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Can Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Clash Harm India’s Strategic Interests In Central Asia?

Clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over their common water source at the border left dozens dead and a hundred others injured. The latest border tension between two Central Asian nations could have implications for India’s strategic interests in the region.

In the latest news, at least 49 people were killed in clashes along a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. The number of Kyrgyz citizens who died in the armed conflict in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region rose to 34 with 173 injured, said the Kyrgyz Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, the number of Tajiks who lost their lives in the conflict reached 15, including seven soldiers, according to media reports. Tajik media previously reported that nearly 90 Tajiks were injured in the conflict.

The violence that started on Wednesday between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was centered on control over the local water distribution network, Kyrgyz media reported on Thursday.

Surveillance equipment was installed by Tajik officials at the Golovnoi water distribution center, which Kyrgyzstan says is located in an area where sovereignty is yet to be defined, according to the Radio Free Europe news website.

Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Clash

The Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan border dispute had initially begun on April 28 between the civilian population who threw stones at each other over the Tajik surveillance at a water facility near the border. Later, their armed forces also got involved and they exchanged fire on April 29.

To calm down matters, both the governments agreed to a ceasefire and Kyrgyzstan evacuated about 7000-10000 of its citizens from the area.

The conflict revolves around the water supply facility near the village of Kok-Tash, which both sides claim. Tajik officials tried to install their government surveillance equipment, which earlier they had agreed to remove, in the facility. Fearing a Tajiki takeover of their water source, Kyrgyz citizens firmly opposed this move.

The dispute over the facility predates the independence of the two countries. It became a major issue when the USSR collapsed without proper demarcation of borders between its Central Asian Republics.

Despite a border agreement with China, Central Asian nations do not share any boundary agreement among themselves.

Additionally, water security is a big issue in the landlocked Central Asian region with 90% of the Aral Sea, where the region’s major rivers end, having dried up.

The upstream nations — Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — are not as naturally endowed with oil fields as much as their downstream neighbors are, so their economies depend on their ability to take advantage of the only asset they have — water.

In an environment of climate change and water pollution, having secure sources of water becomes that much important. The problem becomes more complicated with overlapping territorial claims and meandering boundaries.

India’s Interest In Central Asia

India has strategic interests in Central Asia which range from counterterrorism to energy resources which gives it stakes in preventing the escalation of the fight. The Tajik civil war of the 1990s saw radical Islamic parties exploiting the divisions within the country which disrupted India’s position within the region.

Already India has to counter Chinese and Pakistani spheres of influence in Central Asia. The US and Russia, the dominant powers of the region, allow India to function within their aegis.

In the case of the present conflict, India probably will have to play a balancing game. Both the involved parties are important to Indian foreign policy in the region.

Tajikistan hosts India’s first overseas military base at Farkhor. The base allows proximity to events unfolding in Afghanistan but also a check on Pakistani activities, according to security experts.

On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan is also a vital partner. Just recently, on April 16, India and Kyrgyzstan began the eighth installment of their two weeks Joint Special Forces Exercise “Khanjar.”

Now with more stakes in Central Asia, a deterioration of the present dispute would put a damper on India’s Connect Central Asia policy. India recently proposed connecting these countries to its Chabahar port in Iran.

Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are looking to de-escalate the situation. The countries should probably work on defining their boundaries based on mutual give and take. A regional framework based on cooperative water sharing might prevent such future clashes.

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