Regional security challenges


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INDIA has enjoyed a broadly predictable security environment for more than a decade, especially since 9/11 and the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Three factors have been responsible for this happy but fading circumstance. One was the absence of great power rivalry at the global or regional level after the Cold War. Despite the fact that the United States embarked on the military occupation of two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, most powers in the region did not see it as a threat. The shared sense of threat from international terrorism not only helped mute the potential dissonance against American military presence in Southwest Asia, but also laid the foundation for greater cooperation among the major powers in relation to Afghanistan.

To India’s East, it appeared that there was much harmony in the relations between the United States, Russia, China and Japan. The widespread deference to the American leadership in Asia was based, in part, on the shock and awe generated by the unilateral assertion of American military power in Afghanistan and Iraq. America’s old rival, Russia, was too weak to contest U.S. power and an emerging China was not ready to challenge American primacy. These factors, however, became less salient after the 2007-2008 financial crisis that seemed to end American dominance of world affairs. Russia has since become more assertive and China is testing the limits of American strategic patience in Asia. This changing great power dynamic has created a very different context for the pursuit of India’s national security interests in Asia.


Second, the widespread sense of America’s decline has also begun to alter the regional balance of power in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific. The growing popular weariness in America against the military adventures in Asia, in face of failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, has generated new constraints on the conduct of U.S. policies in East and West Asia. As domestic support for traditional foreign policy activism in Asia declined, the credibility of the American alliances in the region has come under great stress. In the East, despite the U.S. commitment to rebalance forces towards Asia, America’s ability to sustain the pivot and the will to confront China’s assertiveness is being widely questioned. In the West, the U.S. decision to abandon a long standing ally, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the interim nuclear accord with Iran has left America’s Arab friends in a deep funk. As America’s alliances weaken in Asia, Beijing’s muscular approach to the territorial disputes with its neighbours has raised the prospect that the rise of China may not be peaceful. Amidst the unfolding geopolitical uncertainty in Asia, regional rivalries are becoming increasingly the norm – from Iran-Saudi rivalry in the West to Sino-Japanese contestation in the East. All regional actors – big and small – are stepping up their defence spending and acquiring advanced arms.

Third, the great American war on terror and the grand American project to democratize the Middle Eastern societies face uncertain prospects in the coming years. While Obama has abandoned the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, he has indeed deployed muscular means, such as drone warfare. Yet, there is a growing sense that the forces of extremism and terrorism are bouncing back in the Middle East and the subcontinent. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Washington is finding it harder to persuade the Pakistan Army to give up support to cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan and India.

The likely gains of the Taliban in Afghanistan with Pakistan Army’s support and Islamabad’s increasing inability to challenge the rise of the TTP together point to a period of prolonged instability on India’s north western marches. The current turbulence in the Middle East and the intensifying sectarian rivalry further complicates India’s regional security calculus. This essay identifies three major challenges – containing Pakistan, restoring regional primacy and balancing China – that confront India’s regional security policy and argues that India will have to look beyond its traditional approach to cope with them.


Coping with the threats emanating from Pakistan is likely to be the most important security challenge for India in the coming years. Over two and a half decades, successive governments in Delhi, of very different political hues, have sought to normalize relations with Pakistan but without much success. At the root of India’s difficulty with Pakistan have been the changing regional balance of power and Rawalpindi’s new freedom to promote a low-intensity conflict against Delhi. The shift of the regional balance of power in favour of India following the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 was successfully reversed by Rawalpindi’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent by the late 1980s. Having neutralized India’s conventional military superiority, the Pakistan Army has had the impunity to support anti-India terror groups that mounted frequent spectacular attacks in India. But Delhi’s efforts to negotiate new modus vivendi with Islamabad have been stymied by the multiple centres of power in Pakistan and Rawalpindi’s reluctance to end its support to anti-India terror groups.


Despite these difficulties, India has traversed some distance with Pakistan over the last few years. After a series of military crises from the late 1980s to early 2000s, India worked out a negotiating framework with Pakistan that involved three elements: India’s willingness to negotiate on Kashmir, Pakistan’s commitment to end cross-border terrorism, and the expansion of confidence building measures. As a result there were periods of relative lull in the intensity of cross-border terrorism, back channel negotiations on Kashmir, and the institution of a range of military, political and economic CBMs.

This framework, however, appeared to be breaking down in 2013 amidst the frequent violation of a decade-long ceasefire in Kashmir, Islamabad’s reluctance to bring the plotters of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai to justice, and its inability to implement the trade normalization agreement. In India, a weak government has found its political space to engage Pakistan rapidly shrinking. Meanwhile, the re-election of Nawaz Sharif, a strong civilian leader in 2013, has not translated into improved possibilities for addressing the enduring challenges in bilateral relations. There is a widespread belief in Delhi that Rawalpindi is unwilling to let the civilian leaders deepen cooperation with India. As frustrations mount in Delhi, many in India wonder if the current negotiating approach towards Pakistan is worth sustaining.


