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China’s dilemma: Balancing support for militants with struggle against political violence

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China’s recent failure to shield Pakistan from censorship by an international anti-terrorism funding and anti-money laundering body suggests that the People’s Republic is struggling to balance its contradictory interests in South Asia and may be trying to evade the potential cost of its long-standing support for Pakistani-backed, anti-Indian militants.

China’s balancing act became evident when it this month decided not to prevent the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a 37-member, inter-governmental agency, from putting Pakistan on a watchlist. FATF gave Pakistan three months to clean up its act in a bid to avoid being blacklisted for alleged lax controls on funding of militants.

The grey listing of Pakistan was tabled by Britain, France and the United States. The Trump administration has in recent months stepped up its criticism of alleged Pakistani support of militants and slashed military assistance to the country.

The FATF action could negatively affect the Pakistan economy. Pakistan risks downgrading by multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as by international credit rating agencies Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch.

Politically and economically heavily invested in Pakistan, China’s statements and actions in recent days have highlighted the squeeze the People’s Republic finds itself in. A Chinese official, quoted by Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, said China had not shielded Pakistan in FATF because it did not want to “lose face by supporting a move that’s doomed to fail.”

Yet, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson days later noted that “in recent years, Pakistan has made important progress in actively strengthening financial regulations to combat terror financing… China highly recognises that and hopes all relevant parties of the international community could arrive at an objective and fair conclusion on that,” the spokesperson, Lu Kang, said.

The Chinese attitude in FATF constituted the second time in the last six months that Beijing criticized Pakistani policy towards militants. Leader of China, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa grouped in BRICS, identified at a summit in China last September Pakistan-backed militants for the first time as a regional security threat.

China, which is investing more than $50 billion in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key node in its Belt and Road initiative that is designed to link the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic through infrastructure, has grown increasingly concerned about political violence in Pakistan. One focal point of Chinese concern is the province of Balochistan, home to CPEC’s crown jewel, the deep-sea port of Gwadar.

Balochistan has witnessed repeated attacks on Chinese targets by Baloch nationalists and Islamic militants. A Bloomberg reporter, recently granted rare access to Gwadar, described a “climate of fear” in a city patrolled by hundreds

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned its nationals in Pakistan in December against imminent attacks on Chinese targets. Since then, a Chinese engineer has gone missing near Islamabad in an incident that has since been declared a kidnapping while another Chinese national was gunned down in the port city of Karachi.

Pakistan has in recent months, in response to US pressure and in a bid to pre-empt FATF censorship, said it was cracking down on charities associated with Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian group designated by the United Nations and the United States, as well as JuD’s leader, Hafez Saeed. Mr. Saeed has been accused of responsibility for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

The sincerity of Pakistan’s response was called into a question last week when the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is headed by the political party of cricket-player-turned politician Imran Khan, who is widely believed to have close ties to the military, gave $2.5 million to Darul Aloom Haqqania, a militant religious seminary.

Dubbed a “jihad university,” Darul Aloom Haqqania, headed by Sami ul-Haq, a hard-line Islamist politician known as the father of the Taliban, counts among its alumni, Mullah Omar, the deceased leader of the Taliban, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network. Asim Umar, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Mullah Omar’s successor who was killed in a 2016 US drone strike.

Pakistani law enforcement officials told a court in Rawalpindi this week that students at the seminary had been involved in the 2007 killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.The madrassah has denied any association with Ms. Bhutto’s assassination.

China’s refusal to back Pakistan in FATF constitutes recognition that the People’s Republic is walking a fine line as US pressure focuses on persuading Pakistan to crackdown on JuD, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

China shielded Mr. Saeed, who has a $10 million US Justice Department bounty on his head, from sanctioning by the United Nations Security Council prior to the Mumbai attacks.

The People’s Republic has since repeatedly vetoed designation by the Council of Masoud Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and an Islamic scholar who is believed to have been responsible for an attack in 2016 on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.

The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Men like Messrs. Saeed and Azhar serve China’s interest of keeping India off balance as well as the People’s Republic’s relations with the powerful Pakistani military, which it views as a more reliable partner than Pakistan’s unruly and rambunctious politicians.

The policy has, however, taken its toll and threatens to be increasingly risky. Despite a relative improvement, Pakistan has in recent years been wracked by political violence, some of which targeted China and its vast interests in the country. The country is also witnessing a wave of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that breeds intolerance and, potentially, extremism.

