Tajikistan President Emomal Rahmon meets with Indian vice president Mohammad Hamid Ansari in Dushanbe.
India has set up a military hospital in southern Tajikistan in an attempt to "further strengthen India's geo-strategic footprint in the crucial Central Asian region," an Indian newspaper has reported. India's vice president visited Dushanbe earlier this week, and the Times of India reported that there are 100 Indian personnel at the air base at Ayni and that "India has quietly airlifted a military hospital, with doctors, paramedics and equipment" to Tajikistan:
India already has over 100 Indian military personnel stationed at the Ayni airbase in Tajikistan, a country that also shares close proximity to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK), as a kind of a "military outpost". The new hospital will serve to further strengthen India's geo-strategic footprint in the crucial Central Asian region.
Defence ministry sources say two of the newly-acquired C-130J "Super Hercules" aircraft of the IAF airlifted medical stores, equipment and 55 personnel over the last month to establish the "India-Tajik Friendship Hospital" in southern Tajikistan.
"The 50-bed hospital will treat both military as well as civilian people," said a source. The setting up of the hospital comes at a time when vice-president Hamid Ansari is on a visit to the landlocked country to further cement the bilateral strategic partnership and well as expand its "Connect Central Asia Policy" to build stronger linkages with the five Central Asian countries.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in New Delhi
Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon has wrapped up an official visit to India, where leaders of the two countries agreed on a "strategic partnership." India has given plenty of signs it intends to be more active in Central Asia, including announcing a "Connect Central Asia" policy this summer, and the joint statement signed by both presidents calls for lots of new cooperation in trade, energy and security.
And what of the hottest issue between the two countries, India's perpetual hope for an air base in Central Asia? Not much, reports the Times of India:
"President Rahmon and I agreed that in view of the broad progress made in our bilateral relations, particularly in defence and security cooperation, we should elevate our relations to a strategic partnership,'' said [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh as he described Tajikistan as a key partner of India in the central Asian region.
Official sources said that the strategic partnership emanated mainly from Tajikistan's fear of the Taliban and the possibility of their comeback in Kabul after the drawdown of international forces in 2014. While there was barely any mention of the Ayni airfield, which India helped rebuilt, the two sides agreed that New Delhi would build a Friendship Hospital in southern Tajikistan for both military and civilian use.
The Indian Express has a bit more on the Friendship Hospital:
[T]he two sides said they agreed to set up an “India-Tajik Friendship Hospital” in Tajikistan.
The U.S. military might rely on India as a way of getting equipment in and out of Afghanistan if Pakistan doesn't cooperate, a senior military official has said. The official, Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Panter, deputy commandant for installations and logistics, testified at a Congressional hearing on Thursday and was asked about the U.S.'s plans if Pakistan doesn't soon start to allow U.S. and NATO supplies to again transit that country. He said India would be part of the solution, according to a report from the Press Trust of India:
"If we can't negotiate or successfully negotiate the reopening of the PAK GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) we have to default and rely on India and the Northern Distribution Network, our increased strat airlift."
India has already been taking up some of Pakistan's slack. ABC News reported in January that as a result of Pakistan's blockade, the Pentagon had started "diverting some cargo from Pakistani ports to Indian ports where the supplies are either flown into Afghanistan or transported northward by train for delivery through one of the NDN routes."
(It's not clear how you would go by train to an NDN route: the only ways northward through India to Afghanistan have to pass through either Pakistan or China, and that is probably not happening.)
Indian analyst M K Bhadrakumar, writing on his blog, suggests that the U.S. is using India either as leverage against Pakistan, or perhaps to transport sensitive equipment with which it doesn't trust Pakistan:
The gate to the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe: what's going on inside?
India is quietly using the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, hosting a contingent of helicopters and fighter jets in cooperation with Russia, an Indian journalist reports. Saurav Jha, writing in World Politics Review (subscription required, but free trial available), while the Tajikistan government has denied that it would allow anyone but Russia to use the base, the truth is otherwise:
However, 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.
Jha also theorizes on why everyone is keeping this quiet: to avoid offending China and Pakistan.
The government, sources said, has now decided to go back to Tajikistan and open a military hospital. The original proposal to revive its presence in Tajikistan was taken a year back, but the defence ministry sat on it. With prodding from the security establishment, sources said efforts are now underway to open a field hospital before winter sets in. At a high level meeting a few days ago, the government decided to speed up the plan, a senior source said.
Sources said an Army team has already completed reconnaissance in Tajikistan and has identified a location outside Dushanbe, the capital city. Army has also identified personnel from its medical corps to set up a 20-bed field hospital. "They are ready to leave on a short notice," the source said.
"The proposal (to open hospital) was first mooted when the Army chief (Gen V K Singh) visited Tajikistan last year. But the entire proposal has been pending with the MoD for a year now," a senior source in the security establishment told TOI. The hospital would cater to both civilians and Tajik military, he said. The Tajik Army has for long been engaged in fighting a bloody insurgency. "So, our hospital would be of great assistance to the Tajik Army," the source said.
It's not clear why, exactly, India decided to accelerate the establishment of this hospital, but the news comes as India's army chief is visiting Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (and not Tajikistan) amid what seems to be a push to increase their presence in Central Asia.
But more intriguingly, almost as an afterthought, the report adds this:
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on a 2009 state visit to India.
