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Keynote Address at the 16th Asian Security Conference on "Emerging Strategic Trends in Asia and India’s Response"

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  • Hon’ble Shri M. K. Narayanan Governor of West Bengal
    February 20, 2014

    I am grateful for the privilege afforded, to deliver the Keynote Address at the 16th Asian Security Conference on Emerging Strategic Trends in Asia – India’s Response, which is being organized by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis. The IDSA is one of India’s leading think tanks, and its Conferences attract many eminent experts and scholars. The opinions expressed, and the outcomes, have proved useful in shaping India’s policies in many areas.

    I. Introduction

    Today’s topic is of contemporary relevance given the fast changing developments taking place across Asia. There exist two Asias today – both competing for space and attention. Economically we have a dynamic, and to an extent integrated Asia. The Asian Development Bank anticipates that by 2050 or even earlier, Asia will nearly double its share of global GDP to 52%. 53% of Asia’s trade is now conducted within the region itself. The over USD 19 Trillion economy has today become an engine of global growth. While Asian economies are vital for each other, economic ties with Asia have become critically important for the West following the global economic meltdown.

    There is, however, another Asia, which in security terms appears dysfunctional, buffeted by powerful nationalisms, and prone to irredentism. This is an Asia where multiple strands of thought, multiple perspectives, and multiple courses of action, intersect with fragile states already wracked by grave internal conflicts. Asia-Security, thus, appears anachronistic compared to Asia-Economic. Even regions that share commonalities of history, geographies and cultures, are often seen to be in conflict.

    II. Asian security dynamics:

    Asian security dynamics are an amalgam of issues such as:

    1. outstanding territorial disputes on land – the border dispute between India and China is perhaps the most longstanding, but there are others which expose the fault lines in Asia, and are potential flash points;
    2. mounting territorial tensions among India’s East Asian neighbours – which largely centre round contested claims regarding the sea, spurred in part by China’s ever widening maritime claims in the South China and East China seas, for which there are multiple claimants;
    3. tensions between China on the one hand, and Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan on the other;
    4. the intense India-Pakistan rivalry, that stems only in part from the unresolved issue of Jammu and Kashmir;

    Not to be ignored also, are the differing perceptions among countries in the region of many of their neighbours, and specially of the two largest countries of Asia, all of which have tended to aggravate the divide across the continent.

    III. Regional Stability Issues

    For long, South Asia had the unenviable reputation of being one of the most volatile regions in the world. Even today, the situation in South Asia remains highly problematical, but prevailing conditions in regions such as West, South East and East Asia bring them also into similar reckoning.

    In particular, it needs to be recognized that fundamentalist, extremist and radical ideas and beliefs, are gaining ground faster in Asia than anywhere else; also that there is a resurgence of new radical outfits; and, in turn, religious extremism is aggravating existing turmoils.

    In West Asia this is leading to an intensification of sectarian conflicts among disparate Islamist forces. Several West Asian nations like Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and the Gulf kingdoms, are all wrestling with the problem of containing hard line Islamist groups. Opposing forces in the region are seeking asymmetrical support from the Hizbullah or Al-Quaeda, depending on their predilections. Even Saudi Arabia feels highly vulnerable following the latest turn of events in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

    Syria perhaps is an extreme case. An ‘alphabetic soup’ of elements – from the crumbling Free Syrian Army to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) to Jabhat-Al-Musra and Ahrar-al-Sham to Zehran Allosush’s Army of Islam – are all battling for control. The spectre of Iran, the rise of pro-Al Quaeda elements and the ‘terrorist narrative’, as also the possibility of an enlarged Sunni-Shia conflict also hovers in the background.

    South Asia is not insulated from these winds sweeping across much of West Asia. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, are facing intense pressure from radicals in their midst. The situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is additionally complicated by a combination of perceived State weakness and the presence of myriad terrorist groups, which pose a threat of asymmetric warfare and terrorism to the countries themselves, and to the region and beyond.

