• 19 May, 2022
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Living with Geopolitical Unpredictability : India’s Current Strategic Challenges

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) Thu, 21 Apr 2022   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

The last two years have seen geopolitical turbulence of higher intensity than what one can remember any time in the recent past. Perhaps the period 1989-91 was comparable, as the Cold War order was then imploding and the Soviet Union was giving way to the formation of 15 independent republics. The First Gulf War had given the US unmatched domination of the world, while rising ethnic-nationalism had produced sub-conventional conflicts in Europe and Africa.

India emerged through that period relatively less affected.  It was also the period in which religious radicalism started to come to the fore and we witnessed the initiation of sponsored proxy conflict in J&K as an almost direct result of this. The phenomenon of proxy war continued to remain a high threat for close to thirty years and hasn’t completely receded yet. Through 1989-91 India withstood a major economic crisis when it’s forex reserves plunged to just a bare one billion US $.

It also saw the creation of major geopolitical voids with rush of forces to fill them. That is what initiated the New Great Game in Central Asia. NATO became relatively less relevant, on the lookout for adversaries to justify its existence. Most importantly that was a period in which China was not so acrimonious, although the portents of arrogance had just about begun to surface. India’s focus was on its western borders, internal turbulence and primarily on restructuring its economy in keeping with market norms. We sailed through the transition from the Cold War relatively unscathed.

2020-22 may not be as kind or could be far better, depending on which way you look at the environment.  In the last two years, the world has been in a turbulent flux. The Coronavirus pandemic has had a telling effect on national economies of several countries. India’s aspiration of reaching the level of a five trillion US$ economy has had to be delayed. While India did well to contain the negative impact of the inevitable lockdowns, recovery is proving a challenge. Inflationary trends continue due to disruptions in global supply chains in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. The energy sector in particular has had a very negative effect and the overall churn in the global energy scene does not seem to augur well.

Economic imperatives drive many geopolitical compulsions and the current trends are not favouring us. The attempted Chinese coercion in Apr 2020 and the chain of events at the LAC since then amply clarified China’s intent of cautioning India on the growing Indian strategic confidence witnessed through some strategic events and decisions taken by the Indian Government. In an adaptation of its wolf warrior strategy, China tried cowing down India so that the latter would shy from playing its rightful role as an emerging big power and a middle power which had already arrived. China’s strategy reflected a lack of understanding of India’s perceived threat perception; a perception which had led India to seek equations and partnerships with relevant nations to bide the transition times to a higher strategic status, based upon comprehensive national power.

It’s from Aug 2021 that international geopolitics underwent a major change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan readied it to focus on the area of its prime concern; the Indo Pacific. It had already strived to undertake measures to stabilise the Middle East to the extent that it would not erupt dangerously. The Biden Administration’s readiness to engage with Iran was by itself a step towards such stabilisation of the Middle East, besides the Abraham accords signed between the US, Israel and Arab nations such as UAE.

With terrorism on the decline and forces of extremism locked in deadly battles in North Afghanistan, the situation was tailor made for the proverbial US switch to the new pivot in Asia to prepare the grounds for future contestation against China. That is when Vladimir Putin decided to pull the carpet and prevent the further boxing in of Russia, as he perceived. The Russia-Ukraine war has altered geopolitical equations like no other strategic event in years; a pathbreaking event which much like 9/11 has forced a turn in history. It’s just the event which has had such a profound impact that it is difficult to fathom what effect the outcomes will ultimately have.

On the face of it, it seems just another conflict but the war in Ukraine has firstly given greater meaning to NATO. It is providing it the type of unity it could never have achieved after the recent years of bickering over individual national defence budgets and the division of strategic responsibilities. The rejuvenation of NATO is also a result of the fresh threats which Europe now perceives; a hark back to Cold War times and signs of a resurgent Russia.

While China and Europe have had the best of economic relationships, the Ukraine war brings them into indirect confrontation through China’s strong relationship with Russia. The Sino-Russian relationship is of course not cast in stone, but the broad contours of current interest based strategic grouping would force Europe to cast its lot more strongly with the US, thus bringing a clash of interests to the fore. Stretching this clash of interests to the next theatre, in the Indo-Pacific would remain a strong possibility as Europe would probably continue to perceive the situation in the Indo-Pacific as an enlarged extension of the Cold War; the difference being the fact that instead of just the Soviet Union being the adversary this time, it is a Sino-Russia combine.

