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Strategic Challenges Facing Prime Minister Modi

India’s 15th prime minister Narendra Damodardas Modi has proved that he can be unorthodox and capable of imagination. By inviting all the heads of governments/ nations of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for his prime ministerial inauguration, Mr. Modi signaled India’s efforts to take all its neighbours together.

An unprecedented move, the response was positive. All those invited attended except Bangladesh Prime Minister Sk. Hasina who was visiting Japan. She sent a representative, the speaker of Parliament Shirin Sharmeen.

The singular outcome of this event was the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was later revealed that Mr. Modi had personally spoken to Mr. Sharif and his invitation was accepted.

Although the Indian Consulate in Herat in Afghanistan was attacked by the Pakistani ISI controlled Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) on May 23 as a warning to both Mr. Sharif and India, Mr. Sharif pushed through, supported by his party heavyweights and the ministry of foreign affairs. The LET is controlled by the Pak army and ISI.

Mr. Nawaz Sharif is an experienced and wily politician and a political survivor. Evicted twice before by the Pakistani army, he has returned a third time as Pakistan’s prime minister. This is a feat no other Pakistani politician has performed.

The Modi-Nawaz talks did not achieve any breakthrough, nor was one expected. It gave the two prime ministers an opportunity to feel out each other. The only agreement was that the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan will start meeting. The importance of Prime Minister Modi’s initiative cannot be dismissed. It suggests an idea for SAARC.

Some political analysts suggest at times that South Asia or the Indian subcontinent comprising India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka should try to come to an understanding to work towards an European Union (EU) type of agreement. Later, the other SAARC countries can be brought in. There is another view that if Pakistan is the main trouble maker, then it can be left aside and an agreement among all other SAARC constituents for economic and security cooperation can be attempted.

These questions can be discussed on the sidelines by intellectuals and experts in South Asia countries, by holding Track-II meetings with the support of respective governments and the subject kept alive. EU was not set up in a day. Even today differences arise between member countries.

South Asia is in the political state that Europe was in, in the 18th and 19th centuries when wars were fought, major territorial issues were jostled over and national boundaries were drawn and redrawn. The two great wars of the 20th century taught us very painful lessons, leading to the consolidation of Western Europe; national boundaries in Europe were settled permanently.

The experience of South Asia/Indian Subcontinent has been different. The partition of India was ill conceived leading to bitterness and hatred that still rules minds. Behind the scenes, Pakistan was created by the British in consultation with the Americans as a domino to prevent Moscow from pushing in, to access the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

The scenario has played out in many ways in the last 70 years with wars fought, and Kashmir a perpetual sore. All this is well known. What is elusive is trust and with that stability and development.

People in the South Asian countries are getting tired of wars. If issues between India and Pakistan are resolved and friendly relations established, then the rest of South Asia and SAARC will fall in place. Can Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif achieve the unimaginable? Equally important, will vested interests inside and outside allow this to happen?

Leaving aside the past-history of Pakistan for the sake of brevity (though the past has continued to impinge on the present a great deal), Pakistan is important for a number of countries. The Americans want control on Pakistan and through Pakistan on Afghanistan. This is their route to the great game in Central Asia to counter both Russia and China. Control of Pakistan has its importance for the Middle East.

The USA’s interest in terrorism is the protection of America and American interests. This was proved by the way they handled the David Headley case, a Pakistani American used by the ISI to case Mumbai for the November 2008 terrorist attack by the LET. Indian intelligence officers never got access to Hadley to question him. Despite some serious stress in their relations with Pakistan over Afghanistan, the Americans continue to provide military aid and assistance.

China was equally if not more interested in its “all weather” friend Pakistan. Beijing has used Pakistan’s visceral hatred of India to use it as the cornerstone in the region to encircle and counter India. It has emerged as Pakistan’s biggest military hardware supplier, and helped Islamabad to become a stand-alone nuclear weapons power.