    Meantime, extremist forces like the Taliban are gaining ground in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the possibility of the Taliban gaining ascendancy seems very real. In Pakistan, the willingness of the present regime to hold talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban posits a grave threat to neighbouring countries like India. Not to be ignored is Pakistan’s policy of continuing support to terrorist groups like the LeT, and employ them as strategic instrumentalities against India.

    Unsettled conditions, and a new cycle of conflict affect Myanmar, Indonesia and Sri Lanka today. These involve religion, ethnicity and politics; a special feature being the growing conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Thailand is embroiled in a fresh round of agitations, though the colour of the present conflict is, as yet, unclear. The outlook in both Maldives and Nepal, where Democratic governments have established a tenuous toehold for the present is uncertain. Sri Lanka confronts both a political as well as an ethnic crisis.

    China-Japan differences are meantime getting further exacerbated. A more determined Japan under PM Shinzo Abe is unlikely, and unwilling, to accede or cede ground, to China’s demands. China’s relations with Vietnam and some of the other ASEAN nations also lack warmth. Issues relating to North Korea and Taiwan add to existing complications.

    IV. Emerging Strategic Trends

    From the perspective of a Conference of this kind, strategic experts would, no doubt, have us believe that it is the outcome of the two long standing conflicts in Asia viz., that of India and China, and India and Pakistan, and additionally China’s ‘rise’, that will determine the end-situation in Asia.

    Talk of Indo-China rivalry in geopolitical and strategic matters is not new (though both countries discount such rivalry.) China and India clearly have different approaches to Asian security and regional stability and the situation calls for deft management having regard to the consequences. It does have the potential to test the established order in Asia and, hence, merits careful delineation.

    For example, China is accepted as a power economically, but one which is also perceived by many Asian nations today as seeking to establish its strategic hegemony over the entire region and specially in its periphery. The assertion of China’s right to its ‘historic waters’ (confined within the nine dash lines of the Chinese claim line) and its announcement of an Air Identification Zone in the East China Sea, are viewed as indices of its desire to achieve preeminence in the region. This is further buttressed by China’s growing interest in areas to its South, and with which it shares a common border. China’s refrain of ‘continued competition’ in the military domain has only added to such concerns about China’s true intentions.

    In comparison, India’s priorities appear more limited, largely restricted to maintaining its strategic autonomy even while trying to sustain higher economic growth. Its preference is for multilateral pluralist groupings and economic cooperation, rather than for a policy based on power relations. This should be evident from its dealings with the Sunni-Arab world and Shia Iran, as also Central Asian countries and Afghanistan. With countries of South East Asia, India’s efforts have been mainly directed towards contributing to the creation of a mutually acceptable economic architecture.

    In the case of the other longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan, it must be acknowledged that it shows few signs of abating. In dealing with Pakistan, however, the challenge India faces is different from the one it faces in dealing with China. Part of the problem is Pakistan’s ‘propensity for perilous risk taking and a penchant for sub-state violence’ as a Western analyst puts it.

    The growing influence and role of organizations like the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, in determining key strategic decisions, vis-à-vis India is exacerbating the problem. The Pakistan-Taliban is no longer confined to tribal areas straddling the Pak-Afghan border, its influence is sizeable even in a city like Karachi. Its viewpoint, at least as far as India is concerned, could shape Pakistan’s policy in the coming period, since there are influential elements today within the Pakistani Government who are anxious to co-opt, rather than confront, the Taliban. Consequently, not every conciliatory gambit on India’s part is likely to produce a countervailing response.

    Pakistan also possesses of one of the world’s biggest Armies – one that is equipped with a rapidly growing nuclear arsenal. The close support afforded by China to Pakistan in strategic matters – including that of assistance in nuclear matters – are all aspects that cannot be ignored.

    China’s rise – peaceful or otherwise – is equally a vital factor in assessing emerging strategic trends in the region. Chinese nationalism is widely seen today as the main driver of China’s foreign and defence policies. Many strategic analysts believe that this is also one of those periods in Chinese history in which both Chinese nationalism and Chinese exceptionalism are on the ascendant. This will, in turn, have a direct impact on its external policies. The geo-political and geo-strategic fallout of this will require to be carefully considered.