Although it is tempting to imagine NATO with a potential role in the Indo Pacific it is likely that it will remain restricted to European security and avoid over stretching itself. An extended NATO role in the Middle East could, however, be on the cards.

India’s dilemma remains its compulsion to go along with the US so as not to dilute what has already been achieved in an abiding strategic relationship in the making. It realises its own significance in the strategy that the US wishes to play out in the Indo Pacific. Yet, there is Russia and it needs no great imagination to perceive that Indo- Russian relations cannot just be wished away. Besides the legacy relationship there is the tangible domain of the supply of military hardware, 60 percent or more of which is of Russian origin. Russia’s mere presence in the Asian theatre and particularly its linkages with its southern near abroad region in Central Asia is also an important regional consideration for India. It is well understood that when it comes to the northern borders along the Himalayas India will be alone in its fight, but Russian support would be of great significance in the pressures that can be built upon China.

The Indian dilemma of remaining neutral comes with an informed angle to our commentary on the need for earliest termination of hostilities in Ukraine. This has been accepted as a sentiment of national interest. However, it is not fully gelling with the worldwide sentiment. Snide remarks about India’s expectations of support of the international community in a crisis with China and these expectations not being met, are meant to be low grade diplomatic warnings. This is something India will need to live with, remaining engaged with both camps, the one led by the US and the other by Russia. The clear danger lies in meeting the ire of both without the sentiment of going the full way with either.

In the near future India will be confronted with live issues related to purchase of discounted Russian energy supplies and the continued receipt of the S 400 air defence systems from Russia for which Rs 39,000 crores have been spent. There have been some unthought through advisories to India about US readiness to replace Russian military hardware with western equipment. Such replacements of families and generations of military equipment on which militaries have trained extensively and even fought engagements, are not done overnight.

The US has thus far displayed no signs of slapping the legislation Countering America’s Adversary Threats Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on India for not supporting the sanctions against Russia. The recent Indo US Dialogue at 2+2 level got elevated to the level of the Indian Prime Minister and US President clearly sending signals on the degree of importance that the US attaches to the emerging Indo-US strategic partnership. It was a gesture perhaps to woo India away but should preferably not be seen in that light. The seriousness with which the US is approaching its relationship with India must be respected and the Indian Government hasn’t placed one wrong step in the balancing game. Can this be perpetuated endlessly without a tilt to one side or the either is the question. Strategic balance in relationships with big powers is never easy.

At the cost of repetition let it be reiterated that the sentiment being attracted by India is primarily due to two factors. First is the currency and potential of the Indian economy which is at the moment under severe inflationary trends. However, the manner in which it bounced back after taking tremendous beating from the conditions let loose by the pandemic, seems to add value to the potential of its return to vibrance. The Chinese economy on the other hand is currently showing early signs of losing stamina. The second factor is the geo-strategic location which affords it and its partners the opportunity to dominate the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean which carry China’s energy and the containers of its manufactured products which form its exports.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, China will have to reconsider and review its own war winning capability. It cannot risk defeat or even stalemate because its dreams of empire rest on military domination. A military setback will sap confidence and push its intended rise to superpower status well beyond the ambitious dates it has set for itself. Initial analyses in Feb 2022 pointed to a potential operation to wrest Taiwan even as Russia was tackling Ukraine. The Russian setback should caution China against misadventure.

The emerging situation provides India with sufficient opportunity to leverage strategic advantage by working on the doubts created in China’s psyche. We can afford to be more aggressive in a calibrated way at least on the areas illegally occupied by China. The failure of Chinese economic efforts to cultivate the South Asian neighbourhood must also be exploited; both Maldives and Sri Lanka are providing great opportunities which India is already handling well. The measures must all aim at the long term to be strategic in nature. Bangladesh’s economy too is not highly stable and sooner than later India may have to step in with a bail-out package.

Pakistan is proving to be a basket case and change of government must again be viewed as opportunity. Without compromising on basic values laid down for functional relationships, India may yet be able to ensure that the ceasefire sustaining at the LoC continues to remain intact since Feb 2021.

Lastly, India must not lose the advantage of the threshold status it has achieved against the run of play. Internal security too must be tightened and communal amity promoted. India cannot afford to be strong externally and brittle internally.