Add the fact that China, increasingly concerned about the possibility of attacks in its north-western province of Xinjiang by Uyghur Islamic State fighters returning from Syria and Iraq to either the province itself or neighbouring Afghanistan and Tajikistan, risks being called out for a less than stellar attitude towards political violence.

Taken together, China’s contradictory Pakistan-related policy moves suggest that it may be graduating to a point at which it decides that it no longer can afford to play both ends against the middle. That would likely lead to China and the United States towing one line in Pakistan.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Narratives and Discourses: Evaluating 75 years of Indian Foreign Policy

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As India celebrates its 75 years of Indian foreign policy and its positioning in the global architecture, it needs to be evaluated that how India has placed itself and whether there is need for course correction to better position India and envision its role in future. One of the articles written by Rahul Sagar states that India has different schools of thought which have placed it as idealists, Hindu nationalists, strategic thinkers better known as strategists, and liberals who have shaped up India’s policy approach over a period of time. India’s foreign policy up to which has been focus primarily on three pillars which includes righteousness, ethics, and forbearance. This also created edifice which is primarily derived from ancient texts, Vedas, and religious discourses. Two aspects Dhamma and peace are the watermarks in Indian policy framework.

In fact, foreign minister S Jaishankar writes in his book that India is increasingly seen as Krishna where it looks into both sides of the coin and tries to decide the best course of action which can meander through difficult choices. Also, it is critical to note that the Nehruvian phase was rooted in idealist notions, and was apathetic to the development of the military forces which can take care of difficult neighbours including Pakistan and China.  The differences between General Thimayya and VK Krishna Menon is well documented and shows the complete disregard for developing capacities of Indian armed forces. There is no denying of the fact that idealism has placed India as the epicentre of discourses relating to priorities of  developing nations and unity among  newly independent Afro-African nations. Nehru tried very hard to build idealist notions of global politics but the problem was not every leader in the global arena was Woodrow Wilson. This approach could not look into the utility of force however Nehruvian thought brought India as a respectable leader among the developing nations.

Three major events shaped up India’s foreign policy- the Panchsheel Agreement 1954, 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship treaty,  the 1987 India- Sri Lanka Accord and India’s nuclear tests in 1998.. Further, the development of India’s foreign policy was also dependent upon the political leadership, domestic priorities, and international outlook. One cannot deny the fact that national resources, military leadership and intelligence apparatus also shaped the international outlook. Therefore, one can see that engagement of African nations through IAFS meetings, ASEAN countries, Central Asian republics, and better relations with Israel were all part of larger foreign policy footprints. One must all acknowledge that despite having not a big diplomatic core, India’s views have been noted and argued. Specifically, India’s position with regard to sustainable development goals, comprehensive disarmament (Rajiv Gandhi Action plan), consensus on counter terrorism initiatives, South- South cooperation, and crisis management through mediation is well known. One of the important aspects which still requires lot of attention is developing the overall diplomatic history and collecting data and information through interviews, official files, and archives is still a work in progress. Countries like New Zealand have done a wonderful work in this regard.

Few of the areas where India has lost includes the UN Security Council seat because of uncertainties in its role and the charm of leading the developing nations. India’s ambivalent attitude related to its nuclear power status also created problems very recently, as it has to face sanctions post 1998 nuclear tests despite knowing the very fact that it could have developed its nuclear capacities much earlier.The scientific capacities and acumen was there among the Indian scientists. Nehru was completely against the development of nuclear weapons despite prodding by nuclear scientist Homi Jahangir Bhaba but on the other hand Indira Gandhi was the one who looked into the nuclear power status with much seriousness way back in 1969. There is no denying of the fact the development of the Indian economy opened new gates of cooperation and collaboration with various countries across spectrum. However, it is well known that the 3 pillars of national security which includes diplomacy, intelligence, and military need to be working cohesively to protect the national interest and work with like minded countries in raising pertinent international issues.

