DANGEROUS LIASIONS : Pakistan-China nexus poses strategic threat to India
Amb Kanwal Sibal

It is more practical to limit the review of India’s security mainly to the classic concept of a nations’s security, not its extended definition given today that includes energy, food, water etc. With the end of the Cold War and the lowering of the threat of a military conflict between the big powers, attention has shifted to economic competition. With depletion of fossil fuel resources and the search for viable alternatives, the focus is on energy security. Climate change and prospects of water scarcity has brought the issue of food security to the fore. As far as we are concerned while issues of economic security are very pertinent, our physical security is seriously under threat not only by hostile state actors but also non-state actors inspired by violent religious ideologies that receive state support.

India’s security dilemmas are particularly acute. It is facing two hostile powers on its frontiers, Pakistan and China, and both cooperate with each other to threaten its security. With both countries India has outstanding border problems, with unsettled, undemarcated or disputed borders. With Pakistan India has a Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir; with China India has a Line of Actual Contol all along the northern border. Both countries occupy large tracts of Indian territory acquired through aggression and claim additional Indian territory. In both cases our armed forces are facing theirs across the border. All in all, while there is agreement on a cease-fire across the LOC in J&K and Agreements to maintain Peace and Tranquillity and observe CMBs across the LOAC with China, the basic situation is unstable, holding the potential of a conflict.

Pakistan wants to have parity with us; China wants to be the dominant power in the region. Pakistan wants to limit India’s regional as well as global role by blocking us westwards so that we don’t have easy access to Afghanistan and Central Asia; China wants to confine us to South Asia, keep us entangled in the sub-continent so that we are unable to fully exert our influence in the rest of Asia and beyond, giving China space and time to entrench its influence there without having to face competition from India.

Pakistan is determined to confront India and China is intent on giving Pakistan the means and the confidence to continue this confrontation. China has transferred nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, neutralizing us strategically in South Asia and limiting our capacity to dominate our neighbourhood because of our size and potential. We now have the problematic situation of having two nuclear powers on our borders, with both collaborating with each other to put constraints on India.

China has stepped up its presence in POK even as it has begun to question implicitly our sovereignty over J&K. It sees no contradiction between its stand on ONGC’s oil exploration in a Vietnamese block in the South China Sea on the ground that it is disputed area and its involvement in projects in POK, including strategic ones with military implications for India. POK is becoming key geo-politically to China’s access to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar as well as its penetration into Afghanistan with connectivities to Central Asia in partnership with Pakistan. China’s increasingly strong presence in this region will act as a bulwark against the extension of India’s power and influence westwards.

China opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal to the extent it could, but with India having secured the NSG exception, the Chinese have sought to extend parity treatment to Pakistan in field of civilian nuclear cooperation by announcing their decision to set up two additional nuclear reactors there in violation of their NSG obligations. This demonstrates the depth of China’s strategic commitment to Pakistan. If the US seeks to establish a new partnership with India that can weigh in favour of India vis a vis Pakistan and China, the latter is prepared to counter it with an equivalent gesture towards Pakistan. Reports that China is currently transferring technology for a new missile to Pakistan have appeared, which indicates that China’s transgressions in the field of missile proliferation are not a thing of the past but continue. China, of course, is the biggest supplier of arms to Pakistan.

Given the role that the military plays in the country’s internal and external politics, Pakistan can be characterized as a militarized state, with a militarized foreign policy. Rather than strengthening the civilian government in Pakistan, and hence propping up democracy, Pakistan’s key partners shore up the country’s armed forces by dealing with them as their privileged interlocutors and supplying them arms to obtain more willing cooperation from them for achieving regional objectives. The US continues to extend arms assistance to Pakistan despite the Pakistani military’s declared hostility towards india and avowed intention to acquire arms to counter it. The US maintains its freedom of action to arm Pakistan with the specious argument that these arms supplies do not change the conventional arms balance in the region, and agreeing to disagree with us on this issue. The consequence for India is that our adversary is being armed by the most powerful democratic country in the world as well as by the most authoritarian state.