Many in the Indian strategic community call on Delhi to suspend talks and confront its support to cross border terrorism. There is an alternative course that Delhi could consider. Neither military confrontation nor turning one’s back on Pakistan is going to produce the desired effects for India. Delhi, instead, must demonstrate strategic patience and seek a significant internal shift within Pakistan in favour of political moderation, economic modernization and regional integration. Rather than strengthen anti-India forces across the border, Delhi must find ways to reduce Rawalpindi’s salience in the making and execution Pakistan’s national security policy. India will need to develop policies that at once tilt the internal political balance in favour of the civilian leaders and develop instruments to mount pressure on the Pakistan Army. This, however, is easier said than done and will need enormous political fortitude in Delhi. A strong and purposeful government in Delhi can, however, make the case for a sustained and unconditional engagement with Pakistan. A failure to initiate such a policy will make India’s challenges much harder with the passing of each year and complicate Delhi’s ability to pursue its broader national security goals.


Ensuring India’s primacy in the subcontinent has been one of Delhi’s enduring strategic objectives since independence. Keeping other powers out of the subcontinent and having a decisive say in the political evolution of its periphery are part of India’s geopolitics constructed by the British Raj. The strategic consequences of the Partition, the impact of the Cold War, India’s relative economic decline, and its deepening bilateral disputes with its South Asian neighbours, however, have limited India’s ability to maintain its inherited primacy in the subcontinent.

The last few years have seen a sustained effort by Delhi to improve its standing in the subcontinent. One, it has sought to leverage its growing economic weight to deepen regional integration in the subcontinent through trade liberalization and offering better market access to goods produced in the neighbourhood. It has revised an outdated protectorate arrangement with Bhutan and has shown willingness to review similar treaty with Nepal. It has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, framework agreements for development cooperation with the Maldives and Bangladesh, and expanded the partnership with Myanmar. It has actively sought to moderate internal conflicts in Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Delhi is also coming to terms with the fact that it can’t completely insulate the region from external influences of major powers in an era of globalization.

While India’s regional activism has been impressive, it has not always been successful. Its attempts at regional integration have been subcritical in relation to lowering non-tariff barriers, promoting trade facilitation, and strengthening regional connectivity. Its efforts to resolve outstanding bilateral issues with Bangladesh have been stymied by domestic political opposition in West Bengal and Assam. Its engagement with Sri Lanka has been undermined by political brinkmanship in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, growing nationalism within the neighbourhood feeds into the temptation of the local elites to play the anti-India card at home and mobilize the support of other powers to blunt Delhi’s leverage in their domestic politics. Above all, the deepening internal conflicts within the neighbourhood have at once raised India’s stakes in regional stability and the difficulty of promoting it. India has traditionally been wary of western and Chinese influences with the regimes next door. The last decade has seen a dramatic expansion of China’s strategic profile in the subcontinent. As a result, limiting the Chinese strategic role in the subcontinent has become a bigger challenge for India than countering the western influence.


There was a time, a quarter century ago, when India and China seemed roughly equal powers. That no longer is true today. China’s GDP is four times larger than that of India; Beijing spends four times as much as India on defence. The expanding strategic gap with China has begun to pose multiple security challenges for India and constrict its freedom of action in a variety of domains. The most direct impact, of course, is on India’s disputed border with China. Beijing’s rapid military modernization and the upgradation of its infrastructure in Tibet have resulted in the PLA’s improved logistical capabilities that have shrunk its mobiliza tion times. The once neglected and tranquil border has become a live one in recent years as China steps up aggressive patrolling.

If the very nature of the border – the lack of an agreed line of actual control – has complicated matters, Delhi’s attempt to modernize its border infrastructure and strengthen its military capabilities faces Beijing’s resistance. India will take time to catch up, which in turn means Delhi must be prepared for a period of vulnerability. Additional confidence building measures like the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement are unlikely to resolve the problem of a changed military balance on the frontier in favour of Beijing. The transformation of the Sino-Indian frontier has raised the prospect of simultaneous military crises on both borders if not a two-front war.


Despite improved relations with Delhi, Beijing has not given up its long-standing policy of arming Islamabad to sustain Pakistan’s aspirations for parity with India. Beijing, which unsuccessfully sought to prevent a consensus within the NSG on freeing civilian nuclear commerce with India, was quick to offer civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in violation of international norms. China is also emerging as a major supplier of arms to India’s other neighbours. While India can live with China’s expanded economic cooperation with its neighbours, some of the strategic economic projects include ports, highways and rail corridors all across the neighbourhood. China has offered unstinting political support to the regimes in the subcontinent seeking some political distance from India.

Beyond the subcontinent, China’s rise has also begun to muddy the waters of the Indian Ocean. Over the last few years, China has intensified its economic, political and security partnerships with Myanmar, the Indian Ocean island states, the Persian Gulf and the East coast of Africa, all part of India’s traditional sphere of influence in the littoral. Although a permanent Chinese naval presence in the region is some distance away, Beijing has maintained a sustained deployment of naval units to the Gulf of Aden since the end of 2008, cultivated special political relationships with key littoral states of the Indian Ocean, and has negotiated a formal access arrangement with Seychelles.

