Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Why Ignoring Armenia Was India’s Foreign Policy Blunder Just Like Israel?

After six weeks of fighting, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a peace deal along with Russia on November 10. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region had taken a complex turn with the involvement of various powers from both sides. 

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During the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had issued a statement calling for restraint from both sides and resolving the conflict through peaceful diplomatic negotiations. 

Turkey and Pakistan siding with Azerbaijan was considered as a ground for India to support Armenia. Turkey and Azerbaijan have sided with Pakistan over the Jammu Kashmir issue while Armenia has supported India. 

India’s relations with Armenia are still at a nascent stage. The recent conflict could provide a reason for India to cultivate closer ties with Armenia. But even beyond the conflict, India must make efforts to develop its relations with Armenia.

India’s Interests In The Region

India has a stake in the peaceful resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since it has an impact on India’s interests in the region. The south Caucasus is important for India as the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) passes through this region. 

The INSTC would connect India to West Asia, Central Asia, and Eurasia. India’s relations with this region and neighboring regions are still in the initial phase. Connectivity remains the crucial and most basic factor for India in this region. India has been involved in the development of various connectivity projects through Central Asia and the Caucasus. 

To give a further boost to connectivity, the INSTC is expected to operate in coordination with the Chabahar Port and the Ashgabat Agreement. India’s intention in developing the multiple connectivity links is to circumvent Pakistan to reach Central Asia and Eurasia. 

The involvement of different regional powers supporting either side would result in instability in the south Caucasus as well as its neighborhood. Overall the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict directly affects India since it could stall the completion of connectivity projects and thereby India’s outreach to the region.

Cultural Ties Between India & Armenia

Cultural connections between countries have been important in conducting diplomacy. India has also time and again invoked shared cultural ties in reaching out to different countries, especially in the neighborhood and extended neighborhood. 

India always cites centuries-old cultural ties with Iran, Afghanistan, the Central Asian and the Middle Eastern countries. All these ties fall within the realm of Islam as a religion and culture.

But it is also important to consider the links between India and Armenia through Hinduism. India’s contact with Armenia is said to be 2000-year old.

Two Hindu princes are said to have ruled over a portion of Armenia and so Hindu religion was practiced there. On the other hand, the Armenians had contact with India for business and trade. Over the past few centuries, Armenians had settled in India. While today their number is negligible, there are Armenian churches in Kolkata and Chennai. 

Armenia-EU-Agreement

Just as India-Armenia relations remain underdeveloped, India’s Hindu connection with Armenia also remains a relatively unknown area as the link between the two countries. India should explore this cultural side in order to increase its proximity to Armenia.

The Israel-Taiwan Template

Israel and Taiwan provide a template, in two different contexts, for India to develop stronger relations with Armenia.  

India’s relations with Armenia go parallel to Israel in the sense that India and Israel had several centuries-old connections through the Jewish people living in India. The Jews came to India after fleeing persecution at the hands of Seleucids in Palestine more than 2000 years ago. 

Over the centuries the Jews had integrated into the Indian society and Indians connected with the Jews long before Israel came into existence as a country in 1948. 

With respect to Armenia, the earliest contact of Armenians with India is believed to be established in 780 CE with the visit of an Armenian merchant to Malabar in Kerala. Similar to the Jews, many Armenians had to flee their country after the Ottoman and Safavid conquests in the 15th century. 

Some of those who fled arrived in India settling in Delhi, Agra, and later in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The Armenians in India were not large in numbers but they have been a prosperous trading community. 

With the formation of Israel, most of the Jews left India in 1948. Similarly, following India’s independence in 1947, the majority of the Armenians too moved to Armenia and other countries. 

India established diplomatic relations with both Israel and Armenia in 1992. Since then India’s bilateral relations with Israel have only grown in the past almost three decades, especially in the area of defense. 

The last five years have seen India-Israel relations getting stronger with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in 2018.

India is Israel’s largest arms buyer while Israel is India’s third-largest arms supplier. The growth in India-Israel ties could be replicated in the case of India-Armenia relations.

Taiwan provides yet another template that could be matched with Armenia. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has found a resonance with Indians, which is similar to China’s conflict with Taiwan. Since China is also involved in a conflict with India, Indians have been expressing their solidarity with Taiwan, an opponent of China. 

Recently, Taiwan’s National Day saw a very warm and enthusiastic exchange of greetings between Indian and Taiwanese people. Further, Taiwan’s Prime Minister Tsai Ing-wen thanked India for celebrating Taiwan’s national day. 

The Indian government on its part has been taking steps indicating its willingness to strengthen relations with Taiwan. The steps include consideration of trade talks with Taiwan and India exempting Taiwan from Chinese Foreign Portfolio Investments that require prior approval of the Indian government.

Similarly, the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has seen Indian support pour out in favor of Armenia. While the support to Armenia and Taiwan is understandable in the context of opposing India’s adversaries, India can benefit significantly by having closer relations with Armenia.

The Way Ahead

India’s relations with Armenia have been receiving some quiet boosts in the past one year. In the 2019 United Nations General Assembly, Turkey raised the issue of Jammu and Kashmir criticizing India’s actions. In turn, India responded by Modi holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of Armenia, Greece, and Cyprus. 

In another development, earlier this year India secured a $40-million defense deal with Armenia. As per the agreement, Armenia is set to get India’s indigenously developed SWATHI weapon-locating radars. Defense deal is an important step in India-Armenia relations, on which both countries could elevate their ties to a higher level. 

Despite the underdeveloped nature of India-Armenia relations, more progress could be expected on the lines of the foreign policy pursued by Modi in the past six years. Modi’s foreign policy has been characteristic of laying stress upon the lesser-focused engagements. 

Modi has the distinction to be the first Indian prime minister to visit countries such as AustraliaFiji, and Spain after a long gap of several decades since the last prime ministerial visits. Modi is also the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Since Armenia remains a lesser focused entity, it should form part of Modi’s foreign policy in the future going by these precedents. 

Cultural connections combined with the emerging geopolitical factors make a strong case for India to increase its engagements with Armenia. 

The author is a political analyst and researcher based in Vadodara, India

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