India is a country most exposed to the threat from terrorism inspired by religious extemism. The epicenter of global terrorism is located in Pakistan. India has suffered from terrorism without obtaining the sympathy and support of the international community for long years. After 9/11 the US took cognizance of the terrorist problem emanating from the Af-Pak region but treated Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror rather than the source of this menace. Pakistan-based terrorism became an argument, ironically, for pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir issue in order to get Pakistan to devote its full attention to curbing the activities of the terror groups operating in Afghanistan against the US/ISAF forces there across its western border. After 26/11 and US’s own experience of Pakistan’s two-faced policies on terrorism- combating those groups targetting it internally and supporting those that served it externally - the Americans have a more clearly enunciated thinking about Pakistan’s terrorist threat to India, but this has not resulted in deterrent action against Pakistan’s use of terrorism as state policy.

With the electoral and financial need to reduce its Aghanistan liability, the US, prodded by the UK in particular, is willing to cut a political deal with the Taliban that would allow it to withdraw from that country without a debacle. The Taliban’s extremist religious ideology can be overlooked by the western powers so long as the Islamist agenda is limited to Afghanistan, links with Al Qaida are cut off and the West is no longer a target of terrorist attacks. This strategy disegards India’s interest in protecting its multi-religious society from mounting influence of extremist thinking in the region. The Taliban may foreswear terrorism against the West in exchange for a share in the power structure in Afghanistan, but the threat to India’s security would increase with greater Talibanization of the region. India needs a government in Afghanistan that is not beholden to Pakistan and has no religious bias against us. The prospects of stability of the region, with Central Asia included, built on increased connectivity within it, would be compromised if instead of forces of moderation and modernization getting entrenched in it, the opposite happened. India’s security interests in Afghanistan are therefore self-evident. The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed betwen India and Afghanistan recently is a step in the direction of India affirming these interests.

China’s stepped up claims on Arunachal Pradesh defined now as South Tibet, characterizing high level political visits from our side to the state as provocation, internationalizing its differences with us on this issue by objecting to ADB funding for development projects in the state, reminding us in the Chinese state controlled press of a repeat of 1962 if India continued its provocations, upgrading massively its military infrastructure in Tibet, all point to the security problems we face from China, as does the uncertainties surrounding the issue of Dalai Lama’s succession, Our decision to improve the long neglected military infrastructure on our northern border, open up airfields close to it, position our latest aircraft in air bases in the east, raise additional mountain divisions etc are in response to this threat. Instead of profiting from a peace dividend by way of demilitarization flowing from our improved economic ties with China and negotiations by the Special Representatives(SRs) of the two countries to find a political solution the border issue, the border is being remilitarized. The 14 meetings of the SRs have proved infructuous in making progress in a reasonable time frame; the 15th meeting has been postponed under unclear circumstances.

Apart from facing a two front situation on its northern and western borders, India’s security problems with its neighbours have other peculiar dimensions. If those borders are unsettled partially or fully, with neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh they are either open or porous by treaty or ineffective controls, giving rise to either infilitration of intruders with designs on our security, as in the case of induction of terrorists by Pakistan or large scale illegal immigration. Both aggravate problems of internal security, with illegal immigration, by changing the demographic composition in some parts of India, creating political tensions in addition. Nepal presents additional security dilemmas because of its traditional policy of playing the China card against us because of imaginary fears of a threat to its sovereignty by India, giving China political space south of the Himalayas. With the Maoists in power in Nepal, the pro-China and anti-Indian orientation of Nepalese policies presents an enhanced challenge to our diplomacy. While the change of government in Bangladesh has brought about a re-definition of the country’s aproach to India on security issues by suppressing the activities and presence of anti-Indian insurgents sheltering on its territory, this problem has bedevilled the security aspects of our relationship with Bangladesh in the past. With Sri Lanka, India has been embroiled in security issues connected with the ethnic conflict there. Whereas this problem has got removed with the elimination of the LTTE, Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka remains an issue of concern as we are unable to exclude its influence from our periphery in the south as China’s penetration there is at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government which, in its sovereign capacity, wants China to play a balancing role of sorts vis a vis us, apart from benefitting from the China connection economically.

In essence, because of our size our smaller neighbours fear being overwhelmed politically and militarily and seek countervailing options by bringing in outside powers to balance India. This is inbuilt into the situation, with India facing the dilemma that its inaction emboldens the neighbours to follow policies damaging its interests whereas muscle-flexing gives more reason to them to court others. India’s many vulerabilities and the tendency to be inward looking and absorb blows rather than take retaliatory action gives our neighbours the space to test the limits of our tolerance.