Next, Pakistan is very useful for China’s Afghanistan policy including keeping in touch with the Afghan Taliban clandestinely. A possible route to Central Asia through Pakistan and Afghanistan is also in mind.

The biggest Chinese interest in Pakistan as things stand today is access to the Gulf and the Middle East, the core of the Muslim world. This region has oil and gas which China needs direly; it is a huge market for Chinese goods; there is a market for Chinese arms; and increasingly important politically if US-Saudi relations cool down.

Although India and Saudi Arabia enjoy good relations, Saudi Arabia remains the soul supporter of Pakistan. It is Riyadh which keeps Pakistan on oil and gas, provides financial aid and is the arbitrator when Pakistan’s internal politics reaches a crisis. It is on the same page as Pakistan on the Afghanistan issue and the Taliban. Saudi export of hardline Wahabi Islam has given rise to Islamic terrorism in Pakistan, and both countries have collaborated to establish Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, which in turn adversely affected India. Persecution of Shias in Pakistan can become a disturbing issue from India to the Middle East and North Africa. Although Sunnis and Shias have generally refrained from serious clashes in India, the growing Deobandi-Wahabi influence can destabilize the situation by the involvement of external forces. This will be a destructive development, encouraging Islamic terrorism which Pakistan will be sure to expbit.

Afghanistan stands in a strategic location and is intimately connected to India’s security. The question is will the Pak army still pursue their “strategic depth” goal in Afghanistan? This theory has been torn to bits by some Pakistani critics. But the Pak army and right wing politicians still see Afghanistan as their rightful backyard and Indian influence there as inimical to Pakistan’s security. The majority of Afghans view India as a friend, with historical connections. Countries like the US and China have not revealed their minds where India is concerned. As for Pakistan itself, the “deep state” still holds the cards, the distrust between India and Pakistan is so deep that even good intentions are swept away by the mindset. Former Pakistani army Chief, Gen. Asfaq Parvez Kyani had remarked that the terrorist organizations were its assets.

Another interesting thing about the Pak army is their attempt at self-deception that they do not belong to South Asia but to the Middle East. Such self-delusion can weaken Pakistan morally.

The bottom line is that terrorism tanzims in Pakistan have to be liquidated to bring peace to South Asia. These tanzims are gradually spreading to other neighbours of India, having already taken roots in Bangladesh.

The foregoing is a thumb-nail sketch of strategic challenges from India’s west. And it is not insignificant.

It must be admitted that Indian diplomacy with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has not been up to the desirable level of efficacy. There are two common refrains from India’s smaller neighbours (i) Indian diplomats are arrogant and make the small really feel small, and (ii) India promises a lot at times but is very slow on delivery.

The importance of Bangladesh needs no emphasis. The Awami League coalition government led by Prime Minister Sk. Hasina has cleared the country of Indian insurgents and broken the back of Islamic terrorists. Bangladesh is geographically well situated to walk with India’s Look East policy using a land bridge through Bangladesh and Myanmar to South East Asia. It can help India form a quadrilateral with Nepal and Bhutan for development and energy distribution. The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) road from China’s Yunan province to Bangladesh’s Chittagong district may require review by New Delhi in the backdrop of China’s eagerness to construct a deep sea port in Sonadia near Chittatong. India’s $ one billion assistance to Bangladesh of which $ 200 million was converted to outright aid was appreciated in Bangladesh. Yet, the failure of the Indian government to rectify the Teesta river agreement and conclude and ratify the Land Border Agreement (LBA) nullified a lot of good work. This was also a political setback for Sk. Hasina personally and her government. The opposition made out that Sk. Hasina was selling out Bangladesh to India and India could not be trusted.

The BJP led NDA government must address these two issues forthwith. This brings to the fore States controlling foreign policy in their immediate neighborhood. The Congress led UPA government gave in to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Teesta. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha queered the pitch with Sri Lanka, and is demanding that Prime Minister Modi take up many other issues with Sri Lanka including the question of Kaachativu Island now in Sri Lankan position.

