Abstract: Recent engagements between India and Uzbekistan have underscored security and strategic cooperation. The two countries recently conducted joint military exercises that were named Dustlik (meaning friendship in Uzbek), which is a testimony to this special partnership. This Issue Brief throws light on the evolution of the bilateral relations in the security sphere.
In three separate developments in the month of November 2019, India and Uzbekistan have taken a step further in strengthening their security cooperation. First, Dustlik-2019, the inaugural India-Uzbekistan Joint Field Training Exercise, was held at the Chirchiq training area near Tashkent from 3-13 November 2019. This exercise was flagged off by the Defence Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, along with his Uzbek counterpart, Major General Bakhodir Kurbanov. This 10-day joint exercise focused on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in urban scenarios. While it involved sharing of expertise and experience in combat power, it also provided both armies with an opportunity for strengthening mutual trust, cooperation and cultural understanding towards one another.
Secondly, Singh paid an official visit to Tashkent from 1-4 November 2019. This was the first visit to Uzbekistan by an Indian Defence Minister in the last 15 years. During the visit, he participated in the inaugural ceremony for the Dustlik exercises. He held detailed consultations with his Uzbek counterpart. The two leaders signed three Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) to enhance cooperation in military medicine and military education. India has also offered a concessional line of credit of USD 40 million to Uzbekistan for procurement of goods and services. During this visit, the minister also participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Heads of Government meeting on 2 November 2019 in Tashkent, which was attended by the Prime Ministers of SCO nations.
Thirdly, the Uzbek Minister of Internal Affairs, Pulat Bobojonov, visited New Delhi, and met with Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, on November 20. The two ministers led the delegation-level talks that culminated in signing of an Agreement on Security Cooperation between the respective ministries. This agreement aims to further strengthen the bilateral cooperation in areas of counter-terrorism, organised crime, and human trafficking. Both sides discussed capacity building, border guarding and disaster management. Another highlight of the meeting was the training for Uzbek security personnel in Indian institutions.
These events reflect the heightened political, security and strategic engagements between India and Uzbekistan. As a matter of fact, bilateral relationship between the two countries has seen an upward swing in last couple of years. The recently concluded joint exercises were named Dustlik, meaning friendship in the Uzbek language. This nomenclature itself is testimony to the special partnership. Therefore, it becomes worthwhile to take a fresh look at the evolution of these relations, in the light of the emerging security cooperation.
Strategic Significance of Uzbekistan and Evolution of Bilateral Relationship
India’s relationship with Uzbekistan is vital for its larger engagements in Central Asia. Uzbekistan holds considerable strategic relevance in the current Eurasian geopolitics for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is centrally located, and borders all other Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Afghanistan. Secondly, it is the most populous country in the region, having a population of 33.8 million. It is therefore home to more than 45 percent of the Central Asian population. Thirdly, it is abundant in natural resources, especially oil, natural gas, uranium and gold. It has the region’s second largest gas reserves. It stands fourth in gold stock and eighth in uranium reserves. Lastly, the country’s proximity with unstable Afghanistan and threats emanating from terrorism and radicalisation, have made Uzbekistan vulnerable to different security threats. These aspects underline the country’s geopolitical vitality.
India’s strategic inclination towards Uzbekistan comes from its strategic location, natural resources, and security challenges. Nonetheless, this relationship is based on thousands of years of commercial, cultural and civilisational exchanges. After Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, India became one of the first countries to recognise it. The erstwhile consulate at Tashkent was immediately transformed into a full-fledged embassy, and diplomatic relations were established. Prime Minister (PM) Narasimha Rao visited Tashkent in 1993 and PM Manmohan Singh in 2006. The first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, paid visits to India in 1994, 2000, 2005 and 2011. While high-level exchanges took place at regular intervals, bilateral cooperation remained limited for almost two decades, as both countries were passing through their respective internal transitions and external challenges.
India and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on Strategic Partnership in 2011, during the then President Islam Karimov’s visit to New Delhi. In 2012, India announced its ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy that provided further impetus to India’s engagements in Eurasia. After Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of India in 2014, the relations started to improve at a faster pace. He paid a visit to Uzbekistan in July 2015, and then in June 2016 to participate in the SCO summit. During his 2015 visit, he held discussions with the then Uzbek President Islam Karimov on issues of counter-terrorism, defence and cyber security.
