Why is India on the back foot in the South Caucasus?
By Orkhan Amashov
India, a rising power on the global stage, seeks a greater role in the South Caucasus, the region in which its footprint remains modest.
The scale of New Delhi's close ties with Armenia should neither be underestimated nor unduly overestimated. Nor should it be viewed as denuded from the wider regional landscape of competing interests comprising different actors, encompassing Turkiye, Russia, China, and others.
New Delhi’s rationale is not merely circumscribed to an extended knee-jerk reaction to Azerbaijan’s steadfast partnership with Pakistan and its firm backing of Islamabad over the Kashmir issue.
India’s policy choice of seeing Yerevan as a regional partner, at the expense of “snubbing" Baku, is also dictated by its preference for utilising the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) with Armenia as a connecting link, rather than favouring that using Azerbaijan as a conduit to Europe, together with its desire to counteract growing Turkish influence in the South Caucasus.
Pendominium and economic reality check
India and Yerevan like to think of themselves as “natural allies”, and profess to be determined to exploit the massive untapped potential of these bilateral ties. This is, of course, a bit of wishful thinking. If to glance at the situation from the point of definable and solid economic advantages, rather than imaginary geopolitical interests, it is obvious that Azerbaijan is actually more attractive to New Delhi.
In the first six months of 2022, India established itself as Azerbaijan's fourth largest export partner, with an increase in volumes by 107 percent, when compared to the previous year, reaching $896 million. During the same period, trade turnover between the two nations amounted to $1.188 billion, increasing by 169.1 percent year on year.
India’s trade turnover with Armenia is considerably less, amounting to an infinitesimal $181 million in 2021. Of course, figures are not everything and one should look at bilateral relations from the perspective of long-term interests. Yet it remains true that for the present and foreseeable future, it is highly improbable that Armenia will in any way augment its value as a trade partner, outweighing Azerbaijan, in the eyes of India.
Thus, in key respects, the glittering future of Indo-Armenian relations is too hoary a suggestion to be substantiated as a serious project, for its economic substratum is too thin. Naturally, there are some other considerations that have contributed to today's pandemonium.
Perceived geopolitical risks
New Delhi’s espousal for Yerevan is mostly driven by the perceived benefits such backing may accrue for the advancement of its greater foreign policy. In the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is centrally placed, with the potential to connect Ankara with Islamabad via a land route. For India, this is the axis with a strong military component, which aims to draw a transport map alongside the East-West route in such a way that New Delhi’s own preferred South-North route is reduced in import and efficiency. India appears to see many potential risks in the suggestion that Ankara could use its presence in Azerbaijan as a springboard into Central Asia.
The Zangazur Corridor has been actively opposed by Narendra Modi's government, which sees it as an obstacle to its access to the North. The worry is that if Armenia loses its land connection with Iran, India's ambitious plan for reaching Europe via the INSTC will be imperiled. This is an erroneous view on two grounds. Firstly, the Zangazur Corridor does not jeopardise the Iranian-Armenian land route as such. Secondly, the South-North route, in its original concept, should have gone through Azerbaijan, which India later reviewed, not on the basis of economic suitability but of the imperative of choosing Armenia over Azerbaijan as a subjective geopolitical necessity.
It is in this context that India’s enhanced military ties with Armenia and its clear steps of counteracting Azerbaijan on a diplomatic forum across various platforms could be meaningfully explained.
India has strengthened its military ties with Armenia during the past few years. The recent $245 million-worth deal means that the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket system, light years away from being the last word in technological innovation, but nonetheless a pricey item from the Indian military industry, will be exported to Armenia.
India is not a large arms exporter, but is keen to increase its share in the global market, capitalising on policy reforms and active governmental support to secure overseas orders. Armenia is not awash with money and capable of buying huge quantities. But it is a party that is willing to import from reliable sources that will deliver.
Whilst speaking on the draft Armenian defence budget for 2023, which is set to reach $1.2 billion, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan mournfully expostulated that “a disruption in weapons supplies from allies” is attributable to Azerbaijan’s efforts. “We have cases when hundreds of millions of dollars in payments have been made, but partner countries are not fulfilling their obligations”, went on the Armenian PM, in an oblique reference to Russia.
In addition, India has taken steps to counteract Azerbaijan in the field of diplomacy. It was on India’s insistence that Baku was not invited to the latest BRICS summit, with the other members - Russia, China, Brazil, and South Africa - expressing no objection. New Delhi blocked a Non-Aligned Movement measure, designed to express solidarity with Azerbaijan over the egregious attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in London by the radical religious group called “the Mahdi Servants Union” on 4 August. Following the recent 12-14 September escalation on the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, India chose to support Armenia, implicitly accusing Baku of aggression.
India’s aggressive tone vis-a-vis Baku and its conspicuous cozying up to Yerevan are part and parcel of today's malleable and squidgy situation. But nothing is set in stone. India is a serious international player which has yet to seriously claim a role in the South Caucasus. Its present pattern of behaviour mimics preparatory tabletop game tactics.
If New Delhi is content being a counterweight to the Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance in the region, backing the weaker option, which is Armenia, its role will be limited, in no way gratifying its foreign policy ambitions. If such a choice, in view of its alignment with Tehran and Yerevan, is made, it had better be transitionary, or even better, reversed after a respectful period of inaction to placate Azerbaijan.
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