    V. Strategic Threats

    There are certain other aspects that will need to be taken into account. First and foremost, is the expanding Terrorist dynamic in the Asian region. The reality is that global terrorism is expanding rapidly, specially in Asia. The Syrian imbroglio is the most recent example.

    The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and the situation in Syria and West Asia, for instance, are likely to exacerbate the tendency to pursue ‘high risk strategies.’ Viewed against the reality that terrorism has mutated into global franchise, as also the existence of close coordination in operational matters among terrorist outfits such as the Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Al Shabab, the ISIS, the LeT and the HuJI, the terrorist threat has become very real. The advent of ‘leaderless jihad’ of the Abu Musab-al-Suri variety will aggravate an already difficult situation. Beset with other internal problems, Asian nations would find themselves greatly stretched in dealing with such situations.

    Next, is the Maritime Dimension. Sea lanes of communication have become critically important for Asian nations as the region contains several of the world’s most important choke points for global commerce. Many inter-state disputes are currently maritime in nature – including of late over Deep Seabed mining. Unsettled maritime boundaries and the tendency towards unrestricted exploitation of maritime resources with little regard for territorial jurisdiction – in the absence of a legal framework and multilateral agreements could become a flashpoint for conflict.

    As Asian nations become conscious of the strategic potential of the Oceans many, if not all, of them are suitably positioning themselves by building their Blue Water capabilities. India and China – the two largest nations – are intent on expanding their Navies, and both are in a race to enlarge the size of their surface and submarine fleets. The risk of unintended consequences has hence become considerable.

    A Third aspect is the Cyber Threat, with strategic experts envisaging cyber space as the 21st Century battlefield, and the Fifth Domain of Warfare. The cyber threat being intangible in nature, with no borders, and involving unseen armies targeting symbols of national security and data/information of security value, poses a graver danger than many existing strategic threats.

    Among the more vulnerable targets of cyber attacks, are the military – including the nuclear and missile components – apart from national security targets and intelligence agencies. Across the world and not only in Asia, attacks on military, nuclear and financial systems have gone up almost two thousand percent over the past decade. Protecting a country’s critical infrastructure from crippling cyber attacks will, hence, prove increasingly difficult. As it is, penetration modules like the STUXNET Worm (employed to attack closed systems such as Iran’s nuclear facility) are already passé. Highly sophisticated malicious malware to steal sensitive data are being evolved almost on a daily basis; even the Malware FLAME which only a few months ago was seen as the most sophisticated ever, has been overtaken by later ones.

    The grave nature of the cyber threat strengthens the case for erecting better firewalls and hardening of systems to withstand attacks. Advances in science are now being sought in this context, and hopes have been raised that quantum mechanics could be the answer in the future. Meanwhile, countries including India, have, of necessity, be putting emphasis on evolving coordinated defence systems against cyber attacks – the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre is India’s new hope in this respect.

    Nuclear Asia represents yet another dimension of the strategic threat. In the contested geopolitics of Asia, marked by enduring rivalries, politically unstable regimes, and concerns about conventional military inferiority, the presence of many Nuclear States adds to prevailing security concerns. Some States do not have a well-defined nuclear doctrine or effective safety procedures; some like Pakistan are enlarging the scope of their nuclear weapons and experimenting with tactical nuclear missiles – Pakistan’s revelations of the existence of its Hatf-9 Nasr, short range surface to surface missile with an operational range of 60 kms capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, has raised the possibility of predelegation of nuclear weapons to battlefield commanders in case of a conflict.

    The likelihood of Saudi Arabia intensifying its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in response to a possible Iran-West deal on Nuclear Weapons is also real. It will further reinforce belief in nuclear superiority as a key determinant in resolving crises between nations that are otherwise perceived as unequal – militarily and economically.