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Author
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM* former Commander of Indian Army’s Srinagar Corps, focuses on trans-national and internal conflicts in Asia and the Middle East with particular emphasis on issues revolving around radical Islam.  He is the Chancellor of Central University of Kashmir and speaks extensively at Indian and international institutions on a wide variety of subjects revolving around strategic affairs and leadership. He is presently a Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

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POST COMMENTS (6)

ASHOK IYER

Apr 23, 2022
Kalidan Singh ji, you paint a rather dismal picture of our country, most of which is, unfortunately true. Nevertheless, I differ with you on certain issues. First of all, for most of its post-independence history, China has been led by very strong leaders. These leaders may have been wrong in a lot of areas but they managed to successfully take their country in the desired direction. Post-Independence India, in my opinion, has only produced two strong leaders, Indira Gandhi (who also had her share of mistakes) and Narendra Modi. Otherwise, we have been governed by a bunch of spineless leaders with a vision no further than appeasing their vote banks. Ok, in my opinion, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would have been the ideal and strong leader to lead India in the right direction after independence but unfortunately, he had to step aside on account of populist support for Nehru, not to mention the lack of any support for him from Mahatma Gandhi. My point is that the policies of all these weak and spineless leaders lead to India’s pathetic and reactive approach to all issues and also all these religious/linguistic/caste based politics that are making a mess of India today. That’s the reason why China is able to support anti-national elements in our country. The mess made by all those leaders cannot be fixed by PM Modi in 1-2 terms. It will require a much longer time to fix our attitude and approach vis-à-vis the rest of the world and, I believe, over the past few years, we have started in that direction. When one talks of a strong foreign policy, one must remember that we live in a highly complicated and inter-dependent world. So, there has to be a degree of give and take on all issues. When we talk about sending wheat to Afghanistan, I believe it was an excellent decision. Look, it has nothing to do with the hunger of the Afghan populace. That was a strategic decision which will benefit us in the long run. The wheat was not handed over to the Taliban but to UN controlled agencies for distribution to the Afghan masses. The Taliban are just a bunch of mercenaries who offer their services for money. That’s why, through their franchisee the TTP, they are killing Pakistani military personnel on a daily basis. One can only conjecture whether they are being funded by the US or India or somebody else. There is already a festering hatred for Pakistan amongst the Afghan populace. By donating wheat, we have managed to enhance their goodwill towards us and this can be used to ameliorate support for the Baloch and Pashtun freedom fighters which will be a major headache for an, already imploding, Pakistan and will also put the brakes on the Chinese BRI. We could have transported all the wheat via Iran but by dragging Pakistan into the picture, we managed to subject it to international ridicule and also enhanced the Afghan hatred towards Pakistan. In no way can India be considered a weak economy. It is amongst the top 5 economies of the world today. Yes, the US did send the seventh fleet against us in 1971 and also heavily funded Pakistan for decades but times have changed. There are no permanent friends or enemies in the international comity of nations. I admit that the US is 10 times mightier than us but, today’s world is run by corporates and India, with its pool of skilled and educated individuals and also as a large market and a cheap manufacturing hub, not to mention our vital geo-strategic location, makes us highly indispensible to them so they have no option but to talk to us on an equal basis. Yes our market is protected to a certain extent but that is understandable because we have to create and maintain jobs for our people. I admit that there are a lot of shoddy products in our country but there also good quality products. One has to follow Keynes law of “Demand creating its own supply” and allow free market forces to take care of this matter. I agree with your opinion about Bollywood and cricket, especially the IPL. Bollywood, since the 80’s and 90’s has become a hub of gangster-funded black money and the gangster-politician nexus has made it sinister oligopoly that is already proving detrimental to our society. Nevertheless, there is no point in continuing to criticize our weakness. We have done that for decades. We have to look for effective solutions. Now is the time for concrete action to take our country in the right direction. In this era of social media and corporate controlled media, the war against anti-nationals in our country can’t be fought through legal means because any endeavour by our government in this regard will be fruitless as it will be turned into a political/religious victimization issue. The only option for the government is to resort to covert, extra-judicial methods to neutralize anti-nationals and set the country on the right path.