India’s approach towards West Asia, its pro- Soviet tilt while at the same time processing non alignment, gave birth to strategic autonomy and at the same time look for possible temporary alignments with major powers depending on compulsions and constraints. If one looks into the nomenclature of its relationships with West Asia it starts with Look West policy and culminates in Think West policy. While in the case of Central Asia, given the buffer region of Afghanistan, it is named as connect Central Asia policy. However, one of the most successful policy pronouncements has been the Look East Policy which transcended in to Enhanced Look East Policy (2013) and now is known as Act East policy(2014 onwards). These policies were primarily aimed at looking for leverage in understanding the larger geopolitics of that particular region. The region wise approach and the subject wise divisions within the Ministry of External Affairs Is a manifestation of how India approach is both from regional perspective as well as its own security perspective.

India has difficult choices right from the start and still is facing challenges with regard to its omniscient patrician stance which looks into the knowledge which have been gained through ages and the wisdom which is acquired through experience. However, at times, all these knowledge-based policy pronouncements came crashing down with the Sino Indian war in 1962 and also challenges that it faced while settling the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. At times, the dilemma of policy approach in global politics cost dearly to the Indian establishment.  

In terms of India’s neo-realist approach one must acknowledge the role which has been played by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi which completely digressed from the Nehruvian fundamentals. This led to the better management of military resources and looking into best possible permutation in Indian foreign policy. These experiences which have garnered over the period of seven and a half decades also held India to upgrade its foreign policy establishment abroad which includes bringing in scientific advisors, technical consultants, cultural representatives and also utilising diaspora as one of the elements of foreign policy approach.

If one looks into the leadership subsequently which includes Morarji Desai who was much of an idealist so much so that he compromised few of the covert operations that India was undertaking in Pakistan. At times it has been found that the coalition governments have been so much engaged into domestic compulsions that foreign policy approach have been left in limbo.

In terms of proactive engagement, one cannot forget the role played by Narasimha Rao in working out India’s look east policy and subsequently also looking into the possible nuclear tests (in 1995) which was somehow sabotaged by US constraints and compulsions. Narasimha Rao was much of an erudite statesman who had built very good relationship with the opposition led  by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This kind of convergence between the ruling party and opposition was one of the periods when there were synergies in foreign policy making and a participative approach of the opposition to work out a congenial settlement. Before Narasimha Rao, the role which have been played earlier by Rajiv Gandhi was also more of a suave and liberal politician who wanted to mend fences with countries like China and also expanded itself into building bridges with the US allies such as Australia.

Following Narasimha Rao, the role played by people like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who were realist but have a liberal inkling which led to the Lahore bus service and also detonation of nuclear device in 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee also make sure that India should respond very legitimately against Pakistan incursions in Kargil. Succeeding Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh has been criticised much for his rather reluctant leadership qualities but he was also instrumental into major ways by signing the Indo US nuclear deal in 2005 and also stressing on the need for developing India’s strategic think tanks.

Invariably it has been seen that India’s foreign policy approach has been well rooted in the objective of mediation, peace, building national and international consensus, and also looking forward for better synergies with the countries which agree on common grounds such as global commons for international development, protecting international law, rules based order, promoting international peace, countering terrorism and political violence, and developing the core foundations for South South cooperation.

Again, if one looks into inherent omniscient patrician aspect there are flaws in the approach that India has taken multiple times. India has also believed that it has a sense of entitlement given its ancient civilization and the pragmatic wisdom that it has acquired over the ages. Even now India has always been stated as the ‘global guru’ and aspired for building this concept of Vasudev Kutumbakam which buttress on international peace and community building approach. These types of pronouncements are a sense of continuity with the earlier approach taken during the Nehruvian times and India has built upon that. However, one must acknowledge the role has played with regard to Cambodia, Indonesia and other crisis torn regions have been left because of changes in government and the transitory politics which have been played by coalition governments which came in multiple phases during the India 75 years of history.

 India under Modi is working somewhere between the core fundamentals of foreign policy while at the same time looking into the foundations put up by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi as well as liberalist approach which was promoted by people like Rajiv Gandhi. It would not be wrong to say that Prime Minister Modi is embedding all these core fundamentals and working out the strategy which is best for projecting India as a legitimate stakeholder in the international politics. One must also acknowledge that about a decade back there has been debate and discourses with regard to non-Alignment 2.0. There have been books which have been stated that India is a reluctant power, and the power which is yet to gain it’s potential at the international stage. However, one must also acknowledge that with the changing geopolitical dynamics, the return of the phase which was there during the Cold War with alignment between Russia and China on ideological lines.