The chief of India's army is visiting Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the latest stops in what seems like a growing push by New Delhi to build military relations in Central Asia. IndianDefence.com reports:
Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh, “This proposed visit to Khazakhastan would be recorded as the first for the past 16 years by an Indian Army Chief after General Shankur Roy Chaudhury visited Kazakhstan. As for Uzebekistan, this would be the first time an Army General will be visiting,” he informed.
“The objective of these visits is to develop India’s relationship with the CAR countries,” they went further saying.
The visit will last three days in each country (Singh arrived in Uzbekistan yesterday), which seems substantial. Recall that, after getting pushed aside by Russia in its attempt to set up an air base in Tajikistan, India has regrouped and set up new military arrangements with Tajikiistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. But obviously Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the heavyweights in the region, and I'll be curious to see where this is all heading.
India's Defense Minister AK Antony gets a "traditional bread and honey welcome" in Dushanbe from his Tajikistani counterpart, Sherali Khairyulleov
India's defense minister AK Antony visited Tajikistan this week on his way to Russia, which served as an occasion to revive rumors that India might yet use the Ayni air base near Dushanbe. One would think those rumors would have died once Tajikistan publicly said that India wouldn't be using the base, and that it was negotiating only with Russia on the use of the base. Yet, on Antony's visit he demurred when asked about the base, the Press Trust of India reported:
India, Tajikistan and Russia are in negotiations on the joint use of the Ayni Air Base, close to the Tajik capital Dushanbe which is set to acquire strategic significance after US withdrawal from Afghanistan, sources said here.
Though Defence Minister A K Antony made a technical halt at the Base, on way to Russia he did not divulge whether a trilateral understanding had been reached to develop the base, one of the biggest in Central Asia during his parleys here.
But, sources said that in talks with his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov, the issue, including working out modalities of joint use of the base was discussed.
When asked if India was a partner in the use of the base, Antony merely described Ayni as the best air base in entire Central Asia.
So is India still in the running? Probably not. But some Wikileaks cables shed light on why these rumors refuse to die. One cable, from the embassy in New Delhi in 2007, says that India has an interest in keeping the rumors flowing, in order to send signals to China and Pakistan:
The Indian Army stunt motorcycle team performs in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Mongolia and India are currently performing joint military exercises, as each country is concerned about a rising China, reports Defense News:
Indian and Mongolian troops will hold joint exercises in Mongolia Sept. 15-29, said an Indian Defence Ministry official. Last year, Mongolian troops held joint exercises on Indian soil....
"New Delhi wants to have better ties with the Chinese neighbor with an on eye on containing China," said Mahindra Singh, retired Indian Army major general.
A report in The Diplomat gives a little more context, noting that both sides hope that they can improve trade relations by boosting military cooperation:
An estimated 40 Indian troops will take part in the military exercises, which will focus on counterinsurgency training. Last month, Indian troops took part in the sixth annual Khaan Quest, a week-long Mongolian-hosted joint-training exercise aimed at enhancing cooperation between regional militaries...
The rapid amelioration of Indo-Mongolian security ties was formalized when both countries signed a bilateral defence cooperation agreement during [ Indian President Pratibha] Patil’s visit in July. The pact isn’t overly comprehensive though, as Mongolia remains cautious about getting too cosy with India on defence issues. India, however, seems keen to enhance defence ties rapidly. The rationale behind this is simple—New Delhi believes that it will be more competitive in Mongolia’s lucrative mining and trade sectors if it diversifies its engagement, morphing from investor to strategic partner.
The Torpedo Testing Centre located at Issyk Kul lake in Karakul province, 250 km away from the capital Bishkek, is considered one of the best locations to launch and recover torpedoes fired during test trials.
“The facility was visited by Defence Minister A.K. Antony a few months ago. 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,” DRDO Chief Controller William Selvamurthy told PTI.
To develop existing infrastructure at the centre, India has proposed to engage local companies with available know how in torpedo technology to co-develop the facility.
“India is willing to develop the Centre to test all kinds of torpedoes such as heavy weight torpedoes and those having thermal navigation system,” Mr. Selvamurthy said.
A top Indian Air Force official visited Tajikistan last week and announced that "India is ready to build and equip a modern hospital for Tajik military officers," Asia Plus reports. When we used to discuss India's military and Tajikistan it was about the prospect of India setting up an airbase at Ayni. But Russia appears to have put the kibosh on those plans, and Tajikistan officials said that Ayni was not a topic of discussion during the Indian delegation's visit:
Tajik Foreign Ministry said current visit of India’s top military officials to Tajikistan is not connected to possible transfer of Tajikistan’s Ayni military airdrome to India.
Davlat Nazriev, Head of the Tajik Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, said this issue will not be discussed during India’s top air force officials visit to Tajikistan.
Setting up a military hospital, though, seems to be in line with the Indian military's new soft power strategy in Central Asia. A few weeks ago, India's defense minister announced that the country would be establishing a high-altitude military research center in Kyrgyzstan, as well as to begin training Kyrgyzstan's soldiers for United Nations peacekeeping missions. That seems to be a smart tack for India: they'll build relationships with the region's militaries without provoking Russia into reacting against them. It's not as splashy as an airbase, but in the long run it will probably be more productive for them.