Kalidan Singh

Apr 23, 2022
Ashok Iyer ji, you are right, our foreign policy is reactive. You are also right, we cannot prevent an active China-financed Maoist insurgency in multiple Indian regions, nor deal with a full scale Islamic insurgency in Kashmir and every state in the union. India is the only country in which people win elections by declaring allegiance to enemy nations, by flying flags of enemy nations, by worshiping heroes of enemy nations, and demanding that the core religion of the land serve as a secondary consideration or else they will be offended (and prevail). You are also right; China has weaknesses (as does every country). Here is where we likely disagree: My inference is that our weaknesses are overwhelming, and we are not in a position to take advantage of weaknesses of others. First, the weakness is in policy (but it does not begin there). For instance, when our foreign policy is not reactive, it is cloying and foolish. For instance, this whole episode of sending wheat to Afghanistan. We should not put ourselves in a position where we need dispensation from Pakistan for the safe passage of wheat. Also, do we think that the wheat will make Taliban feel beholden to us? They will take our wheat, have us complete the infrastructure projects, then participate in the insurgency against India sponsored by Pakistan - without blinking. Other than foolishness and hubris, I am not sure what else motivates us to do what we do. Second, the weakness is in the pattern of our responses to other nations. We are reactive to China for a simple reason; China enjoys absolute strategic, operational, and tactical superiority over us. While our boys in uniform are amazing, they are sleeping in tents (Chinese soldiers live in air conditioned pods), our equipment is antique, and our boys don't have the right gear. China may have weaknesses, but none of them are relevant to us or to our policy. The story is not that different from our policy toward Pakistan. We have lost 5000 Indian braves including officers to Pakistani infiltrators (the casualties we have inflicted on Pakistani military: too few to count). How do we believe that we can negotiate with anyone when we are happy accepting huge losses on the ground without producing any consequences for Pakistan? If we are serious, we should be bombing terrorist training camps regardless of where they are, but we don't. The Pakistani military is an existential threat to us, but it is my fellow Indians who are arguing the most about embracing Pakistan. It is the intelligentsia that argues for embracing Pakistan. Third, my inference about Omar's visit to POK differs from the one you draw. Omar has no constituency in the US, other than the local one in which she got elected. She is pro-Palestine, and against Israel. This is a non-starter. She does not represent the US interests, nor American sentiment, nor the democrat party; US is making no such signals about Kashmir that you are inferring. Plainly, US does not care enough to send a convoluted signal. They told us what they wanted (stop supporting Russia, join us, don't buy Russian oil, and take care of your human rights). Remember, they gave $37 billion to Pakistan, sent the seventh fleet to nuke us; they don't seem to send subtle messages to India. In my opinion, they said it plainly because they do not think of us as a real partner. No country with a GDP of $20 trillion, and a per capita GDP that is thirty times higher than ours, thinks of us as a partner, never mind a serious, equal partner. Do you regard someone who makes thirty times less money than you as an equal stakeholder in your life? Do you really think someone with an income that is 30 times higher than your income cares about what you think? I know I don't think either of those things. The point I am making is this. With a weak economy, a protected market in which manufacturers can sell shoddy products at high prices because foreign competition is prevented, a highly corrupted sociopolitical environment, and a culture of hubris obsessed with Ballywood (make believe) and cricket (not a real world analog) - no one - not China nor Pakistan - takes us seriously. They know we are incapable of offense, and our defense is inordinately weak. No foreign policy, even from someone as intelligent and powerful such as Doval and Jaishankar - can do much. Although Modi's charm has worked singularly in India's favor (no doubt). Or succinctly: other people have weaknesses. Our policy cannot capitalize because we are weak. We need to fix that instead of engaging in make believe hubris. It starts by fixing our socioeconomy.

ASHOK IYER

Apr 22, 2022
Kalidan Singh ji, the mistake that India has been making over the past many decades is that we are concentrating on the enemy’s strengths and our weaknesses. In order to win a war, we have to concentrate on the enemy’s weaknesses. Of course, one has to keep an eye on all other aspects of the enemy, especially its strengths but concentrating on the enemy’s weaknesses should be a priority. If you attack the enemy’s weak points then, even the strongest of enemies will have to use a considerable portion of their strength to defend their weak points and that will put them on the defensive in any conflict. Our reactions vis-à-vis China have always been reactive and never proactive. In fact, even when it comes to the US and the West, our reactions are totally predictable. Take for example the recent visit of a US Democrat senator to POK. The US government came out with the stance that it’s an unofficial visit and that they have nothing to do with it but, c’mon, are we that naïve? It’s obviously a tacit threat by the US that, if we don’t toe their line against Russia then the Kashmir issue will be raked up in the US senate/congress. India’s reaction, as expected, was predictable. As expected, we strongly condemned the visit and also the comments made by the said senator. Instead, India could have handled it differently. We could have kept quiet on the issue and could have asked our lobbies in the US to get a Republican senator/congressman to come out strongly against that visit and to take the Democrat government head on over that issue. There are a lot of fissures in the US domestic political scenario which is a weakness that we should exploit to our advantage instead of coming out with standard responses to such issues. That’s the reason why China has a upper hand against us. If they do something then they know exactly what our reaction will be and they plan their future moves accordingly. China has plenty of weaknesses which we seem to ignore. Their economy is in a regressive mode and there is a lot of domestic anger against the CCP’s handling of the Covid crisis. Then there are voices of rebellion coming from Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong etc.. There is a lot of discontent in the PLA on account of modifications by the CCP in their pension policies. The Chinese business community is not happy with Xi Jinping and the CCP because of their excessive interference in the Chinese private sector. Then there is the Taiwan card that we could play effectively. The bottom line is that there are plenty of weaknesses in China that we should exploit but we don’t bother to do anything about it. China, on the other hand, is proactively exploiting India’s weaknesses by funding leftist and other politicians and also the, so called, ‘secularists’ and ‘intellectual moderates’ in our country. If we really want to have the upper hand against China then we have to start exploiting China’s weaknesses in all areas and, at the same time, effectively neutralize the anti-national forces in our country either legally or otherwise.

