Recent international developments suggest a shift of wealth from the West to the East, with the emergence of new powers, new aspirations and new ambitions. South and Southeast Asia are no longer in the international backwaters, and global attention is shifting towards them. India is at the hub of an zone of instability and a zone of prosperity; the instability running from the Levant through Syria, Iraq, Iran Afghanistan and Pakistan to Central Asia, and the prosperity – at least by GDP growth standards – from the oil-rich Arab Gulf States through India towards Asean, China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. This situation can be propitious for India provided we create the necessary conditions to benefit.
India should strive for issue-based alliances while maintaining an independent foreign policy and strategic autonomy, steering a difficult course between the aforesaid area of instability from the Arab peninsula to Central Asia and the area of future prosperity from India to Taiwan. Within these theme-based alliances there are specific issues that have to be addressed and there is some room for manoeuvre. For example, India broke ranks with BRICs on Syria, Sri Lanka and Iran which caused some surprise. Have we abandoned our traditional policy of paramount respect to Article 2 of the UN Charter regarding state sovereignty, or is it only a tactical retreat? Even in any theme-based alliance, the need for balancing our strategic requirement for close relations with USA, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam to cope with potential security challenges from China, with the equal need to avoid any action that will sound alarm bells in Beijing, must continue to be our objective. We are in no position to change gear to move from a defensively cautious to a confidently activist mode.
In South Asia we face domestic challenges; Maoism, the centrifugal urge for mini-sovereignties, and terror both indigenous and imported from some neighbours. In addition, we confront non –conventional threats like cyber, nuclear and chemical warfare, access to raw materials, water sources and energy.
No big country is loved by its neighbours. India has on its land borders six countries, including the most populous and fastest growing big economy on earth, and another one that is correctly described as an international migraine. We also have several more neighbours on our maritime borders. With some neighbours, both our territorial and our maritime borders are yet to be mutually settled. We live in a very dangerous neighbourhood – the least integrated region in the whole world. It is stating the obvious that there is no political or economic structure that tends towards unity in South Asia and no machinery for meaningful security discussions or conflict resolution. And there cannot be, while there is such a high level of trust deficit.
To reach a position of becoming a country that counts in the world, India will have to have a mutually cooperative sub-region. India is diminished by being boxed into the sub-continent, but India cannot do otherwise with neighbours like China and Pakistan. India can never achieve global status unless it reaches out beyond its immediate neighbourhood to the wider world. These paradoxes need to be resolved.
Developments in India’s neighborhood illustrate the larger point about the transformation of conflict from ‘ordinary war’ between organized armies to a hybrid of war, insurrection, ideological, ethnic and religious grievances, and covert operations. A serious security concern for us today is that across the world, terror groups and their sponsors terrorize innocent people and pressurize governments.
Pakistan is the main exporter of terrorism in the world and is sliding into anarchy. If it goes out of control, the spillover effects on India would be considerable. A second big question is what would be the nature of Pakistan in the post Osama years; whether it will move closer to a moderate Muslim country, or continue as the hotbed of hard line Islamic fundamentalism that it has become.
When we think of security threat perception, there is little point in looking too far afield to hypothetical possibilities that will never prove a menace to India. It is our near-abroad that has to command our attention.