Is India Out of the Game in Tajikistan?
Several weeks ago, Tajikistan's foreign minister announced that the country was in negotiations with Russia, and no other country, about using the Ayni air base. That appeared to end years of speculation about the base, strategically located just over 100 miles from the border of Afghanistan. It was long assumed India would use the base, which would have been its first military base abroad. India had spent millions to renovate the former Soviet base's runway and facilities, but then appeared to get pushed out of the running by Russia for reasons that remain murky (in fact, everything is murky about Ayni). There was also speculation about the U.S., China, Iran or France using the base, but those always seemed like long shots. So did India just get played by the Russians and Tajiks?
The chief of India's army visited Tajikistan a couple of weeks ago. No news seems to have come out about the visit (again, the murkiness) but it suggests that India hasn't entirely given up on Tajikistan. An Indian analyst puts a brave face on India's change of fortunes, in Asia Times:
The closure of the base option for India at Ayni is, however, not a setback for India's interests in the region, Angira Sen Sharma, associate fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Asia Times Online. India wields considerable soft power in Central Asia. A base at Ayni would have undermined that influence, she said.
Drawing attention to China's strategy in Central Asia, Sharma said Beijing has focused more on investment there than on displaying its military might. India's interests in Central Asia, she said, would be better served through economic co-operation and investment in the region. Its investment in renovation of Ayni has enhanced its interests; using it as a military base would not.
It is probably true that soft power and investments will be more effective in the long run than military bases. But I don't know that you can qualify the renovation of an air base an "investment," and I'm not sure how paying for a military base that Russia subsequently uses enhances India's interests (Sharma doesn't explain).
The piece goes on to blame India's ouster on a growing Russia-Pakistan axis, which also seems unlikely; Russia has a lot of interests in Tajikistan and its relations with Pakistan are surely very low down on the list. And Russia's military relations with India are far better than those with Pakistan. The most likely explanation, I think, remains that Russia just didn't want any other country establishing a military base in Tajikistan, where Moscow holds a tremendous amount of influence.
Still, there remains much unanswered about the situation with Ayni -- Is Russia actually going to use the base, or just keep anyone else from using it? What's India's strategy now in Central Asia? If the U.S. did get kicked out of Manas in Kyrgyzstan, would they be interested in Ayni as a replacement? The story is far from over.