In the framework of India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy, Indian External Affairs Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna flew on Monday to Tajikistan for a two days visit planned to discuss bilateral issues such as trade, energy and counter-terrorism. Received by Tajikistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nizomiddin Zohidov at the Dushanbe International Airport, Krishna described India’s relations with the Central Asian republic as “excellent,” confirming the strategic importance of the Tajik-Indian partnership.
New Delhi’s close cooperation with Dushanbe originates from the late 1990’s, when both India and Tajikistan supported the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Dushanbe provided Indian military advisers with access to the ethnic Tajik leadership of the Northern Alliance, and hosted a medical facility set up by the Indian army to treat injured anti-Taliban resistance fighters at the Farkhor airfield, on Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan. Security ties between the two countries further strengthened after they signed a bilateral defence agreement in 2002.
Based on that deal, India refurbished a Soviet-built airfield at Ayni, 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Dushanbe. The renovation, which cost New Delhi nearly $70 million, included upgrading the runway, and construction of the traffic control tower, hangars and administrative buildings. Indian specialists handed over the refurbished facility to the Tajik defence ministry in 2010, but New Delhi’s support in upgrading the Ayni airfield provoked widespread speculation that India intended to use the facility as its first ever foreign military base.
Although the Indian defence ministry reportedly planned to deploy MiG-29 fighter jets and Mi-17 multi-purpose helicopters at the air base, in January 2011, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohan Zarifi officially launched negotiations with Russia to discuss possible deployment of Russian military at Ayni, ruling out deployment of Indian or American forces. Despite the missed concession of the facility, which would have projected the Indian influence in the heart of Eurasia, New Delhi’s relation with Dushanbe have remained close, being the latter a key ally for India.
Tajikistan occupies in fact a strategically important position in Central Asia, bordering Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan, and being separated from the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir just by the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land in Eastern Afghanistan. Through geopolitical control of Tajikistan, India would therefore have a thorn in Pakistan’s side, especially in case New Delhi would be able to reach an arrangement with Iran on the establishment of an Indo-Persian condominium in Afghanistan, following US withdrawal. From its side, aware of its geopolitical importance for India, Tajikistan may find in New Delhi a potential ally in case of conflict with neighbouring Uzbekistan.
While relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent had been worsening over the years, disputes over natural gas and water supplies have in fact reached a new low after the Tajik government decided to resume the construction of the Rogun hydro-electric power plant, with the world’s biggest dam of 335 meters. The decision triggered a sharp protest from Uzbekistan, who fears losing part of its water flow, vital for its cotton industry. As a countermeasure, citing new contractual commitments of natural gas supplies to China, Tashkent completely cut off its gas supplies to Tajikistan, bringing both countries on the brink of war.
Following Uzbekistan’s recent decision to quit the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Tajikistan’s diplomatic position should strengthen. Nevertheless, the same reasons that brought Tashkent to seek a rapprochement with the United States as a way to counterbalance the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia, may convince the Tajik leadership to seek an even closer partnership with India. However, given the Indo-Chinese rivalry, Tajikistan is likely not to pursue a strategic alliance with India, seeking rather to develop a kind of multivector policy similar to the one pursued by Kazakhstan, but whose limits are inevitably destined to be challenged by the rise of the Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis.