Indian Army Chief’s visit to Uzbekistan and prospects of Indo-Uzbek Defence Cooperation
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF
Background

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army, General Manoj Pande is on a three-day visit to Uzbekistan from 15-18 April. [1] In the backdrop of a fast-changing and unpredicted regional and international environment, this visit is highly significant. The Russia-Ukraine war, Israel-Hamas conflict, Israel-Iran conflict, instability in Afghanistan, and a terrorist attack in Moscow carried out by the Islamic State-related Tajik terrorists have prompted Central Asian countries to consider bolstering their security infrastructure. As one of the most important partners, Russia has been considered to be the security guarantor in Central Asia, especially through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members of this regional security grouping while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not part of it.

Since assuming office, Uzbekistan's President Shawkat Mirziyoyev has implemented socioeconomic reforms. Furthermore, given the necessity for improved security infrastructure, he has expanded investment in the country's defence and security sector. In 2023, defence spending was increased from USD 154 million to USD 260 million, representing a 37% increase in the country's entire defence budget. This increase takes the total budget for defence and security to over USD 7.8 billion. [2] Uzbekistan is also looking for partner countries to strengthen defence cooperation, and New Delhi, with its growing footprint as a rising defence producer and exporter, certainly has the potential to assist.

Given recent developments in India-Uzbekistan relations, the defence sector has abundant potential for growth. Uzbekistan's growing defence needs and India's efforts to indigenize its defence sector under the Make in India Programme are complementary. As a result, in addition to training and exercises, joint defence production, military medicine, and other forms of enhanced defence cooperation are now required. Against this backdrop, General Manoj Pande’s visit to Uzbekistan can be considered significant because it will evaluate the level of defence and security cooperation between India and Uzbekistan and will also explore new areas of cooperation.

In July 2015, PM Modi visited five Central Asian countries, marking a turning point in India-Central Asia relations. With the support of Uzbekistan, India has started many initiatives aimed at bringing Central Asian countries closer together in a multitude of settings. The India-Central Asia Dialogue, the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, and the India-Central Asia Leaders’ Summit are just a few of the efforts that demonstrate the importance of India-Central Asia ties. In this sense, Uzbekistan has also played a critical role.

The establishment of defence cooperation has been a landmark in India-Uzbekistan ties in recent years. Following the visit to India of former Uzbek Defence Minister Maj. Gen. Abdusalam Azizov on September 4-7, 2018, bilateral defence cooperation progressed. Through combined military exercises, military education, and military medicine, India and Uzbekistan agreed to strengthen their counter-terrorism cooperation. Cooperation in Special Forces training, military engineering training capsules for Uzbeks, and air force exchanges were all part of the 2019-20 plan to help Uzbekistan's Qarshi Aviation School flourish. India has also assisted in the establishment of an India Room at the Armed Forces Academy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. [3]

Both countries pledged to enhance defence and defence industrial cooperation during Uzbek President Mirziyoyev's visit to India in October 2018. To strengthen the counterterrorism framework, it has been determined to conduct joint military training exercises. Cooperation in military medicine and military education is also authorised. To provide an institutional ground to the bilateral defence cooperation, both countries have agreed to create a Joint Working Group (JWG) to improve mutually beneficial defence-related operations. Also, it was agreed to establish a Defence Wing in the Uzbek Embassy in New Delhi. [4]

On November 1-3, 2019, RM Rajnath Singh visited Tashkent and Samarkand and met with his Uzbek counterpart, Maj. Gen. Bakhodir Kurbanov. A Memorandum of Understanding on Military Medicine was signed. As a follow-up to the MoU on Military Education signed in October 2018, two institutional-level MoUs were also inked for partnership in training and capacity building. Subsequently, DUSTLIK I, India's first-ever bilateral military exercise with Uzbekistan, was started by RM Rajnath Singh on November 4, 2019, in the Chirchiq training region near Tashkent. [5]

DUSTLIK II, the second joint military exercise between India and Uzbekistan, was held in March 2021 in Foreign Training Node Chaubatia (Uttarakhand). Forty-five troops from the Uzbek and Indian army participated in the drill. Under a UN mandate, both contingents shared their counterterrorism knowledge and capabilities in mountainous, rural, and urban environments. The exercise began on March 17 and was completed on March 18, 2021, with a 36-hour joint validation exercise. Soldiers from both armies used the validation exercise to put their skills to the test as they confronted the challenges of real-world operations. The 3rd edition of the joint training exercise between Indian and Uzbekistan armies, EX-DUSTLIK was conducted at Yangiarik, Uzbekistan from 22nd to 31st March 2022. In continuation, DUSTLIK-IV was held in India in February 2023.

