India Must Cement Ties With Armenia; Strengthen Strategic Collaboration: OpEd

In recent years the prevailing topic in Armenian geopolitical debate is relations with China. The involvement of Armenia into Belt and Road initiative, possible Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, creating favourable conditions to increase the number of Chinese tourists visiting Armenia – all these are hotly discussed topics among pundits, politicians, and representatives of academia.

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However, besides the agreement on visa-free travel which most probably will enter into force within weeks, the construction of the new Chinese embassy building in Yerevan, as well as donation of public buses, ambulance cars and the opening of the Armenia – China friendship school with intensive teaching of Chinese language in Yerevan, no strategic projects, have been launched yet.

Meanwhile, Georgia has signed a free trade agreement with China in 2017 and the Chinese Hualing group has made significant investments there including the construction of the new residential district in Tbilisi’s neighbourhood.

China established AIIB provided US$ 114 million loans to Georgia for road construction and US$ 600 million loans to Azerbaijan for the TANAP gas pipeline project. Currently, Azerbaijan jointly with Turkey intensively pushes forward the Trans Caspian International Transport Route (Middle Corridor) to be included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the debate on Armenia – India relations is strikingly absent from Armenian expert discussions. Given the growing Indian economy (India is the seventh country in the world by nominal GDP and the third country by GDP PPP as well as the second-largest country by population) and its geopolitical might, this situation is surprising.

India traditionally has good relations with Armenia’s key strategic ally – Russia and is a member of both SCO and BRICS. Two people have long shared history, both are members of the Indo-European family and the Armenian community of India was especially powerful in the late 18th century.

The first draft of future independent Armenia’s constitution was published in the Indian city of Madras (current Chennai) in 1788-1789. Currently, a small but active Armenian community lives in India with functioning Armenian churches in Calcutta (current Kolkata), Chennai and other cities.

During the Soviet period, Indian movies were very popular in Soviet Armenia and after independence, many Armenians enjoy Indian yoga as the right way towards physical and spiritual development.

However, economic ties are not developed (in 2018 imports from India were at the level of US$ 51.4 million while exports to India were less than US$ 1 million). The people to people contacts are mainly focused on Indian students studying in Armenian medical Universities and in recent years Armenia has witnessed an increasing flow of Indian labour migrants.

Armenian government eased the requirements for Indian citizens to obtain Armenian visas in 2017. Now they may get Armenian visas through the e-visa system and in Armenian embassies and consulates deployed both in India and in foreign countries. They may get single entry Armenian visas also in border crossing points if they have residence permits or multi-entry visas for the list of countries.

According to the Armenian MFA data, 36847 Indian citizens got Armenian visas and 27,240 Indian citizens actually entered Armenia in 2018.

Recently two sides have made some efforts to develop bilateral relations in several spheres including economy, security, and defence cooperation. Тhe India – Armenia pharmaceutical conference was organized in Yerevan on November 10-13, 2019 through the support of India’s PHARMEXCIL-Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council.

The Indian Ambassador to Armenia H.E. Kishan Dan Dewal met with the acting director of the Armenian National Security Service on November 22, 2019, and discussed cooperation in the security sphere. Ambassador also met with the Armenian Minister of Defense on December 16, 2019.

During the meeting, the parties highlighted the military-technical cooperation and achievements made within 2018 and reached an agreement on developing cooperation in military-technical, military education, training, peacekeeping, military medicine and other fields.

However, these efforts are being done without any strategic framework. They may improve relations but definitely lack the capacity to bring about qualitative changes. Meanwhile, Armenia and India have common interests to put their cooperation in a strategic context.

India is one of the key players in emerging multi-polar international security architecture. India is quite successful in fostering cooperative relations with both Russia, the US, and the EU. The US attaches great importance to India in its Indo-Pacific strategy, which was once more confirmed in the Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report published on June 1, 2019.

The US views India as a natural competitor of China which is not interested in growing Chinese influence in the region. The US – India strategic partnership was once more reaffirmed during the second US – India 2+2 Ministerial dialogue held in Washington on December 18, 2019, with the participation of the Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar.

During the meeting, the US Secretary of State Pompeo and his counterparts reaffirmed their commitment to work together in support of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. The two sides agreed to deepen cooperation to address regional and global threats, combat terrorism, coordinate on disaster relief, train peacekeepers, promote transparent and sustainable infrastructure, and advance maritime security.

The readiness of the US government to closely work with Prime Minister Modi, who was denied the US visa in March 2005 while being Gujarat Chief Minister, is another proof of the growing significance of India for the US. Meanwhile, India, through its “Act East” policy, continues to make significant security, economic, and development investments to secure the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Simultaneously, despite pressure from Washington, India maintains strategic military-technical cooperation with Russia including the deal to buy S – 400 systems. As for India – China relations, both sides are cautious not to let tensions spiralling out of control using the BRICS and SCO as platforms for discussions and debates. However, both understand that they will remain competitors for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the key foreign policy issue for India is relations with Pakistan. Given the August 2019 Indian government’s decision to revoke the special status or limited autonomy granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir as well as the December 2019 adoption of the Citizenship amendment bill granting Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, the India – Pakistan relations will continue to deteriorate.

