By Davit Antonyan
APRI Armenia Associate Fellow
Over the past three years, the level of cooperation between India and Armenia has increased at a rapid pace, bolstered by the establishment of a growing defense and security partnership. Given its expanding contribution to Armenia’s efforts to increase its defense capabilities and its potential to partner on Armenia’s strategic and economic development, India has become Armenia’s most important new foreign policy partner.
So far much of the growth in the Armenia-India relationship has been driven by the initiative of India. Armenia should not sit idly by, waiting for India to approach Armenia for the next stage of cooperation. Amid reports that India’s enthusiasm for Armenia has waned slightly after the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is important for Armenia to maintain and strengthen this relationship. Armenia should now be proactive in establishing a strategic partnership with India which would realize the full potential of the bilateral relations.
As a rising geopolitical power that has managed to maintain friendly relations with all major superpowers, India has a great deal of lessons to share on how to navigate the Russia-West confrontation and the North-South divide. It has managed to maintain a balance between the US and Russia, without burning bridges with either one. It has kept diplomatic channels open and productive with China, its neighboring rival. It has also built important know-how in border management and border security as a result of repeated flare ups along its northern frontiers. All of this is important for Armenia to learn and understand as it undertakes its own foreign policy diversification.
Importantly, India has expressed an explicit desire to partner with Yerevan in the South Caucasus given their aligned strategic interests in the region. India can serve as a geopolitical counterweight to the “Three Brothers” alliance between Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. By engaging with India in bilateral and multilateral formats, such as Armenia-India-Iran and Armenia-India-France-Greece, Armenia gains a strategic ally in a region that otherwise faces Turkish hegemony. At the same time this partnership does not antagonize either the West or Russia.
India has attracted the interest and attention of many countries. It has a particularly strong influence on mid-sized and emerging countries that consider themselves part of the “Global South” – countries that lie outside of Europe and North America and their incumbent power structures. At the most recent Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate held by the Emirates Policy Center, my colleagues at APRI Armenia attended a dynamic session on India’s rising role on the global stage. In his panel intervention, explaining how India views itself in today’s world, President Samir Saran of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said that “India is South-West” in its sensibilities. Its combination of emerging country know-how, represented in the Global South, and strong democratic institutions, well-known to the Western world, allow it to play a global “bridging role.” India is exercising that bridging role by becoming a credible global advocate for smaller countries, like Armenia. India has diplomatic and economic leverage, which it has used on Armenia’s behalf at the UN Security Council to condemn the September 2022 attacks by Azerbaijan on the Armenian territory.
While existing relationships with other countries run their course, Armenia’s bilateral ties with India in every sphere have the potential to flourish, to the benefit of both partners. As Armenia seeks to diversify its foreign policy and acclimate to the chaos of the current world, it should maximize this opportunity to further boost its national development and come up with initiatives that will benefit both countries.
Over the past year, APRI Armenia has included at the core of its research agenda the opportunities that exist for comprehensive engagement between Armenia and India, identifying security, infrastructure, trade, technology, business collaborations, and tourism as key areas to explore.
Though the trends in Armenian-Indian defense cooperation and new arms deals are promising, Armenia should establish a more strategic and comprehensive partnership with India, starting with holistic defense collaboration. As one of a handful of countries with experience integrating Russian and Soviet-grade weapons with Western equipment, India could provide the proper equipment and training necessary to modernize Armenia’s defense capabilities while using its existing stockpiles. Moreover, defense cooperation with India should also include partnership on peacekeeping, joint exercises, military training by the Indian army, and advice on logistical and technical reforms by Indian military officials. As a country friendly with both Armenia’s traditional and newer security partners, it holds the most potential for revamping Armenia’s defense capacities without provoking any of its partners.
In its vision for greater connectivity and transit routes, Armenia should further boost its partnership with India in building up its infrastructure. India has significant experience investing in infrastructure in geographically-significant countries to improve trade routes, such as with its investment in Iran’s Chabahar Port project. From land routes like the North-South highway connecting the Persian Gulf and Iran with Georgia and the Black Sea through Armenia, to its envisaged dry port in Gyumri, Armenia would benefit from Indian experience and investment to build out these projects.
Despite an almost doubling in trade since 2020, Armenia and India’s bilateral trade volume is still objectively low – only around $358 million USD in 2022. In contrast, India’s trade volume with Azerbaijan was almost five times that of Armenia’s at $1.9 billion USD in 2022. Establishing greater trade volumes and dependencies between Armenia and India is not just economically beneficial for Armenia, but important geopolitically as well. Greater economic ties contribute to increased transit and people-to-people connections, while also enhancing Armenia’s economic value to India in the region.
Specifically within the fields of pharmaceuticals, information technology, and renewable energy technology – where India is a leading exporter – Armenia could benefit from imported Indian products. Furthermore, Armenia could replace goods it currently imports from adversarial countries with those from India. Research should be conducted to assess which products (Turkish textiles, Pakistani rice, etc.) can be imported from India most effectively.
There are already collaborative projects happening between Indian and Armenian businesses. Indian businesses and technology companies alike have expressed to APRI Armenia that they are interested in partnering on joint ventures with businesses in Armenia as well as in the Armenian diaspora. This route should be actively pursued, through joint ventures that are based in Armenia and India, rather than in third countries.
Because the absence of a direct flight between Armenia and India hinders larger trade volumes, establishing a direct flight should be the first step towards facilitating bilateral trade. Alongside, Armenia should take actionable steps to boost tourism with India, incentivize the Indian film industry to produce more movies in Armenia and better promote Armenia in India through more active marketing. These important individual initiatives, and many more, should be part of an integrated road map for enhanced bilateral relations that will complement already ongoing cooperation in the military field and infrastructure development.
All of this reinforces our original point: that the most important foreign policy relationship for Armenia, now and into the future, is India. Developing these relations should be an all-of-society project, with focused initiatives from government, academia, civil society and even student groups, starting at the primary level. The opportunity for Armenia to survive and thrive in what has been called “The Asian Century” will depend on the projects launched today, which can foster mutual understanding and innovative new directions of interstate collaboration.
Next year, the APRI Armenia team will continue to explore and outline what a strategic and comprehensive vision for the Armenia-India relationship should look like, identifying opportunities in defense, trade, infrastructure, and tourism. With its interests aligned in keeping the Three Brothers alliance in check and pushing forward a Middle Path that does not antagonize the West or Russia, the Armenia-India comprehensive partnership should come to fruition.
In the coming year, India must earn Armenia’s resolute focus and a dedicated effort to envision our shared, prosperous future.