Political Transition in Uzbekistan and the Aftermath
After the sudden demise of First President Islam Karimov in September 2016, Uzbekistan went through a smooth political transition, making the then PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new President. Soon after coming to power, Mirziyoyev introduced number of reforms in fields of administration, legal system, economy, and foreign policy. His attempts to radically improve relations with the other CARs have resulted in enhanced political cooperation in the region. Under his leadership, Uzbekistan is taking a lead in the matters of connectivity and security. These developments have bearing on the current Indo-Uzbek relationship.
Likewise, India’s strategic interests in Eurasia, the need for greater economic and energy cooperation, and quest for connectivity, have brought us closer to the CARs in recent years. Membership of the SCO, development of Chabahar Port, and accession to the Ashgabat Agreement, were significant steps in this regard. On the one hand, India is bilaterally expanding its cooperation with each of the CARs. And on the other hand, it has launched the ‘India-Central Asia Dialogue’ in January 2019 in Samarkand- Uzbekistan, where the then External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, held a multilateral meeting with her counterparts from Central Asia and Afghanistan. This is a breakthrough in expanding India’s footprints in the region. The enhanced strategic cooperation between India and Uzbekistan can be seen through this lens.
President Mirziyoyev has visited India twice within a duration of six months. He paid a State visit in October 2018, and came again in January 2019 to participate in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. During his state visit in October 2018, the Modi- Mirziyoyev discussions led to signing of several agreements, spanning the fields of national security, military education, science and technology, health, agriculture, pharma and tourism.
Enhancing Security Cooperation
Highlight of Mirziyoyev’s visits was the expanding defense and security cooperation between the two regional powers. An MoU was signed between the defense ministries on cooperation in military education. The joint statement that was signed at the end of the meeting, mentioned holding a joint military training exercise in counter-terrorism, setting up of a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Defence Cooperation, and opening of a Defence Wing at the Uzbek Embassy in New Delhi”.
Apart from President Mirziyoyev’s visit, several other exchanges have taken place in the past one year in the field of defence and security. The Defence Minister of Uzbekistan visited India in September 2018. The JWG on Defence Cooperation held its first meeting in February 2019. India’s Defence Secretary visited Uzbekistan in March 2019, and held consultations with his counterparts. The JWG on counter-terrorism, which has been in existence since 2015, held its eighth meeting in June 2019. The first defence-industry workshop was organised in Tashkent in September 2019. In October, India’s Deputy National Security Advisor Pankaj Saran also paid a visit to Tashkent and held consultations with senior Uzbek officials. These activities in last one year paved the way for the Defence Minister’s recent visit and the Dustlik exercise.
Both India and Uzbekistan have common security concerns and challenges emanating from Islamic extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. These threats have multiplied in the wake of the rise of Islamic State as the phenomenon and the fear of the returning fighters from Syria. The vulnerabilities of the larger Eurasian region have increased in recent months because of upsurge of violence in Afghanistan and the United States’ planned partial withdrawal. This scenario calls for a consorted effort to address this altering reality.
India and Uzbekistan are cooperating at various levels. Along with measures like the JWG on counter-terrorism and the Dustlik joint exercises, the security agencies of two countries hold regular interactions. Apart from the bilateral level cooperation, the two coordinate within the framework of SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which is situated in Tashkent. Considering the already existing security cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism, there is still a lot of scope for expanding this partnership.
President Mirziyoyev’s unique approach towards de-radicalisation is noteworthy. The State has introduced a program called “Enlightenment against Ignorance”, which is aimed at improving religious teaching. The youth of Uzbekistan are taught values of peace, tolerance and coexistence to prevent them against future radicalisation. Strict security protocols and international cooperation can be supplemented with such de-radicalisation efforts.
PM Modi has raised the issue of terrorism in his addresses in the SCO summits since India joined the organization, and has called for consorted international efforts to fight the menace. The enhanced security relations between India and Uzbekistan can be a good case in point, as both regional powers have the potential to act as bulwark against rising extremist threats.
In recent years, India- Uzbekistan relations have expanded in different spheres. Defence and security cooperation is also emerging as a specific area of the strategic partnership, which was evident from the recent bilateral exchanges. If this strategic partnership strengthens, this ‘Dustlik’ can contribute to peace, stability and security in the region.
*Dr Rashmini Koparkar, Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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