In the past it was both the US and China that were courted at our cost. Today, with our improved relations with the US, the contradictions between our interests in our neighbourhood and US interests there have greatly narrowed down, barring in some respects with regard to Pakistan and China individually and their close strategic cooperation with each other, including in the sensitive nuclear and missile areas which the US has preferred to overlook because of larger strategic considerations influencing its relations with China. The US has once again decided to underplay the issue of nuclear transfers to Pakistan by China in violation of the latter’s NSG obligations, even though the Chinese had made it plain that their decision was intended to balance the India-US nuclear deal. The US has taken no position on India-China border differences; their position on Tibet responds to Chinese sensitivities. This implies that in a situation of worsening differences between India and China, India will be essentially be on its own. This suggests that India must have an accelerated programme to build its defences against China, including in the strategic domain.

India, dominating physically the Indian Ocean, with a long coast line and its energy and trade flows being largely sea borne, has security burdens with regard to coastal protection, the protection of its EEZ and the safety of the sea lanes of communication. It is imperative for India to have naval assets commensurate with the responsibilities it must discharge. The sea-borne Mumbai terrorist attack exposed the gaps in our coastal security which do not seem to have been filled up sufficiently even now. To ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication, including against the new threat of piracy, the Indian and US navies have been conducting exercises regularly in the Indian Ocean. The expansion of the Chinese navy, its likely ingress into the Indian Ocean area, China’s initiatives to secure access to or develop geo-politically located commercial ports in the Indian Ocean for facilitating its sea borne trade, with eventual naval access in mind, including port facilities for its nuclear submarines, are challenges that India and others have to contend with in the years ahead. For doing that India has to develop appropriate mechanisms of cooperation with other countries, especially the US and Japan, as well as Australia.

In the above context, India’s security is enhanced by its increased attention to ASEAN and East Asia. While the South China Sea is not the immediate area of india’s security concerns, yet India needs to play its role in the development of security structures in this region that will have an impact on its own region. The US is exhorting India to Engage East and Act East as part of a hedging strategy against China’s over-assertive conduct in the future. Any disposition on this score in East Asia would also constrain China in the Indian Ocean area and would therefore ease security pressures on India. India has to be watchful not to subscribe to strategies of another country that go beyond its own requirements, but it should have a clear sighted view of its own needs and extend coopration within those bounds.

On the western side of the Indian Ocean, India has a vital interest in peace and stability in the Gulf region where several million Indian expatriates reside and from where enormous remittances are received. The regional impact in India of any upheaval can be considerable, as also for our balance of payments. While the size of our community is an asset in terms of bilateral relations with these Muslim countries, the underlying vulnerability of the situation is also a fact. India needs to contnuously cultivate the goodwill of these countries from which it receives most of its energy. Iran -Saudi Arabia hostility and the sharpening Shia-Sunni divide is probematic for India, as we are not in a position to choose sides, and would not like to have these divides transferred to our own soil in view of the sectarian composition of our own Muslim community. We need good relations with both Saudi-Arabia and Iran, even though in over all terms our equities with Saudi-Arabia are higher. We have been cautious in our reaction to the Arab Spring as its future course is uncertain; the extension of such a spring in the Gulf region can confront us with most difficult choices. Alrady we had to evacuate18 thousand Indian expatriates from Libya.

India’s security challenges have to be seen in the context of the fact that India is not a member of any alliance. It has to deal with its problems, actual or potential, largely on its own. To maintain the independence of its policy options and deal with threats, it has to strengthen its capacity to defend itself. This requires that we develop rapidly our strategic assets as well as our indigenous defence manufacturing base. We should continue to engage China without seeking to appease it. A dialogue with Pakistan can continue but without unilateral gestures that weaken our hand in dealing with it. The partnership with the US is critical for our long term interests but care has to be taken not to be drawn into engagements flowing from the US tendency to use force in pursuit of its causes. Our relationship with Russia which is free from the kind of complications we have with the US needs to be nurtured as much as possible, not the least because it is our biggest defence partner. With Europe the steady relationship we have should be developed to its full potential. In our neighbourhood we should leverage our growing economic strength to draw these countries increasingly into our economic orbit with a show of generosity.

Published in Force Magazine, Issue Dec, 2011

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