Given its growing economic stakes in the Indian Ocean, China is bound to raise its naval profile in the region to secure its interests. While India comes to terms with the expansion of the Chinese strategic profile in waters to the South, it also has unexpected opportunities to expand its own role in China’s neighbourhood in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Whether it is the consolidation of India’s position in the Indian Ocean or strengthening its role in the Pacific, New Delhi will need to intensify its security and defence diplomacy in the two oceans. While there is great enthusiasm across the Indo-Pacific for such cooperation with India, political inhibitions, institutional constraints, and resource limitations have constrained Delhi.


One way of addressing some of India’s security dilemmas is to lend greater consideration to strategic cooperation with the United States on regional security issues. In exploring this option, the past is not necessarily a guide to the future. For decades now divergence rather than convergence on regional security issues has been the norm in the relations between India and the United States. Differences between the two countries on how to deal with Pakistan and China had persisted through much of the Cold War. Delhi’s profound apprehensions about the American role in India’s neighbourhood were matched by Washington’s discomfort with Delhi’s non-alignment.

The end of the Cold War did not immediately reduce this divergence. The Clinton administration’s questioning of Kashmir’s accession to India, and its eagerness to mediate between India and Pakistan in the early 1990s sharpened political tensions. It was only with the advent of the Bush administration in 2001 that the prospects for regional security cooperation opened. The de-hyphenation of U.S. relations with India and Pakistan and Washington’s strict neutrality on the Kashmir dispute helped build a new level of trust on regional issues with Delhi. While differences remained on how best to deal with Pakistan, India and the U.S. learnt to live with those. In another first, the Bush administration also decided to defer to Indian interests elsewhere in the subcontinent. Above all, the sub-text of the Bush administration’s warmth towards Delhi was the belief that a strong India will help contribute to a stable balance of power in Asia and limit the Chinese ability to dominate Asia. A logical corollary to this belief was the proclamation that America should assist India’s rise to great power status.


If Bush transformed the basis for American engagement with India, initial missteps of the Obama administration tended to revive old suspicions of the U.S. policy in Delhi. Obama’s public musings on mediation between India and Pakistan and the presumed link between the Kashmir dispute and Afghanistan renewed many Indian suspicions of U.S. policy. In the East, the U.S. emphasis on a China-first policy raised questions about continuity in Washington’s approach to India. To his credit, Obama held back from diplomatic activism on Kashmir and the failure of his outreach to Beijing resulted in the articulation of the pivot to Asia. The United States, under Bush and Obama, strongly supported India’s objectives of seeking regional integration in the subcontinent and a greater role in East Asia. While the momentum of India-U.S. relations has faltered in the last few years, the need for regional security cooperation between Delhi and Washington has never been as critical as it is today.

India has had a tradition of dealing with its regional security challenges on its own terms, rather than through cooperation with other major powers or through multilateral mechanisms. Any suggestion of regional security cooperation with the U.S. runs against ideologues in Delhi harking back to non-alignment and realists questioning America’s credibility as a long-term partner. Yet, it is possible to argue that it is in India’s interest to seek out greater regional security cooperation with the United States. Two important reasons stand out. For one, despite the significant expansion of its own capabilities in the last two decades, India is not in a position to unilaterally contain Pakistan, reclaim regional primacy, and balance China. Second, any Indian strategy that focuses on producing these outcomes, rather than a rhetorical emphasis on ideological canon, would strengthen India’s position by pooling its resources with that of another power that shares these interests. This is matter of power calculus and statecraft.


During the Cold War, Soviet Russia played that role to a large extent. While Russia remains an important strategic partner for India, it is not in a position to mitigate India’s problems with Pakistan and China. While a partnership with the U.S. makes sense for India, would Washington be interested in deepening regional security cooperation with India, as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and recast its Asia policy? Two possible alternatives are conceivable. A weaker and isolationist America might turn its back on Afghanistan and Pakistan and be tempted to compromise with China rather than seek to balance it Asia. An America rejuvenated in the next few years might be strong enough to re-establish its primacy in Asia by strengthening its traditional alliances. In either scenario, there will be little room for regional security cooperation in Asia.

In the real world, though, the U.S. is likely to find itself somewhere in between and might find some value for India’s role in the Middle East and Asia. The policy challenge for Delhi and Washington in the near term is to sustain a political dialogue on regional issues, expand intelligence sharing, and deepen military cooperation. That would allow the two sides to seize specific opportunities that might present themselves for security cooperation in Asia.


Although Indian foreign policy practice has often responded to regional and global shifts in power, its public discourse remains centred around concepts of non-alignment and strategic autonomy which got loaded over time with ideological overtones. The U.S. partnerships with Pakistan and China deepened India’s suspicions of American role in the region. Any objective assessment of U.S. role in the region over the last decade suggests that American military presence in Afghanistan has been very helpful for India in reviving its presence in this important neighbour. In East Asia, the strong American military presence keeps China’s focus riveted on the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean.

If in the past India worried about too much American power, Delhi must now come to terms with the potential diminution of U.S. weight in Asia. A weakened United States needs credible partners in the region to cope with the new challenges in Asia. India faces great uncertainty on its western and eastern flanks and needs U.S. cooperation to expand its own strategic options in a turbulent Asia.