09/13/2006, 00.00
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India looking for energy supplies in Central Asia

New Delhi is expanding its military and political ties with Tajikistan to extend its involvement in the region. Fighting Islamic terrorism is one of its goals.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – India is moving into Central Asia looking for new energy sources but also to counter Islamic terrorism. To do so it is building an airbase on the outskirts of Ayni, a dusty town in the north-west of Tajikistan. Slowly the base is expanding in the desert—new hangars, refuelling facilities and barracks for a sizeable force. By the end of the year, squadrons of Russian-built MiG-29 will lift off the tarmac and fly over the empty mountain ranges, with Indian air force pilots at the controls, teaching their Tajik counterparts how to handle the aircraft.

This was made possible by an agreement the two countries signed during Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov's visit to India last month. For both India and Tajikistan, the base will facilitate the fight against the Talibans and al-Qaeda which are making a comeback in Afghanistan. Its facilities can be used to launch surgical attacks against militant camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and could play an important role in improving relations between India and Afghanistan, both natural allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism, which is active in Indian border states like Kashmir.

But Tajikistan is also a gas-rich state bordering China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in which India has growing interests.

It is a move in keeping with New Delhi's belated aim of joining in the new 'Great Game' playing itself out in the central Asian region, where fierce competition for the area's vast energy resources is intensifying, Indian defence analyst Rahul Bedi.

Following Indian-Tajik rapprochement, China is getting into the act as well. Chinese-Tajik cooperation is in full swing—visits by senior Chinese leaders to Tajikistan have been followed up with generous military assistance to that country.

American strategic affairs specialist and Central Asia expert Stephen Blank said regional access to energy is vitally important for India.

Currently, India consumes 1.9 million barrels of oil a day, with 70 per cent of it imported, but that is set to rise to 4 million barrels a day by 2010, most of it imported.

However, India is not a well placed as Russia and China since it does not border any of the Central Asian states.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already warned in 2005 that "China is ahead of us in planning for its energy security—India can no longer be complacent."

Since 2000 Indian-owned Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC) has invested US.5 billion in overseas exploration, but this is little compared to Chinese-owned China National Petroleum Corporation's estimated US$ 40 billion overseas investments. Still, Beijing and New Delhi have found ways to work together. They two are in fact cooperating in developing Iran's Yahavaran oilfield.

For the Times of India, the Ayni Airbase represents the nation's "first tangible power statement in central Asia".

Another one is India's observer status in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), that includes mainland China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and which is increasingly playing a role in trade and commerce.

Similarly, New Delhi is seeking access to Kazakh oil and gas and participation in mega-projects like the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and another linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, Mr Blank said. But Indian-Pakistani rivalry and security concerns have made these projects more difficult to complete.

India has increased energy cooperation with its long-standing military and political ally Russia, investing in oil and gas exploration in Russia's Sakhalin Island and in the joint Russian-Kazakh Kurmangazy oilfield in the Caspian Sea.

For experts, Russia has a vested interest in increasing its cooperation with India and China because it can keep out the United States and put a check on Chinese expansionism. (PB)

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