India has a strategic vision to decrease the foreign support for Pakistan calculating that without external financial injections Pakistan may face tough economic challenges which may result in domestic instability and even state collapse.

New Delhi has few if any leverage over China to restrict the implementation of the China – Pakistan economic corridor, the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative through which Beijing has already pumped some US$ 50 billion into Pakistan’s economy. Meanwhile, India is very active in its efforts to decrease the Gulf States and in particular Saudi Arabia’s support to Pakistan. This policy was launched in 2014 after the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) accession to power.

Prime Minister Modi made several successful trips to the Gulf region offering mutually beneficial economic cooperation projects as a reward for decreasing cooperation with Pakistan. One of the indicators of improving India – Saudi Arabia relations is the decision to allow direct India –Israel flights to pass over Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan now is very cautious not to harm its relations with Saudi Arabia which is the key source of financial support for Islamabad. As a result of Saudi Arabia’s pressure Pakistan, albeit initial confirmation, decided not to participate in the Muslim countries summit in Malaysia held on December 19, 2019.

However, in recent years Pakistan has found a new partner in the Muslim world in the face of Erdogan’s Turkey. Since Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Ankara in January 2019, the two countries’ defence relations have been getting stronger and are now on a decidedly upward trajectory.

Facing constraints in updating the F-16s provided by the US for its air force, Pakistan asked Turkey for help. Filling the vacuum left by Washington, Istanbul came to the rescue and helped upgrade a batch of 41 F16 fighter jets for the Pakistan Air Force and has become Pakistan’s second-biggest arms supplier after China. Up until now, the most important defence deal between Islamabad and Ankara has been the procurement of four MILGEM Ada Corvettes for the Pakistani navy, while the largest-ever defence contract has been the sale of 30 Turkish T129 ATAK helicopters to Pakistan for US$ 1.5 billion.

Growing Pakistan — Turkey’s economic and defence cooperation is a source of concern for India. Meanwhile, in recent years Pakistan has made efforts to improve its relations also with Azerbaijan and three countries even launched trilateral cooperation mechanisms.

In November 2017 Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov held a meeting with his counterparts from Turkey and Pakistan, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Muhammad Asif, in Baku. In the declaration adopted after the meeting, the ministers expressed their satisfaction with the existing bilateral cooperation among their countries based on the strategic partnership, mutual respect, and trust and reconfirmed their mutual respect and strong support for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of international borders of states.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is the only country that does not recognize Armenia as an independent state and fully supports Azerbaijan’s position on the Karabakh conflict. Given the incompatible positions of Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and Azerbaijan, there are few if any hopes for a quick breakthrough in negotiations over the Karabakh conflict settlement.

The growing ties between Erdogan and Turkish nationalists do not bode well for any changes in Turkey’s position towards Armenia. Thus, most probably Armenia will face a joint Azerbaijan – Turkey pressure for the foreseeable future and there is a little prospect for any improvements.

Meanwhile, India – Pakistan tensed relations will continue and growing Pakistan – Turkey economic and defence cooperation as well as trilateral Pakistan – Turkey – Azerbaijan will strain India’s relations with Turkey and in less extent with Azerbaijan. Thus, Armenia and India are natural partners in their efforts to deter and restrict Turkey’s activities.

Not coincidently, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was the only foreign leader who publicly and fully endorsed Indian position on Kashmir. Pashinyan met with Prime Minister Modi in September 2019 in New York and discussed the prospects of economic, political, cultural and humanitarian exchanges between Armenia and India.

Thus, it’s time to frame a strategic framework for the development of the Armenia – India relations and put more emphasis on defence and military-technical cooperation. India is objectively interested in strong Armenia which stands as a buffer between Azerbaijan and Turkey and taking resources from both Baku and Turkey which otherwise could be redistricted to other directions with potential negative ramifications for India.

As for Armenia, Yerevan is not interested in the growth of the economic and military might of Pakistan, which may be used also against Armenia. These mutual converging interests may serve as a sound base to develop a strategic partnership. Given the growing IT sector in both Armenia and India, the possible establishment of the joint research labs to develop software for drones and other advanced weaponry could be a good start in this path.

Another mutually beneficial area of cooperation is movie production. Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic may become ideal locations for filming Indian movies. Given the relatively cheap cost of filming Armenia and Karabakh may become quite competitive, especially if the government will provide some tax incentives for Indian movie producers. Meanwhile, this will be an excellent tourism advertisement for Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic targeting Indian and other markets.

According to the UN Word Tourism Organizations, some 50 million Indians may travel overseas in 2019 and Armenia has the necessary advantages to compete for bulk of them.

Dr Benyamin Poghosyan is Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies. Views Personel