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India looks toKyrgyzstanfor strategic base in Central Asia

By Syed Nazakat

Denied an air base inTajikistan,Indiais turning to another central Asian country for military cooperation:Kyrgyzstan.

A mountainous Islamic republic,Kyrgyzstanis strategically vital as it is the only central Asian country to provide ground transport and an air base for the Northern Distribution Network that supplies NATO troops inAfghanistan.Kyrgyzstanfeatures in the US-Russia rivalry in centralAsia, as the two powers have military air bases in the country.

India, which had taken a back seat in the Russia-US competition, has now woken up to the opportunities in centralAsia. Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s recent visit toKyrgyzstanis seen as part ofDelhi’s policy to secure its interests in the region. A team of the Indian Army will reachKyrgyzstanby July-end to train its UN peacekeeping forces and impart English language skills.Antonyhad made the offer to his Kyrgyz counterpart Major General Abibilla Kudayberdiev. The Mountain Biomedical Research Centre established in Bishkek is a joint project by the DRDO andKyrgyzstan’s National Centre of Cardiology and Internal Medicine.

DRDO chief Dr V.K. Saraswat, who was in the defence ministry  delegation toKyrgyzstan, said the project was a milestone.”DRDO has given a lot of importance to life sciences R&D asIndia’s 1.3 million strong armed forces are personnel intensive. Life sciences research for improving quality of life and performance of soldiers in extreme environmental conditions is the need of the hour,” he said.

Apart from the old players Russia, Britain and theUS, new ones likePakistan,China and India, too, have interests in centralAsia. Defence expert Major General (retd) G.D. Bakshi said, “The central Asian region fits inIndia’s broader security horizon of seeking wider strategic frontiers. Even ifIndiahas to play a greater role inAfghanistanafter the US-led forces leave that country, it should build a strong defence relationship with central Asian countries.”

Bishkek had in the past tried to balance its ties between theUSandRussia. It was more susceptible to Russian pressure not to allowIndiato use its air base which was renovated with Indian funding. But post the regime change in 2010, Kyrgyztan wants to reduce its reliance onRussiaand theUS.

From the central Asian point of view,India’s assistance, unlike western aid, comes with no political interest. “We have a historic relationship with central Asian countries. We never interfered in their internal matters,” said former director-general of Military Intelligence Lt Gen. (retd) R.K. Sawhney. “Our agenda is to build a strong relationship with central Asian countries so that no other country will use them against us.”

Indias hared a warm relationship withRussiaand was, therefore, among the few countriesMoscowallowed to interact with central Asian leaders before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Bishkek in 1985, before India established its resident mission inTajikistanin 1994. 

It was in 2002 thatIndia took over the Ayani air base near Dushanbe and built a runway, taxi hanger and deployed more than two hundred IAF men and a detachment of helicopter. An Indian Air Force officer said the base was supposed to be a “sovereign piece ofIndiain Tajikistan”. But thanks toRussia’s resistance andIndia’s inability to keep its developmental promises toTajikistan, the Tajik government toldIndiathat the base can be made available onlyRussia, with which it had an agreement.

India has assured the Kyrgyz leadership of cooperation in military training, defence research and development and production of armaments. ButIndia’s interest in central Asia could raise suspicion inPakistanandChina. “Chinaeven tried to keepIndiaout of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” said Sawhney. “Nevertheless,India must build its relationship in the region and secure its interest inAfghanistan.” 

 THE WEEK, July 31, 2011

 

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