The global leadership is prodding India to act as a mediator in resolving the Ukraine Russia crisis, is a manifestation of India’s foreign policy which has reached a stage where everybody looks into India as one of the leaders in the international sphere. In terms of strategic aspects and foreign policy pronouncements as well as priorities it is interesting that India’s foreign policy has now matured and shows the resolved to undertake hard decisions and one of the best biggest achievements that India has made over a period of time is having the best of the relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all at the same time.

Few strategic partnerships with adjective such as special, preferred, desired also shows the gradient of ties and the utility of these partnerships. India now has more than 30 such strategic partnerships with major players across the world.   India’s hard-earned approach with regard to counter terrorism in institutions such as UN showcases that India’s voice is now being hard on important aspects. There has been also been calls from different quarters to say that there should be a resumption of secretary level talks with Pakistan but given the stature that India has achieved, the country has become more inert to the Pakistan’s overtures thereby making Pakistan as one of the pariah states in the international sphere. However, Pakistan is always seen as a bargaining chip by countries such as US and China which believe that Pakistan can be instrumental in keeping India within South Asian space.

One must acknowledge that the 75 years of Indian foreign policy has been a learning curve. But for India to gain a stature which is matching with its ancient civilizational past, and the might of its youthful population as well as economy can be manifested only if India take a cue from its diplomatic past and work out its role in institutions such as UN, IMF, World Bank both through two different blocs  represented by Quad countries and BRICS.

For India in the coming next 75 years is likely to be challenges but one fruitful thing which has happened over a period of time is that India has built its economy, developed military capabilities and astute leadership which can pave way for India. The one challenge that India is being facing is that opposition parties are washing their dirty linen in international space and has been acting in a very strange way where every possible aspect of national interest has been narrated in a different way altogether. One must acknowledge that the synergies which used to exist between Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Bajpai at one point of time is completely missing in the Indian polity. However, one of the reasons is the marginalization of the opposition party and their inability to look into India as a cohesive one unit and rather than settling domestic issues abroad they must also workout cohesive environment for discussion and discourse without hampering India’s interests.

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India’s response to Taliban 2.0 and a comparative analysis with Taliban 1.0

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Authors: Vedant Choudhary and Avinav Singh Khatri

An important, albeit now suppressed, international security concern is the exodus of the US from Afghanistan and, consequently Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after fighting a twenty-year insurgency. Further, the Biden administration’s abrupt declaration ordering a pull-out from Afghanistan without furnishing a definitive political solution led to much instability in the nation. The chaos in Afghanistan has led to a large influx of migrants, escalated regional proxy warfare, and a significant deterioration in its foreign ties, posing regional security challenges.

Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan poses a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Afghanistan is on the verge of a slow collapse. Moreover, it is only joint international action that can improve the living conditions in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are amid one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Given this, the United Nations has issued a 4.4-billion-dollar financial appeal for Afghanistan, making it the world’s largest-ever single-country humanitarian appeal, highlighting the scale of the situation.

This piece analyzes two crucial impacts of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. First, the impacts of the Taliban’s takeover over the Taliban, India, and regional power dynamics. Second, we study India’s Afghanistan policy and how it differed from its previous engagement with the Taliban in 1996-2001. Finally, we suggest how India can best handle the Afghanistan regime change.

Impact of Taliban’s Takeover of Afghanistan

The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has repercussions for all neighboring states. As a result of the chaos in Afghanistan, there has been a tremendous influx of refugees, an intensification of regional proxy wars, a deterioration of their foreign relations, and regional security risks. India is Afghanistan. India has contributed to Afghanistan’s prosperity and stable governance as the country’s fifth-largest aid donor and most effective partner. Considering the takeover by the Taliban, it is evident that New Delhi is concerned.

Since August 2021, the unfolding of events in Afghanistan has prompted India to adopt a balanced and pragmatic stance toward the country. This has allowed India to participate in regional debates over Afghanistan, contrary to previous beliefs that India had lost all influence in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power. India has not indicated that it will recognize the Taliban government, citing national security concerns. Furthermore, New Delhi has readjusted its Afghanistan strategy by engaging in informal dialogue with the leadership, tackling security risks arising from Afghanistan, and conducting people-to-people engagements. Amidst connectivity limitations and lacking a fully operational embassy in Kabul, it supplied immediate humanitarian aid. Despite their ideological disagreements, India aims to expand its interactions with the Taliban in the near term by capitalizing on the Taliban’s developing disputes with Pakistan.

