- Aug 17, 2009
By Ritu Sharma
New Delhi, Sep 18 (IANS) An Indian proposal to have an airbase in Mongolia to increase its strategic outreach in the Central Asian region appears to have been shelved, an official said, amid concerns that it could exacerbate tensions with China.
Mooted in 2004 during the visit of then Mongolian prime minister N. Enkhbayar in January 2004, the idea elicited a positive response in Mongolia, a country with which India has been rapidly developing ties in the space and defence fields.
“We wanted to have a base in Mongolia but it has not fructified. Currently, we have a base in Tajikistan, and that’s it,” a senior Indian Air Force (IAF) official told IANS requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Although India used the Tajikistan airbase at the turn of the century, it is really not operational in the military sense and there are no Indian aircraft stationed there, knowledgeable sources say.
Besides providing enhanced reach to the IAF, the Mongolian base was seen as giving India strategic leverage vis-a-vis China. Resource-rich Central Asia is also important for India to secure its energy supplies.
But the proposed airbase did not figure during the recently concluded four-day visit of Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj to India. Elbegdorj signed a civil nuclear pact with India. Four other pacts were inked, including one to enhance defence cooperation.
These ties have steadily proliferated since the late 1990s as part of New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy and strategy to build strategic ties with China’s neighbours. And with China-Mongolian relations de-emphasising Mongolian nationalism and focusing more on regional security cooperation, the Central Asian country is keen to strengthen its ties with other countries as well.
In 2001, India and Mongolia signed an agreement on Defence Cooperation, which included joint exercises and reciprocal visits by military officers, followed by the constitution of Joint Defence Working Group.
In January 2004, a cooperation protocol was signed between its Department of Space and the Mongolian Ministry of Infrastructure. It also covers studies related to satellite communication, satellite-related remote sensing and satellite meteorology. Also included in the protocol are satellite ground stations and satellite mission management, training facilities and exchange of scientists.
A defence ministry official said the idea of the base emerged from long-term “strategic thinking” and a proposal did reach the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
“We wanted a base in Mongolia to give us greater reach in the region. But with an air-to-air refueller and better aircraft (with us), the need is not imminent,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Defence experts agree that the airbase would have given India a bigger strategic footprint.
“Having a military presence in the region will give India a much greater strategic profile. However, it (the plan for a base in Mongolia) seems to have been shelved as the move may be seen as provocative by China,” National Maritime Foundation director Commodore Uday C. Bhaskar, a well known strategic analyst, told IANS.
India and Mongolia share good relations, which have been deepened by the Buddhist link. India was the first non-Communist country to recognise Mongolia, which opened its embassy here in 1956. India’s diplomatic mission there opened 15 years later in 1971.
While New Delhi has reportedly dropped plans to have an airbase in Mongolia, experts say that China continues with its strategy to encircle New Delhi with a series of ports in countries neighbouring India.
The Gwadar port developed in Pakistan with China’s help has neared completion. Opening at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, it has provided China a strategic foothold in Asia and a crucial gateway to trade. The deep-water harbour in Gwadar could be used by China’s expanding fleet of nuclear submarines.
China is also engaged in developing ports and building infrastructure in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Said Bhaskar: “The Indian government is not clear how to deal with China. India should think of investing in a civil air base in Mongolia. It will be akin to the commercial port in Sri Lanka that China is investing in.”
(Ritu Sharma can be contacted at [email protected])