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.