India-Tajikistan relations received a fresh impetus during the state visit of President Emomali Rahmon to India from 1-4 September 2012. This was President Rahmon’s fifth visit to India, during which he held detailed discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee, and Vice President Hamid Ansari. The leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj, called on the President of Tajikistan.
President Rahmon’s visit has not only strengthened existing ties but has also resulted in building a long-term strategic partnership. According to the joint statement issued during his visit, India and Tajikistan have “decided to elevate their bilateral relations to the level of a long-term strategic partnership.” This strategic partnership is expected to increase cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas – political, economic, health, human resources development, defence, counter-terrorism, science and technology, culture and tourism. President Rahmon’s visit can be analysed in the context of the recent trajectory of the India-Tajikistan relationship and the concrete outcomes which are expected to result from the new strategic partnership agreement inked between the two countries.
The significance of President Rahmon’s visit lies in India’s effort to accord Tajikistan a more prominent position in India’s foreign policy towards Central Asia. Tajikistan continues to remains a significant partner for India in the region. Political and strategic relations between the two countries can be termed as excellent. However, economic and trade ties remain the unsatisfactory part of an otherwise fruitful relationship. Although India’s total trade with Tajikistan has gone up from US $10.7 million in 2004-05 to $41.33 in 2010-11, these figures are much below the potential that exists. This was recognised during President Rahmon’s visit, when both sides agreed that there is need to enhance trade and investment relations. In this context, President Rahmon addressed a business meeting organised jointly by ASSOCHAM, CII and FICCI. He also invited India to invest in Tajikistan’s free economic zones.
Tajikistan’s importance for India lies in its geo-strategic location; it shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan and is located in proximity to Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). In India’s regional security calculus, Tajikistan assumes a significant place, especially in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The infiltration of extremist forces into Tajikistan can have serious security implications for India because of its proximity to PoK and the likely impact of this on the situation in Kashmir.
In addition to its strategic location, Tajikistan is rich in hydroelectric power. It has the largest natural water resources in the region. In fact, 90 per cent of the water resources of Central Asia lie in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has more than 65 per cent of the glaciers in the region. It is second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia. The country’s hydroelectric potential, according to official figures, is about 40,000 MW, which is around four per cent of the world’s hydroelectric potential. According to the official report Tajikistan’s National Strategy for Energy Sector Development 2006-2015, the country is likely to reach a production of 35 billion Kwh in 2015. Tajikistan also has deposits of more than 40 semi-precious stones, gold and silver. There are large reserves of mercury, brown coal, lead, zinc, antimony and tungsten, and uranium deposits. These resources make Tajikistan a significant country in the region that offers many opportunities to India.
India and Tajikistan share close defence and security relations. India has upgraded the Ayni airport near Dushanbe, which is fully operational now. There is ongoing cooperation in the defence sector where India is providing training to Tajik forces with large numbers of Tajik military cadets and young officers undergoing training at various defence training institutes in India. This military training is offered free of charge to Tajik military personnel.
President Rahmon’s visit is also indicative of the mutual desire on the part of the two countries to raise the relationship to a new level marked by greater goodwill, trust and confidence. Six important documents inked in the area of Culture, Education, Sports, Textile, Labour and Family Welfare are indicative of the continued effort on the part of the two countries to further cement their relationship. These six agreements are:
With the aim of strengthening the all round relationship under its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy, India has offered to undertake a series of new development projects in Tajikistan. These include: an IT centre, medical centres, language labs, supply of agricultural machinery and the implementation of a package of small development projects and setting up of fruit and vegetable processing plant. In addition, both sides have agreed to enhance cooperation in hydel power, solar and other forms of renewable energy and to start discussions on a regional energy infrastructure network. According to the Joint Statement on Strategic Partnership, the two countries have “agreed to discuss and finalize in the near future more bilateral documents in spheres such as air services; double taxation; consular issues; justice; mining; social security; finance and banking; industry and energy; and transportation and communication”. Another major development project to which India has agreed is the setting up of the India-Tajik Friendship Hospital in Tajikistan. Further, the numbers of ITEC slots have been increased from 100 to 150.
India and Tajikistan face common threats and challenges in the region. The commonality of interest provides greater opportunity to cooperate more closely in addressing the regional security issues of extremism and terrorism. The increasing violence in Pakistan, re-emergence of Taliban in Afghanistan and the proposed withdrawal of US forces in 2014, all are likely to have serious security implications for both countries. In this context, President Rahmon’s visit could be considered as a continuation of the commitment by both the countries for enhancing cooperation to deal with these new security challenges in the region and working jointly towards “eliminating the menace of terrorism including exchange of information, data, financing of terrorism and related matters”. India and Tajikistan also emphasized the need for enhanced dialogue between their security agencies and regular consultations between their Ministries of Foreign Affairs including coordinated efforts to work within the framework of the JWG on Combating International Terrorism. The importance of strengthening cooperation in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was also highlighted by the two countries. The Tajik side reiterated its support for India’s full membership in the SCO.
The lack of surface transportation network with Tajikistan remains a major impediment to enhance mutual trade, tourism and people to people contacts. This aspect was emphasized and both sides agreed to work towards establishing transport corridors in cooperation with other countries of the region. In this context, the project to establish the Central Asia-Persian Gulf corridor and implementation of projects such as the Trans-Afghan corridor and International North South Corridor (INSTC) was discussed during President Rahmon’s visit. India also welcomed the resumption of direct flights between Delhi and Dushanbe.
The wide and varied discourse on India-Central Asia relations reveals two sets of arguments. The first centres on the fact that India’s presence in the region is much below its potential and that while India may not be a major player in Central Asia, it nevertheless remains an important player in the region. The second highlights the point that the future international relations in the region will to some degree be impacted by India’s steadily rising overall economic and military capabilities and its consequent desire to play the role of a great power. But no analysis of Central Asia can ignore India’s increasing capabilities and intention to work jointly for mutually beneficial partnerships in the Central Asian region. A careful analysis of India’s relations with the Central Asian Republics in the last five years clearly indicates its growing strategic and diplomatic engagement with the region. This could be seen as New Delhi’s desire to increase its strategic and economic outreach to this region through its new ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy. In this context, President Rahmon’s visit reconfirms the commitment from both India and Tajikistan to impart greater dynamism to their existing relationship through a long-term strategic partnership for cooperation in the political, security, economic, energy and cultural areas. However, the success of this strategic partnership will depend to a great extend on how effectively various agreements and MoUs inked during President Rahmon’s visit are implemented by the two countries.