Why is Azerbaijan not focused on cultivating good relations with India?

Story by  Aditi Bhaduri | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 08-05-2024
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev


Aditi Bhaduri 

Recently, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev asked India to stay away from supplying defence equipment to arch-rival Armenia. Citing concerns over Azerbaijan’s national security, Aliyev said, “It is a matter of our national security. We cannot sit and wait, seeing how France, India, and Greece are weaponising Armenia against us and doing it openly, demonstratively.”

The president further said that he has conveyed his stand to both Armenia and other countries supplying weapons to Armenia. “We will have to take serious measures if we see a serious threat to us,” said the president

The Azeri president was responding to questions during an event in the run-up to COP29 in Baku.

This is as bizarre as it can get. Both Armenia and India are sovereign countries that have the right to export and/or import military hardware. There are no international embargoes on one or the other country, just as there is no embargo Greece or France, the other two countries singled out by the president. 

This, however, is not the first time that Aliyev has expressed displeasure with India and Armenia’s defense cooperation.  In December 2023 he had said “Countries who supply Armenia with weapons, like France and India, now pour the oil on fire and create unrealistic illusions in Armenia that using these weapons they can take back Karabakh,” at an event in Baku titled ‘Karabakh: Back Home After 30 Years:  Accomplishments and Challenges.'

A couple of months before this the Indian ambassador in Baku Sridharan Madhusudhanan was hauled up by the host country and admonished for weapons’ transfer to Armenia via Iran. The Head of the Foreign Policy Department of the Presidential Administration Hikmet Hajiyev warned Ambassador Madhusudhanan, that this would escalate the situation as it would militarize Armenia and be detrimental to sustainable peace between the two South Caucasian nations.

Most important, however, is the fact that Azerbaijan has and continues to shop for arms from its friends Turkey and Israel.  Yet, it wants to deny the same right to its neighbor Armenia. Moreover, in the bitter war that Armenia fought and lost with Azerbaijan in 2020 has no record of the use of Indian weapons it bought. Azerbaijan, however, won the war majorly because of the arms it had imported from Turkey and Israel. And these imports helped catapult sales in the region - like Turkish drone sales. So, what exactly is Baku's beef with Delhi?

India and Armenia have a centuries-old relationship with no irritant.  More recently the two have entered into a defense relationship.  In 2020 it was reported that Armenia had entered into a deal with India for the import of indigenously built SWATHI radars developed by the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) worth USD 40 million.  In September 2022, Armenia signed a contract with India for the indigenous Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles, and ammunition at an estimated Rs 2,000 crore. 

This is the right of both India and Armenia to enter into such agreements.  So Azerbaijan’s fears are rather misplaced. They give away a sense of insecurity in the victory it has achieved over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh after almost two decades.

Instead of condemning India, Azerbaijan should wonder why it doesn't share the same cordial relations as its neighbor does.

After all, both Armenia and Azerbaijan, as part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, had cordial relations with India.  India recognized both as sovereign states almost around the same time as they emerged as independent nations following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Yet, while relations with Armenia took off almost instantly, relations with Azerbaijan took a different trajectory. Azerbaijan preferred deepening ties with Pakistan, facilitated by Turkey. Yet, this too need not have impeded good ties with India. 

Diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan were established on 28 February 1992, yet the Indian diplomatic mission in Baku was opened only in March 1999. Azerbaijan took an even longer time and opened its diplomatic mission in Delhi only in 2004. It took even longer to appoint an Ambassador.  Twenty years later, there have been no major high-profile official bilateral visits between the two sides at the level of heads of state or government. 

Moreover, Azerbaijan began taking inimical to India's position on Kashmir, while India has remained neutral on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan has consistently supported Pakistan's position on Kashmir, allowing Kashmir Day events to take place in Baku, as well as events by the Pakistani embassy in Baku, condemning India's scrapping of Article 370, which gave Kashmir special status. 

Azerbaijan also has defense relations with Pakistan. Following the Karabakh war, which has imbued fresh optimism in both Ankara and Baku, defense relations between Azerbaijan and Pakistan have also increased.  In a tripartite meeting in Islamabad in January 2021 of their foreign ministers, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan adopted the Islamabad Declaration which said that Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan back each other's position on Kashmir, Cyprus, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Such statements find no parallels in relations between India and Armenia. The Islamabad meeting was followed up by a two-week military drill between the three countries -  Three Brothers  2021 in Baku.

Moreover, Pakistan trains Azeri military personnel. The two countries have also just clinched a deal worth $1.6 billion whereby Pakistan will export 8 JF-17C Block-III warplanes to Azerbaijan. This is reported to be Pakistan’s largest order to supply defense equipment abroad. Negotiations had been on since 2016 when Azerbaijan first evinced interest. Pakistan will also supply Azerbaijan with ammunition, including air-to-surface missiles.

Despite this, Azerbaijan takes umbrage with India for supplying arms to Armenia. 

Yet, in terms of trade Azerbaijan has far more to gain from India. According to available data, bilateral trade between India and Azerbaijan increased from a paltry US$50 million in 2005 to US$ 1.882 billion in 2022 registering a 156.4% increase. Of this, the balance is 8n Azerbaijan’s favour - Indian exports to Azerbaijan in 2022 amounted to  US$ 220 million, while imports from Baku, majorly on account of crude oil, stood at US$ 1.662 billion. Tourism from India, including Bollywood and other regional film industries,  is another huge earning for Azerbaijan.  

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Hence, it is entirely in its interest that, instead of trying to pick a fight with Delhi, Baku appreciates all that it gains and could potentially gain from good relations with India.