Foreign policy must remain the prerogative of the central government. States remain engrossed in their local politics which has little or nothing to do with the larger national interest. The NDA is a strong government which does not need outside support. Even the BJP enjoys majority in parliament and can take bold decisions. It should deliver on the two issues to Bangladesh to send a message to the likes of Ms. Jayalatitha. This is imperative to consolidate relations with small neighbours.

A rising India has to play its inspirational role between two major powers-the USA, the only remaining super power, and China the aspiring super power reluctant to take up its due global responsibilities. When required Beijing calls itself a developing country. Yet it is poised to overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world with a matching military strength.

The US and China are almost locked perpetually in acrimony, yet they are economically interdependent and biggest trading partners. China wants to be the preeminent power in Asia, and divide the world between the US and itself. The US is willing to give to China space to grow as a major power, but wants to retain overall global control.

The US started on the wrong foot with Mr. Narendra Modi, and is trying to repair the damage. With the US, India will have to manage the negatives while taking advantage of the positives like high technology, military technology and economy. Currently, the US is confused over its foreign policy-to be proactive or withdraw. But Washington would want India to play a greater role at the moment in the Indian Ocean and Pacific region. Yet it may not be forgotten that US President Barack Obama offered China the G-2 power position (US and China as the two global powers) and our ombudsman like position on South Asia. China declined on both issues.

China’s biggest concern with India is a possible India-US Japan triangle to counter China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India earlier this year following the Japanese emperor’s visit, and talks of possible military joint production with India has been read in Beijing as encouraging Abe’s rightwing government to become militaristic.

At the moment China is engrossed with territorial disputes in East China Sea with Japan, and in the South China Sea with South East Asian claimants like Vietnam, the Philippines and others. China lays claim to more than 85 % of the South China Sea, which will severely impact global maritime trade including that of India.

Serious maritime clashes between China and the other countries mentioned above will certainly bring in the US, which has bilateral security treaties with Japan and the Philippines, and improving relations with Vietnam. Such development will adversely affect the Indian Ocean region, and thereby India. Some leading experts like Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien-lien predict a war between China and Japan in the next ten years. There are several reasons that China is reaching out to the new Indian government headed by Prime Minister Modi. First, they are yet to read Mr. Modi and his team, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is to make further inquires during his two day trip to India from June 9. India-American relations, as mentioned, is of vital importance to Beijing.

Trade and investment issues between the two countries will be reviewed. India-China trade has been stuck at the level of $ 68 billion dollars with an Indian trade deficit of $ 31 billion in 2013. New Delhi must toughly examine the trade protocol and items involved as Chinese exports are cheap manufactured goods whereas imports are valued raw material like iron ore. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s congratulatory call to Prime Minister Modi came on May 29, a good three days after his May 26 swearing in ceremony. It suggests that the decision came after serious deliberations at a very high level like the politburo.

There is no signal from Beijing to indicate forward movement in critical bilateral areas, for example, nuclear issues, Pakistan, the border issue, UN Security Council expansion among others.

At the moment China wants peace and tranquility along the LAC to be sealed and kept aside. No indication of adjustment of their stated claims including Arunanchal Predesh. Chinese experts eventually see a war involving land, sea and air forces in a border war, but only after recovering Taiwan, the Spratly group of Islands and South China Sea, and the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands from Japan. The 30 years from 2022 is expected to experience several wars waged by China.

At the same time, India has a 4000 kms border with China, though the Chinese say it is 2000 kms. The two countries have to work with each other. The only question is how can this be managed without too many fall outs.

On the other hand “obsequiousness” must be deleted from Indian diplomatic behaviour. No more Havana and Sharm Al-Sheik with Pakistan, and no more statements of longing to live in China by erstwhile Indian foreign Minister Salman Khurshid. Win over small neighbours and do not give an inch to bullies.

(The writer Mr. Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

Disclaimer – The views expressed are of the author.

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