    VI. India’s Response

    India’s response will be dictated by the perception of India – primarily in its immediate neighbourhood, and to an extent in its extended neighbourhood and beyond. This perception would also be dependent on how China defines its national interests in the coming years. Will China opt for an aggressive or assertive policy in Asia? Or would it opt for a more cooperative and collaborative stance? As of now, the former seems more likely.

    The actions of the US in Asia – its withdrawal from Afghanistan; the blurring of lines (despite its rhetoric) as far as West Asia is concerned, notably in the context of Syria and Iran; the policy shift from that of a pivot in Asia to ‘rebalancing of forces’ in the Indo-Pacific, has greatly diminished its image. Most Asian nations will find US assurances as less than reliable, and may be compelled to make other choices. Strategic thinkers in the West will, as a result, have to seriously rework and rethink their ideas on how to increase their geopolitical maneuverability in the Indo-Pacific; strengthening the natural capabilities of Beijing’s Asian neighbours and siding with them so as to balance China, may no longer be a reliable option.

    How nations would realign themselves would depend on whether they see the US as a recessed or receding major power, China an aggressive one, and India as a reluctant power. It is not without significance that Liu Yazhou, Political Commissar at PLA’s National Defence University, recently talked of the strategic opportunity that the PLA had to boost its military capability to defend China’s sovereignty where China is involved in territorial disputes (he had in mind the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, but it could extend to other frontiers as well.) One must not also ignore the fact that aggressive nationalism often tends to spur a hawkish military.

    The situation in Asia is such that it does open up opportunities as far as India is concerned. Equally, if not more so, it provides China with a strategic opening. Many Asian strategic analysts recommend that India should resist the temptation to be a part of US-led efforts to contain China; instead it should forge closer ties with Beijing and ensure proper management of its border tensions. This is also implicit in the advice proferred recently by State Counsellor PRC, Yang Jiechi, (while in India) when he observed that the growth of the China-India strategic and cooperative partnership serves the fundamental interests of the two countries…and the two countries must work to increase strategic mutual trust.

    Asia’s geopolitical future, hence, hangs in the balance. China’s real strength lies in its sustained economic growth. An issue that many Asian nations may, hence, have to ponder over in the near future is whether they should remain content being part of an economic partnership dominated by China in Asia, or whether they should try and set up new fora where China’s economic dominance is less obvious.

    Again, military trends in Asia seem heavily slanted in China’s favour. Apart from India, there is no country in Asia which can hope to match China’s military strength. While countries like Japan appear to be moving towards stronger defence mechanisms and forces, there is little possibility that any of them could become a counterweight to China. Japan’s PM Shinjo Abe’s ‘democratic security diamond’ – a coalition among Japan, India, US and Australia – is a remake of the old Quadrilateral, but dependence on the US tends to be highly problematic, as allies such as Saudi Arabia are learning to their cost.

    The two largest nations in Asia – China and India – also have their own Achilles Heel, viz., the resource crunch they face. China has a clear headstart over India in tying up scarce resources with countries across the globe, but the availability of resources is nevertheless a problem for both. The importance of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific remains peaceful cannot, hence, be denied.

    China’s answer has been to draw up a viable Ocean strategy in its own image. At its 18th Party Congress, China proclaimed the need to protect its overseas interests, and underscored the centrality of maritime security in ensuring China’s economic progress and national well being. It also mentioned the need to set up ‘expeditionary forces’ to conduct military operations in distant lands and seas. This must serve as a wakeup call for China’s Asian neighbours – India in particular.

    VII. Conclusion

    Regional trajectories over the next 10 years are possibly not too difficult to predict. The outcome is, however, uncertain. China will almost certainly continue to make every effort to enlarge its influence across Asia, and dominate its periphery. The absence of a Concert of Asia, on the lines of the Concert of Europe of the 19th Century, will, hence, have adverse consequences for many nations in Asia. Yet, there does not appear to be any possibility of this happening, in the absence of an Asian Metternich or a Bismarck.

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