IPCS Discussion

IPCS-Stimson Center Roundtable on South Asia

31 Dec, 2016    ·   5214

Angshuman Choudhury and Roshan Iyer report on the proceedings of the discussion held on 08 December 2016

In the 9th interaction under its Twentieth Anniversary Plenum Series, IPCS, in collaboration with Stimson Center, organised a roundtable on South Asia on Thursday, 8 December 2016. 

In Session I, Amb (Retd) Salman Haidar (Patron, IPCS, and former Foreign Secretary of India) delivered the introductory remarks, and Hannah Haegeland (Research Associate, South Asia Programme, Stimson Center) moderated the discussion. In Session II, Dr Sameer Lalwani(Deputy Director, South Asia Programme, Stimson Center) delivered the introductory remarks, and Travis Wheeler (Research Associate, South Asia Programme, Stimson Center), moderated the discussion.

Session I

The discussion in Session I of the round-table revolved around three broad issues: the nature of the security threat to India along the western front vis-à-vis the eastern front; the dynamics of China and Pakistan’s evolving bilateral relations; and the threat of Islamic State-motivated radicalism in the subcontinent. Additionally, the internal security threat from left wing extremism (LWE) was also discussed.

The West and the East: Two-Front Threat?
India and Pakistan share a tense relationship that translates into a sustained threat from across the former's volatile western front. Although de-escalating the situation would be in India’s long-term interest, the reality is far from being so at the moment. Given the high number of deaths along the Line of Control (LoC), India was left with no choice but to confront the aggression head on. In this context, the recent ‘surgical strike’ served to display New Delhi’s readiness at responding to Pakistani aggression. At the same time, the ‘surgical strike’, as an offensive option, is not new in the Indian military doctrine. What was new was the the government's decision to make it public.

However, India does not face any serious conventional threat from Pakistan owing to the notion that the latter carries no combat superiority or even equivalence with India. This lack of conventional advantage drives it to push the rhetoric to the nuclear realm rapidly.

In terms of a comparative threat perception from the eastern and western fronts, the western front will always be viewed as a greater threat for India as a general perception. Despite this, the threat from the country’s eastern front along the highly disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China cannot overlooked. Since China is militarily more powerful than India, the latter is compelled to think about a 'two-front threat.'The LAC is largely a notional line of demarcation, making it more difficult for India and China to resolve the longstanding dispute over it. The continuing dispute over border regions like Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing has begun calling ‘South Tibet’, sustains the threat from the east.

However, the threat from China is not substantial as India has the backing of maritime superpowers like the US and UK as a strong counter-balancing factor. Furthermore, a land war between India and China would not immediately affect the former’s core economic hubs.

China-Pakistan Relations
The threat India faces from China is not located across the former’s eastern borders but rather in the latter’s proliferating presence in Pakistan and beyond. China’s growing presence in Pakistan is a cause of worry for India - both in the short and long-term. With Beijing’s massive economic development blueprint in the wider Pakistan-Afghanistan-Central Asia region in the form of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), New Delhi stands at a risky position of jeopardising a secure and manageable strategic future. India also risks its potential position as the key security provider in the South Asian region. This is further perpetuated by China’s intrusive behaviour in the region.

The CPEC is a certain threat for India, both strategically and economically. Despite India’s initial latent opposition to such a project by China, the latter ultimately put in the required investments, even constructing assets in territories claimed by India. Arguably, Chinese investments in Pakistan stand to make Islamabad more vocal and confident of standing up to India. But, as posited by some, a deeper outcome would be the apparent stabilising effect that the US$ 46 billion being pumped into Pakistan has on its tottering economy that currently lacks a sustainable growth path in terms of domestic capacity.

Economically, it is a win-win situation for the new partners - not only would both China and Pakistan find easy access to newer markets, the project would also create employment and local revenues in Pakistan. At the same time, because a significant part of Pakistan’s national revenues are siphoned off by the defence establishment, Chinese money could in fact bolster Pakistan’s offensive designs against India in turn fueling more instability in the region. Contrarily, greater Chinese presence in Pakistan could limit the latter’s capacity for conventional and/or nuclear escalation of conflict, thus providing a space for constructive diplomacy.

