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India-Armenia relations have been actively developing in recent years. In a series of consultations and meetings, India and Armenia have signed defense deals, a significant development in the global arms trade. For India, a great power, this was the first export deal of its weapons, while Armenia, a minor power, has diversified its military capacity. The question is: Why do these asymmetrical India-Armenia relations matter? And to whom?
For this, we need to look at the field of International Relations (IR) theory and how it has developed over time—specifically at universities in the UK and later the United States—as a field of thought separate from politics, history, sociology, and science. Classical strategic studies, along with military and economic power, stress the resources and strength of different allies and partners. Such research is then integrated into major IR theories, which can be grouped as realism, liberalism, and constructivism.
Realism sees alliances as a result of military and economic power, and their purpose as survival. Henry Morgenthau, Morton Kaplan, and Stephen Walt, for example, see alliances as a form of cooperation that aggregates national capabilities against a threat: nations, in other words, form alliances to increase their security by enhancing their capabilities.
Liberalism imagines alliances as an organic development. In this view, the world is not a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, and nations, one way or another, tend to move towards cooperation, interdependence, and coordination of global management practices: alliances are a natural and inevitable phenomenon. Allies and partners are an outcome of a development model that attracts other nations. Given the increasing global interdependence, as Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye argue, alliances and alignments arise automatically.
However, constructivism imagines alliances and alignments in terms of identity. Close cooperation between actors, who do not share certain factors of identity and values, is impossible. For example, a fundamental rejection of radical Islam or a dedication to democracy might equally hinder the formation of an alliance. The English school, which went the furthest along these lines, imagined the deliberate construction of communities, groups, and cooperations made up of countries that share values, interests, and other identity markers. Constructivism recognizes the world’s anarchistic nature, but implicitly encourages fighting it by creating network structures and alliances that will work in times of crisis and tension.
It’s still too early to talk about an alliance between India and Armenia, but how might these theories explain this alignment given the two nations’ asymmetry? Why would much more powerful India need such cooperation? And why should Armenia deepen its cooperation with Delhi beyond the acquisition of weapons, given the dependence that suggests?
One answer is that small countries tend to have low security and high autonomy (although not always) and therefore try to create alliances that increase their security, even at the expense of some autonomy. And what is in it for the stronger partner? Even though minor powers cannot provide greater security to a potential ally, they may be capable of offering benefits that will increase their ally’s autonomy.
Major powers, of course, have both high autonomy and high security, and enhancing security is not a primary goal. Nevertheless, they are ambitious and are always seeking to change the status quo in their favor, and an alliance with another major power increases its security at the cost of some autonomy. Alternatively, an alliance with a minor power may offer less security but increases autonomy and global position. Small powers may offer, for example, military bases or other agreements that provide opportunities to project power.
Deals between great and minor powers in this situation are naturally advantageous to both sides. A minor power will make concessions in its autonomy in exchange for the security that a great power can supply. This pattern of alliance building is asymmetric because the parties receive different, but nevertheless, valuable benefits. Moreover, in the history of diplomacy, such interactions have been more stable than symmetrical alliances and associations. They indicate to other countries that the allies share certain interests and are likely to coordinate their actions in the future.
Thus, there are many examples of asymmetric cooperation in the history of diplomacy. For instance, any close relationship with the United States—the most powerful actor for now—can be viewed in this capacity. Relations between the United States, South Korea, and Japan are examples of that.
But why the asymmetric cooperation between Armenia and India?
First and foremost, geopolitical logic—specifically, the strengthening of political Islam in Turkey—makes Armenia want to seek a strong ally in the region. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdǒğan, has adhered to an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, increasing Ankara’s influence in new zones. Turkish policy is becoming more authoritarian, acquiring expansionist and pan-Turkish traits.
Secondly, due to the growing presence of Pakistani influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, India is forced to prop up its position outside the subcontinent. The influence of Islamabad on the Afghan’s ruling Taliban has significantly intensified. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the military are the central patrons and sponsors of the Islamist dictatorship, which many countries recognize as terrorist. Regardless of decreasing Pakistani influence on the Taliban and the activation of a stronger Pakistani wing of the Taliban opposed to Islamabad, Pakistan is still aligned with the Haqqani Network, the radical wing of the Taliban. This has had consequences in the region.
Pakistan took an indirect part in the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 on the side of Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia and the self-defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. From the point of view of theory, this speaks of the increased ambitions and appetites of Islamabad. Considering the confrontation between India and Pakistan, the support of Armenia by Delhi was to be expected. There are also reasons to believe that radical Islamist organizations and Islamist contractors were used in this war under the cover of existing Turkish and Pakistani organizations: the President of France and the leaders of the Russian siloviki have identified these connections, and other countries systematically fighting Islamist extremism have similar concerns.
What are other factors we might identify?
Most prominently, India aims to become a superpower, as China has, by reaching beyond Asia and expanding its military potential. By 2050, India will become one of the largest global economies, according to the United Nations. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India currently ranks third in the world in military expenditure and is also the third largest economy, with a GDP exceeding $3.5 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. The rise of India’s influence in Eurasia and, notably, the South Caucasus region, will increase its political capital and autonomy, the essential elements of a great power.
Indeed, other influential players have also stepped up their policies in this region so far. The European Union has sent a monitoring mission and observers to the Armenian border. German, French, Japanese, Dutch, and American high-ranking diplomats have created permanent dialogues with their Armenian counterparts, bolstering cooperation and their presence. Armenia has shown that it is not alone in facing threats from Azerbaijan and Turkey, while India is now part of a coalition that will benefit not just itself, but a larger set of global partners. It can also showcase its autonomy, ability to play a big international role, and willingness to resist emerging autocracies.
With an asymmetric Armenian alliance, India’s position in relation to Islamic extremism, Pakistan’s regional influence, and China is strengthened. The competition with China is particularly intractable. In this context, the Indian-Japanese military exercises in January 2023 are noteworthy, but so is the first-ever export of Indian weapons to Armenia.
This is a classic strategy intended to strengthen India’s strategic position, and a deepening relationship between Armenia and India is entirely possible in the future. Armenia also would agree to deepen such a relationship in response to Russian decline as well as Russia’s alliances with Turkey and Azerbaijan. At the same time, Armenia is actively building cooperation with France, the United States, and other Western powers, as it strives to strengthen its position in the community of developed democracies and defend itself from multiple future threats.
Georgi Asatryan, political scientist, is in residence at the Armenian Society of Fellows, and is a former associate professor at Moscow State University.