India and Uzbekistan had their first annual meeting of the Joint Working Group on Defence in New Delhi on the 27th and 28th of February 2019, followed by a visit by the Indian Defence Secretary to Tashkent in March 2019. As part of its defence-industrial cooperation, India has offered a USD 40 million line of credit to the Republic of Uzbekistan. [6] In September 2019 and November 2020, New Delhi sponsored two defence industrial workshops, including participants from both the public and private sectors to provide more disclosure to the stakeholders in the defence sector.

Significance of General Manoj Pande’s Visit

Though there has been a continuity of exchanges of dialogue and visits when it comes to the defence cooperation between the two countries, however, except for joint military exercises and a few other initiatives nothing much has been achieved in this sector despite having a multitude of opportunities. General Manoj Pande’s visit to the Republic of Uzbekistan will mark a significant step in bolstering the defence cooperation between India and the Republic of Uzbekistan.

General Pande will hold discussions with the Republic of Uzbekistan's top defence officials. He will meet the Uzbek Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Bakhodir Kurbanov, the First Deputy Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Khalmukhamedov Shukhrat Gayratjanovich, and the Deputy Minister and Chief of Air and Air Defence Forces, Major General Burkhanov Ahmed Jamalovich. These discussions are critical in promoting stronger military cooperation. Nonetheless, the priority should be meeting the previous agreements established in the defence industry, such as the potential for joint defense production, training in defense manufacturing, military medicine, etc.

The COAS will visit the Center for Innovative Technologies LLC on April 16, 2024, to acquire some insights about Uzbekistan's defence technology and innovation projects. India excels in defensive technology, which can help Uzbekistan develop its defence infrastructure. One of the few nations to have successfully built and produced an indigenous ballistic missile defence system, a fourth-plus generation fighter aircraft, a nuclear submarine, a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system, an ICBM, and a Main Battle Tank (MBT) is India. Thus, New Delhi can exchange defence technology following Uzbekistan's requirements. Additionally, India has assisted Uzbekistan in setting up an IT lab at the Uzbekistan Armed Forces Academy, which will be inaugurated by General Pande.

The Uzbek-Afghan border lies close to Termez, where the fifth iteration of the Indo-Uzbek military drill DUSTLIK-V is currently taking place. The Joint Exercise will be witnessed by the COAS as the culmination of his trip. It is noteworthy that this military drill is being held close to the Afghan border. Uzbekistan has been attempting to manage its relationship with the Taliban ever since the latter returned to power in Afghanistan. However, the increasing security challenges emanating from Afghanistan remain unchanged. The Islamic State Khorasan Province has posed the greatest threat (ISKP). Even while the Taliban has vowed not to permit the use of Afghan territory for terrorist objectives, the recent incident in Moscow cast doubt on those promises and highlighted the necessity for increased monitoring and border security. As a result of Tashkent and New Delhi's shared security concerns about Afghanistan, their cooperation in that country can be increased.

China has benefited from the decline in Russian influence in Central Asia following the conflict in Ukraine. Beijing, which was once the region's main economic player, is progressively becoming more significant as a security ally as well. In addition, Turkey is deepening its defence cooperation with nations in Central Asia, particularly with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In such a setting, Uzbekistan, one of the main regional countries, may play an important role in helping India overhaul its defence and security cooperation with the other Central Asian countries.

Conclusion

The visit by General Manoj Pande aims at strengthening military cooperation between India and Uzbekistan besides exploring new avenues of collaboration between the two nations. Despite the lack of direct access, ties between India and Uzbekistan have been gradually evolving. Increased defence cooperation will assist the security, stability, economic growth, and development of these countries, as well as offer energy security and a satisfactory regional role for India. New Delhi must use its economic and technological resources to strengthen its strategic relations with Tashkent. It would not only increase the strategic relevance of India's Central Asia strategy, but it would also increase goodwill between the two nations.

References

[1] General Manoj Pande, Chief of Army Staff Embarks On A Visit To The Republic Of Uzbekistan, PIB Releases, April, 15, 2024. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=2017903
[2] Uzbekistan sees surge in defense and security expenses to $260 mn in 2023, daryo news, Decenber 23, 2023. https://daryo.uz/en/2023/12/23/uzbekistan-sees-surge-in-defense-and-security-expenses-to-260-mn-in-2023
[3] PK Gupta, India-Central Asia defence and Security Cooperation, VIF Brief, February 2022. https://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/India-Central-Asia-Defence-and-Security-Cooperation.pdf
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] India becomes a key player in Central Asia riding on infra projects, The Economic times, December 23, 20222. https://infra.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/urban-infrastructure/india-becomes-a-key-player-in-central-asia-riding-on-infra-projects/96451374

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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