$$.
Central Asian economies needs it, India doesn’t have it in spare, yet.
September 5, 2011 at 12:55

Central Asia is extremely important to India as an alternate to its energy security. Currently The Gulf states provide for a bulk of its energy supplies. Given the risk of putting all its eggs in the same basket, India will loose out (or put to ransom)in case there is an emergency situation in the region. Apart from that Central Asia also shares cultural bonds with India and security risks arising from militant Islamist.

Central Asian countries do not feel threatened/intimidated by India due to its economic interests in the region which will benefit both regions.

September 5, 2011 at 05:08

central asia is always focusing on fertility. this is most fertile in every sense.
gift by god
people loving each other

September 5, 2011 at 04:52

i think some thing is better in living realzation. one have 2 suffer initially but longer way u have 2 b awarded ———–

September 5, 2011 at 03:04

So you mean to say that the Russians speak Uzbek, Tajik etc and are all muslims? Or for that matter, do all Chinese speak Tibetan and follow Tibetan buddhism? Get Real, dude. As Churchill put it, A Nation has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Get real
September 4, 2011 at 11:46

What makes Indians think they have a shot at central Asia?
Because central Asians speak Hindi?
Because central Asians are Hindus?

I cannot think of anything else, can you?

This is a serious question.

September 4, 2011 at 02:32

What dreamers the Indian establishment is. What are they thinking? There are pressing problems at home: over 700 million in poverty, people in hunger, internal strife in certain regions, persistent corruption, border issues, etc.; yet, these politicians have dreams of empire. This is absurd!

On a geopolitical level, the Moslem people of Afghanistan people will never take to India playing a political role in their society. Indian presence in Afghanistan is only tolerated because the Americans are there and Karzai is a puppet. One only has to look at the name of that famous range, the Hundu Kush, to see what local sensibilities are to outsiders coming in and meddling. I dare say that the feeling is not much different in the adjacent areas.

But what is troubling is that when India should stick it its knitting, it is pouring millions into a region from which it will be pushed out. Even China, with all its riches and influence, is more circumspect. This venture can only end in failure for India. In the process, it will have prevented India from lifting the lives of the masses of poor. That is the true tragedy.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief