By Aratrika Choudhuri, WBNUJS, Kolkata.

In a move to strengthen its relations with key players in Eurasian geopolitics, India entered into four agreements with Kyrgyzstan on 12th July, 2015, which seek to boost defense cooperation and to recognize the need to combat ‘threats without borders’, such as terrorism and extremism. The agreements signed, clearly embody the spirit of a ‘treaty of good neighborliness’ – they also include a ‘cooperation MoU’ between the election commissions of the two countries, an MoU between Kyrgyzstan’s economy ministry and the Bureau of Indian Standards on cooperation in the field of standards, and an agreement on cooperation in culture.

The agreements serve to broaden the horizons of defense cooperation, as evinced by the joint exercise “Khanjar 2015”, held by the Special Forces of the armed forces of the two countries in Kyrgyzstan in March, which was also accompanied by training of Kyrgyz military officers for conducting various UN Peacekeeping Courses. These bilateral anti-terror exercises followed the model of a similar exercise conducted by China and Kyrgyzstan in October 2002, involving joint border operations by hundreds of troops. Such exchanges of experiential military education and information, which are now being complemented by a transfer of specialized information in agriculture (agro-processing, greenhouse technology, water conservation, and agricultural research) and health (regular visits by doctors from super-specialty hospitals in India to Kyrgyzstan, visits of patients from Kyrgyzstan to India for medical treatment and complex surgery at affordable cost and international standards) sectors, are critical to active transnational engagement in a peace-consolidation framework.

India’s Prime Minister openly acknowledged in Bishkek (the penultimate stop of his tour of Central Asian countries) that Kyrgyzstan is key to India’s vision of securing a healthy relationship with Central Asia, that would help foster innovative cooperation in economic, political and defense spheres. It is noteworthy that these agreements are centered not only on engendering defense cooperation and culture, security, military education and training, exchange of military instructors and observers, et al, but also, boosting trade, investment, tourism, culture and human resource development. The ramifications of these hitherto-unexplored aspects of  a Eurasian anti-terrorism pact are better understood from the historic-political perspective, by analyzing the geopolitics in this region, as operating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The SCO is emerging as an increasingly important actor in Eurasia, as its expanding network of full members (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and formal observers (India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia) gives the SCO tremendous political and economic potential. The mandate of the SCO affirms the desire of these countries for greater democracy, in terms of relations among countries. The anti-terrorism pact, which India and Kyrgyzstan are planning to enter into, may be seen as a clear recognition of this mandate. Significantly, India reaffirmed support of the candidacy of the Kyrgyz Republic for the UN Human Rights Council for 2016-2018, while Kyrgyzstan President, Almazbek Atambayev asserted that Kyrgyzstan will continue to support India’s candidature for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat.

In the meeting on 12th July, India also appreciated the steps taken by the Kyrgyz government in retaining the ‘secular character of Kyrgyz society while combating terrorism.’ This appreciation may also be examined in the light of the SCO’s declaration that, while the diversity of civilization and models of development must be respected and upheld, counter- terrorism politics requires an eclectic approach that embraces all these multifarious strategies and solutions which will stem the forces of ethno-separatism and political extremism. It remains to be seen how far the anti-terrorism pact, if and when signed by India and Kyrgyzstan, will effectuate this principle of “noninterference” in the domestic affairs of these countries, even if they are of a narrower scope than the SCO mandate.

The proposed anti-terrorism pact draws upon the dynamics of Chinese strategy in Central Asia- the “New Security Concept”- wherein the “use of force and the threat of use of force” are replaced with multilateral “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination.” Evidently, India has a critical imperative to engage in such broad cooperation with Central Asian countries and the other regional players- it already imports two-thirds of the oil it consumes. Consequently, Indian strategy has shifted considerably toward an unprecedented partnership with China to pave the way for exploring various options for energy routes through Central Asia. Moreover, thus far, Kyrgyzstan and India have seemed most interested in the SCO’s economic potential- facilitating mutual trade and investment while working toward the free movement of goods, services, capital, and technology by 2020. The economic MoU signed by the two countries underlines the commitment of both nations to participation in specific projects in priority areas, besides safeguarding regional peace, security and stability.

It is important to note that the SCO has failed to take a decisive stand with regard to whether to respond collectively to serious but non-violent domestic challenges. In particular, the SCO governments continue to disagree over whether the organization should protect its members against further colored revolutions. During the March 2005 government crisis in Kyrgyzstan, SCO members could not agree on joint action. In late May 2005, China considered deploying troops to southern Kyrgyzstan, perhaps under the SCO’s auspices, to help counter terrorism, separatism and extremism there. Kyrgyz and Russian opposition prevented realization of this suggestion, which would have entailed China acquiring its first military base on foreign soil. In late July 2005, Kyrgyzstan’s acting Vice-Premier, Adakhan Madumarov said: “The issue of the deployment of a Chinese military base in Kyrgyzstan was discussed at a high level, but Kyrgyzstan’s position is clear: we do not plan to turn the country into a politico-military battleground.” In a similar situation involving geopolitical power-play in the future, the efficacy of anti-terrorism and cooperation pacts, therefore, must be investigated from a defense-and-security viewpoint, in addition to their geopolitical potential.

SCO activities continue to emphasize promoting confidence-building measures, strengthening border controls, developing collective emergency response mechanisms for natural and manmade disasters, and facilitating law enforcement and intelligence cooperation against terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and other transnational challenges. While the agreements such as those signed by India and Kyrgyzstan revolve around these activities, questions arise as to whether these agreements can help organizations such as SCO to metamorphose from a predominantly security organization (i.e., focused on countering transnational threats from non-state actors such as terrorists), to a collective defense structure like NATO (i.e., possessing capabilities for waging conventional wars against non-member countries).  These questions in turn, entail apprehensions whether such goals are appropriate or necessary in an environment of increasing transnational cooperation. However, the immediate reality of modern terrorist movements, equipped with increasingly sophisticated firepower, dedicated military forces, an integrated command structure, and a combined planning staff, certainly merits deeper deliberations as to the virtue of a genuine collective defense alliance, whose members defend one another against external aggression.

Thus, while the collaboration of India and Kyrgyzstan on promoting anti-terrorism is an ambitious step towards creation of a regional conflict-prevention mechanism, only time will tell how far these agreements will prove efficacious in securing cooperation in terror crises, involving volatile political sentiments. However it cannot be denied that this broad connectivity initiative is a positive embodiment of an expeditious response to grave concerns pertaining to the rising trend of extremism, radicalism and terrorism in Eurasia and the whole world, as well as, of a means to bolster the economic and cultural linkages between the two countries.