Kalidan Singh

Apr 21, 2022
When India and China talk to each other, China is lecturing us without listening, telling us that they are the powerful person in the room and that we should be grateful for the scolding we are getting. Now (they insist) we should do what they want and say, and they are not really interested in knowing anything we have in mind because: (a) they are a bigger economy than ours, with much higher GDP, (b) they have a bigger army and now the biggest navy in the world, and (c) there is nothing we can do about it. They are already present in Gilgit Baltistan, they own Pakistan, they are funding Maoist insurgencies across India, and have a large faction of pro-communist leftists working on their behalf in India (no one in China is taking up for us). They regularly encroach on our side of the border, and do things (like staple visas, set up camp on our side); we never do anything of that sort (although we use language to suggest we are in a tit for tat, when the reality is only repeated tats). We can say what we want to ourselves, but every conversation between India and China fails to vary beyond this. I see no purpose in continuing this conversation, unless we have something at work that makes this conversation necessary but largely irrelevant. I.e., we should not expect conversations with China to solve the problem. They are quite aware that they have operational, tactical, strategic superiority in both sectors in which we confront them, and are aware that our economy does not compare to their economy. What could we have at work? I can see only one option; i.e., a corruption-free open economy where the world wants to invest. If we cannot do that, no conversation with a super power, and arrogant one such as China, is worth the time or effort.

ASHOK IYER

Apr 21, 2022
India should continue with its neutral status on a perpetual basis. Each country has the right to look after its own self-interests. On no account should India put all its eggs either in the western or Russian baskets. Maintaining a balance between both sides is crucial for our long term survival because excessive reliance on any one side could lead to us being subjected to blackmail and will also lead to external interference in our internal and foreign policies. The US & the West, in their foolish endeavour to subdue Russia and get hold of its enormous natural resources, are pushing a dictatorial regime to the end of the precipice which could lead to disastrous consequences for Eastern Europe and the world in general. With a declining China and the US and the West mired in internal political conflicts, this is the perfect time for India to augment its position as a major world power. Firstly, we got to vastly enhance our political lobbies in the US & the West as they would prove to be invaluable in altering domestic opinion over there in case of any disputes with India. It would also give us an excellent opportunity to increase our market share in those countries. Secondly, like China, we got to change gears and drastically increase our investments in developing/under-developed countries in Africa and South America as they have an abundance of natural resources which, in the future, could be invaluable to India. However, unlike China and its debt diplomacy, we could work out, mutually beneficial, alternatives which would be highly favourable to all parties in the long run. We could even facilitate trading in Rupees with these countries in order to support their struggling economies and also to endeavour to make the Rupee a prominent currency in international trade. As far as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal etc. are concerned, we must bail them out but we have to make it clear that there are no free lunches for anyone!!

Ivar

Apr 21, 2022
An excellent analysis that very cogently stitches together all the seemingly unconnected events that make up the patchwork quilt of India's current situation. As far as NATO is concerned, it is bound to become stronger and more assertive; even the traditionally neutral Sweden and Switzerland are likely to join the alliance. Another very critical element that needs to be factored in is the very rapid rise of communalism in India. Despite the silence from EU nations and the US, there is no denying the fact that this and the use of State agencies against journalists and others seen as anti-national is causing high levels of disquiet and alarm in these nations. As the world's largest democracy, this loss of secular and constitutionally governed status is something India just cannot afford.

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