Chinese investments in Pakistan are not adequate incentive for some sort of rapprochement with India. The Chinese have not pressurised Pakistan to maintain restraint with India (despite New Delhi's clear bilateral messages to Beijing), until their citizens came in the line of fire. Clearly, what will be significant is whether Pakistan is able to maneouvre the investments away from the military and towards development projects. Of the total US$ 46 billion, US$ 4 billion is to be set aside for power projects in Pakistan - something that has not taken place yet. Further, an integrated road network already exists in the country, and the CPEC only entails the widening of some of these roads. However, there is already a dispute as to which roads are to be widened.

Although the CPEC is mainly structured on economic objectives, it is not without a strategic or military element. The project, which sprawls from northwestern China to Eurasia through Pakistan and Central Asia, provides strong strategic depth to China. Of Indian concern is China’s primary maritime outlet for CPEC – the Gwadar Port in Balochistan. China has already moved some significant naval assets to the port by transferring 6 (4+2) submarines recently. In such a situation, India’s capacity to trigger an offensive blockade of Pakistan’s southern coast becomes heavily restricted. However, it is yet uncertain as to what China’s grander strategic plan for Gwadar is, mostly in the long-term.

China’s strong regional posturing automatically carries a threat to India. Beijing not only seems to be gaining definitive inroads into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean through Bangladesh (Chittagong Port), Myanmar (Sittwe Port), and Pakistan (Gwadar Port), it has also defiantly maintained its strategic grip over the South China Sea. This will become much more significant if the new administration in the US decides to downscale its presence in the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

China has also moved closer to Afghanistan than ever before, with even the Taliban extending support to some of its projects in the country. However, there might be a flaw in the ‘international system’ in and around Afghanistan, which has visibly led to only grave insecurity in the region. Therefore, blaming Afghanistan for regional instability. Notably, China’s rise in the region was never seen as benign by the general public in India, contrary to that of some other countries like Japan.

Non-Conventional Threats
While India does not face any serious security threats that pose a danger to the idea of the state, it does face some significant threat from non-conventional sources within its domestic territory and in contiguous territories. Two of these are most relevant at present – LWE (Maoist/Naxalite insurgency) and radicalism inspired by the Islamic State (IS).

In terms of the LWE threat, the insurgency, which began as a movement for justice and equity, has now been hijacked by criminal interests. The violence ebbs and flows from time to time, and has seen gradual confinement to a much smaller geographical area than before. Also, the state’s response to LWE holds significance as it can have a decisive effect on social dynamics in the affected areas. Linear developmental models have not really served to negate capacities for Maoist recruitment. Hence, there must be a careful scrutiny and revision of state policy, which needs to focus on inclusive and context-based development.

With respect to the regional threat of radicalism from IS, the recent terror attack in Dhaka’s Gulshan area displayed a clear threat from the group or at least IS-motivated extremism, to the subcontinent. However, the specific threat to India remains minimal. This is because of two factors: the low number of individuals who have flown to Syria-Iraq to join the organisation, and the syncretic and secular socio-cultural fabric of India that does not allow for popular acceptance of Salafi-Wahhabi fundamentalism.

Despite recent instances of IS flags being raised in Kashmir, the organisation’s ability to penetrate the Valley remains highly doubtful. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Bangladeshi terror outfits like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) – which announced its affiliation to the IS some time ago – run terror modules in the Indian state of West Bengal. Some of these modules might be undertaking recruitment drives at the behest of IS, thus posing a threat to India’s internal security. This is another key reason why the eastern front deserves greater attention from the security-intelligence apparatus in New Delhi. 

Session II

The discussion in Session II of the roundtable revolved around three broad issues: South Asia's place in US foreign policy interests; US priorities in South Asia; and the possible aspects of president-elect Donald Trump's South Asia policy.

