A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on October 21. (photo: office of the prime minister of India)
On a visit to Moscow this week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for increased cooperation between his country and Russia in Central Asia. In a speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Singh named Central Asia as the first region in which the two giant countries should cooperate. And he focused on security:
As India revitalizes its historic links with Central Asia, we look forward to working more closely with Russia in the region. Our cooperation can play an important role in advancing peace, stability and economic development in Afghanistan. It can be equally effective in combating the shared challenges of extremism, terrorism and narco-trafficking. Coordination of our policies in this shared neighbourhood has served us both well and we should continue to pursue it more closely in the future.
This is interesting rhetoric, but it's not clear what sort of things Russia and India could do together in Central Asia. Russia has consistently supported India's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (along with that of India's rival, Pakistan). But Russia also effectively forced India out of the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, after India had spent tens of millions of dollars renovating it in the hope that it would become their first military base in Central Asia.
Gate of the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Now that Russia has solidified its control of its military base in Tajikistan, it is looking to expand. A Russian parliamentary delegation in Tajikistan is starting negotiations on use of the Ayni air base, whose future occupancy has been the source of much speculation. As an air base, Ayni would complement the land forces base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division that is based in Tajikistan. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," according to a report in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gaezta, citing Russian government and military officials. Russian officials indicated several months ago that they intended to do this; now it seems like the effort has begun in earnest.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Tajikistan counterpart Emomali Rahmon at the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit last month in Sochi, he promised unspecified "support" of Rahmon in Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. And it was that pledge that prompted the recent moves to ratify the 201st base deal and also to start negotiations on Ayni, Nezavisimaya Gaezta writes.
And Russia considers an air base in the country necessary to support Russian and CSTO military activities in Tajikistan to strengthen the border with Afghanistan, especially since Uzbekistan is refusing to cooperate with Russian efforts in the region and has effectively blockaded Tajikistan.
Asked about the $1 billion Russian military aid package,, Omuraliyev didn't specify exactly what sort of equipment would be given, but said the priority would be in getting equipment that would work together as a system. "For example, there is a need for an air surveillance system, ground surveillance, special operations battle management systems that all make up a single complex and together complement one another," he said. "I can't now say exactly how many tanks, airplanes or helicopters we will get, but I can verify that they will be weapons systems which allow us to significantly strengthen our military capabilities. And he added that the equipment may not be straight off the production line: "We should remember that 'new' could also mean equipment produced earlier but kept in warehouses... which still fulfill current requirements."
This fall Kyrgyzstan will put up for auction its only defense industry of note, the Dastan torpedo factory, and has signaled that it intends to favor Russian investors. The Russian newspaper Kommersant interviewed Kyrgyzstan's foreign minister, Erlan Abdyldaev, and asked about the plant.
Negotiations on the sale of the Dastan plant have been going on for a long time. A commission on the preparation of documents for an investment competition has already been formed. Dastan will be put up for auction in the fall. The Kyrgyz side is interested in selling this factory to Russia.
Russia has long been interested in the plant, but Kyrgyzstan's government had only had a 48 percent stake, whereas Russia wanted a controlling interest. But the Kyrgyzstan government was able to acquire shares previously owned by exiled first son Maxim Bakiyev, bumping its share of the plant to 98 percent, according to a Kommersant report this summer (via the Moscow Times).
The factory is reportedly valued at 30 million and the surrounding territory at $180 million, and apparently has no current business. There was an interesting possibility a couple of years ago of India doing business with Dastan, but that seems to have come to naught. Maybe with a new owner that possibility could arise again?
An Afghan Mi-17 helicopter, the same type India is reportedly giving to Tajikistan. (photo: U.S. Army)
India will give two military transportation helicopters to Tajikistan when its defense minister visits Dushanbe in July, Indian press is reporting. During his visit next month, A K Antony also will inaugurate a military hospital in Farkhor in southern Tajikistan, according to a report from the Press Trust of India.
I asked a well-connected Indian defense journalist about this and he said his sources confirmed the report, and that the helicopters in question would be two Mi-17s. The plan to give them to Tajikistan had been made some time ago, but India's requirements for UN peacekeeping and for fighting the Naxal rebellion in India meant that there were no spare aircraft until now, the source tells The Bug Pit.
Separately, another news item also speaks to how Central Asia's militaries are looking to new sources for hardware: Kyrgyzstan is reportedly acquiring air defense systems from China. From CentrAsia.ru:
"Our cooperation will enter a new level and will continue to gather momentum. Moreover, we are glad that the company [CETC International] expresses interest in realizing projects of air defense systems and radar stations, as these questions are relevant for us," said [Kyrgyzstan's deputy defense minister Colonel Zamir] Suerklov.
It's not clear whether Kyrgyzstan is buying these systems or China is giving them as aid, or what kind of air defense we're talking about. Either way, it's an intriguing development given that Russia just promised Bishkek more than $1 billion in military aid, and that there are ongoing plans to create a joint CSTO air defense system.
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.