India’s challenges & threats

India’s challenges & threats

All this is happening in Asia. If there are doubts about this century being the “Asian Century”, for good or otherwise, they should vanish. The Asian...

As this is published, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be on the last leg of his tour of the Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He has added one more chapter to his pro-active engaging of world leaders, two scores of them he met during two multilateral conferences and at the bilateral talks.

All this is happening in Asia. If there are doubts about this century being the “Asian Century”, for good or otherwise, they should vanish. The Asian ‘engine’ is driving the global economy.

But mighty economic power Japan has just slid into recession as the move of the Shinzo Abe Government to hike taxes is taking a negative toll. Strangely, but significantly, the solution to the crisis, if British Prime Minister David Cameron is to be trusted, also lies in Asia. He wants the world to engage India and China, the two emerging economic giants, with more and more deals.

Reservations about this Camroonian solution stem from the fact that during the 2007-08, while the developed world suffered, India and China had by and large survived the recession for a number of reasons. Now, when the Eurozone is again in trouble – but still wants to call the shots – China and India are being expected to bail it out.

Despite the scrap with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over Ukraine crisis, the G20 Summit was really about this impending economic catastrophe, the third in less than 20 years. Indeed, economics dominated in this month of summits, APEC in Beijing, India-ASEAN in Myanmar and G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia.

These developments come as the world’s geopolitical focus shifts increasingly to Asia, marked by China’s rise and the US pivot towards the region.

The contrast with a West Asia in turmoil, unfortunately, is obvious. But that carries cautions for all summit attendees at Apec, Asean, East Asia Summit and G20 — on the need for managing efficiently and fairly political, social and ethnic imbalances and not allowing non-state actors to terrorise legally and democratically established orders.

For all those meeting at these summits, China is the elephant in the room they must learn to deal with. Not the least, India has, for a decade now, begun to adopt a proactive stance. In Modi’s case, it was evident first during his Japan visit, then when Xi came visiting and soon after that, during the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Despite the lengthening frowns on Chinese faces, India has doggedly stuck to its stake in the South China Sea. Vietnam responded with new oil exploration blocs to India’s defence pact that includes sale of naval patrol boats and a $100 million (RM320 million) Indian credit line.

There are challenges and opportunities. Successive Indian governments have been good at identifying the challenges, but they have been cautious about exploiting the opportunities. Sensitive but promising, defence and security cooperation in Southeast Asia is one such area.

Quite apart from its growing capacities in this area, India is unique in being a non-threatening power in this region, in a contrast to widely perceived Chinese aggressiveness. Modi is gradually seeking to make a difference. It will be some time before concrete results are in evidence.

Amarnath Ram, a former envoy to Thailand who had worked on the nuts and bolts of India’s “Look East Policy” under then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, credits Modi with bold and clear ideas when it comes to foreign policy. He thinks Modi’s vision, put into timely, concrete action, could have long-term impact on India’s ties with the entire region.

Visiting Australia 28 years after the late Rajiv Gandhi did, Modi addressed a joint session of its Parliament. This underscored the increasing strategic complementarities between New Delhi and Canberra, as is also evident from the civil nuclear deal.

Modi’s outreach to the Indian community in Sydney and Melbourne – the frenzied crowds of Indians chanting “Modi Modi” could compare well with the one at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Modi’s “Look East, Act East”, however, cannot take away his attention from the immediate –more difficult –neighbourhood. A point stated a million times is that if India wants to play a global role, gain acceptance worldwide and win a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, it must carry its neighbours along.

This is easier said than done, but is certainly worth trying to be able to succeed, substantially, if not fully. This is where Modi’s “Neighbours First” policy must come into full play. The proactive approach from India, the largest country in the region, is critical for the success of South Asian integration and needs to be welcomed. But there are serious obstacles. Conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is the biggest and is gaining urgency as the United States and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, without resolving any of the issues that brought them into that country in 2001.

How does one integrate with a region experiencing violent instability? When elements in Pakistan’s state apparatus — such as intelligence agencies and the military — have a predisposition to indulge in proxy wars, it is only natural that regional integration often causes anxiety for Indian policy makers. This is an anxiety that others in the region or global community cannot ignore.

As armed non-state actors gain strength, the capacities of Pakistan’s state apparatus are becoming questionable. Terrorist organisations in Pakistan have graduated from attacking military installations to higher-level military operations. This was made clear by an attempt to hijack a naval frigate in Karachi in September. With terrorist organisations in Pakistan demonstrating greater reach and complex planning abilities, concerns about potential security and political costs of seamless physical connectivity cannot be ignored.

Proponents of enhanced regional integration argue that the prosperity created by increased trade and potential knock-on effects for peace in Pakistan mean the risks associated with the connectivity agenda are worth taking. However, experience has shown that it takes more than just trade to ignite growth. It may be erroneous to assume that increased trade with India will see Pakistan’s economic growth lifted sufficiently for it to deal with its security problems.

There is also usually a lag between the reforms required for regional integration and the benefits that accrue for them, and it may be unrealistic to expect Pakistan’s leaders to hold the line in the meantime.

To reiterate, there are many challenges that confront SAARC-based regional cooperation measures. It takes not just two hands, but all hands, to clap together.

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