US Foreign Interests: Where Does South Asia Fit?
There is the uncomfortable truth that South Asia is simply not a priority for the US. According to the Department of Defence, US' interest in Asia is limited to China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and the IS. According to most American realist scholars, the key areas of US interest are Europe, East Asia and West Asia. At major research institutions such as the RAND Corporation, Centre for Naval Analysis, or other large government-funded think-tanks, the focus on South Asia is minimal. Cold War legacies have built Russiaand Afghanistan-centric bureaucracies, and the pivot to Asia was also in part an effort to rebalance the focus of this bureaucracy.

US military or troop presence across the world – West Asia, East Asia and Afghanistan – gives an indication why the US tends to focus on Afghanistan (and has for the last 15 years) whenever it thinks about South Asia. There is also a lack of cohesion within the bureaucracies: there are separate agencies dealing with India, China, Afghanistan, etc. The bureaucracy is structured to deal with these as different regions rather than a single coherent region which leads to tensions.

US Interests in South Asia
US interests in South Asia have been tense for a long time and will continue to be so. On the South China Sea issue, the simple fact is that it is not a serious threat to the US. As much as China is increasing activity in the Indian Ocean, there are few features in the Indian Ocean that make it as important as the South China Sea, specifically the presence of choke points in South China and Southeast Asia.

On India and Pakistan, in the medium-term, the US will need both relationships. However, there is a general consensus within the US' foreign policy community that India is the future of the US' engagement in South Asia, and the focus on Pakistan is receding. This is in tune with another belief that the US has had a poor record in changing Pakistan's behaviour in the past. This makes turning to other countries in the neighbourhood (such as Iran or India) a much more viable option. However, that is not to say that Pakistan has not also been helpful to US interests in terms of fighting insurgency. Despite initial resistance, Pakistan did relent and re-deploy a large number of its forces into counter-insurgency.

There are also some ground realities to consider, such as, for instance, the US still needs Pakistan to maintain its presence in Afghanistan as there is simply no alternative. A lot of European countries also rely on Pakistan for information on counter-insurgency. Therefore, it makes punishing Pakistan a very tricky affair for the US. This is similar to the idea that Pakistan is too nuclear to fail.

The US is quite positive with regard to the CPEC. Against the background of the US viewing Pakistan as engaging in several illicit activities, the legitimacy of the CPEC as a licit venture is enough for the US to not condemn it. This may also result in some mutual liabilities that entangle both Pakistan and China.

Donald Trump and South Asia
Forecasting the incoming US administration's policies towards South Asia and general foreign policy implications for the region could be attempted by looking at factors such as the various belief systems, advisors, age profiles, etc. Several elements of Trump's beliefs seem somewhat incoherent. But there are also some beliefs that seem stable, such as opposing alliance commitments, international trade, and latent support to authoritarian institutions. However, US institutions are still quite strong and resistant to change, with a number of veto points. There is also the case of the difficulty of replacing and operating its massive bureaucracy, which could take as long as 18 months.

In the case of Trump's advisors, there seem to be a shared interest in counter-terrorism. In the past, the US focused on the rise of China, and building India's capabilities as a counter to that. This is why the US seemed to give India a lot of room in terms of the benefits New Delhi gained in the long-term. This may be why India is quite comfortable with US policy towards India at the moment. Despite this, today, there is no reason to believe that the hard-won friendship is in danger.

However, under Trump, the focus on counter-terrorism would shift the US focus back from the east to west. There might therefore be a drift in terms of policy orientation, rather than a reversal.
If there is a withdrawal of the TPP and the US from the region, China might begin to play a larger role to fill up the vacuum in the region. However, that is not to say that other regional economic giants such as Japan and India cannot also attempt to fill the gap. At the same time, there is also the possibility of a rebalance on the US' part to re-enter the region.

Rapporteured by Angshuman Choudhury and Roshan Iyer, research staff, IPCS