India has solidified its position as a significant development partner of Afghanistan and garnered the Afghans’ goodwill. It does not depict a tightly defined strategic aim with its investment in Afghanistan; instead, it seeks to contribute effectively to creating a growth-friendly climate for Afghans. This strategy centered on the people is a fundamental advantage India has over other regional states concerning Afghanistan. Moreover, due to its geographical proximity, economic strength, military capacity, and extensive diplomatic network, India is a vital and tangible component in the Taliban’s pursuit of internal and global legitimacy. To display greater autonomy, the Taliban have engaged in activities that undermine Pakistan’s aim to maintain unchallenged control over Afghanistan’s affairs. In reality, the Taliban have openly expressed their displeasure with Pakistan’s efforts to hinder their development and relations with India.

India’s Response

While in Taliban’s previous regime, India distanced itself from the outfit. However, the approach this time is significantly different; India is ready to engage with the Taliban. However, at the same time, India refuses to provide recognition to the Taliban in any manner. It is also to be noted that India is not concerned with the Taliban regime but with its ties with terror outfits and Pakistan.

India’s current approach, while serving the purpose, is walking on a knife edge in many ways. India cannot choose to engage with Afghanistan but also, at the same time, refuse to grant recognition to the Taliban regime. The same is bound to raise questions. Further, in the face of growing pressure to make its stand clear, India would be forced to grant recognition to the Taliban. In this way, New Delhi would be playing into the hands of the Taliban, and India would have to grant recognition to the Taliban, in its desired conditions, with India having very little bargaining power. Therefore, it would be better if New Delhi recognized the Taliban regime before such pressure mounted on it.

India’s different response from 1996-2001

There is a marked difference between India’s current approach to the regime (Taliban), currently when compared to 1996-2001, when the terror outfit took over Afghanistan for the first time. In brief, it can be explained in Sareen’s words, “Engage, do not Endorse.” Sareen argues that Modi’s approach to the Taliban differs from the Vajpayee policy (1996-2001) in as much that the former seeks to engage with Taliban, while the latter was wary of the same.

However, Sareen is also quick to point out that engagement by no means indicates that India accepts or endorses the Taliban regime.

The following are the reasons for India’s current approach.

First, India learned from the IC-814 hijacking incident (1999) the importance of having open and active communication channels. Flight IC-814, en route from Tribhuvan International Airport to Indira Gandhi International Airport, was hijacked, flown to several locations, and finally landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Kandahar fell within the regions controlled by the Taliban. In the hijacking, India had no option but to negotiate with the Taliban regime. The same placed India at a severe disadvantage. India, would not want to place itself in such a position again. For this, India must ensure that an active communication channel and diplomacy are open concerning Afghanistan.

Second, since 2001, India has invested significantly in the socio-economic development of Afghanistan. The same has led to very cordial relations between the two nations. The same can be understood from the many interactions between the leaders of the nations. Another decision by India that brought the Indian and Afghani populations to close was the declaration of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee International Cricket Stadium in Lucknow as the home ground of the Afghani Cricket team. The same was a necessary step, given that teams of other nations were wary of playing with Afghanistan on the home ground due to security concerns and inadequate facilities. Through such economic support by India, the Afghani populace continues to expect support from India in times of hardship.

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India’s Extended Neighborhood and Implications for India’s Act East Policy

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Governments in India have come and gone, however what remains perpetual is the dynamic foreign policy construct of India. The concept of the “extended neighbourhood” has been woven into India’s foreign policy, which is now becoming multidimensional and omnidirectional – a 360-degree view necessitated by a rapidly changing world – particularly after 1997 (Atal Bihari Bajpai) or 2004 (Manmohan Singh). The historic change of power in the world provides a compelling backdrop for India’s gradually growing emphasis on “extended neighbourhood” in its foreign policy practice and projection. Historically speaking, the extended neighbourhood has influenced India’s foreign policy since its independence. Philosophically, the idea of “Vasundhara Kutumbakam,” or “the world is one big family,” is intricately entwined with the word “extended neighbourhood.” 

The Look East policy and the beginning of India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s paved the way for a multifaceted acceleration of economic and strategic interaction with East and South-East Asia, which are home to some of the region’s most dynamic economies and innovation hubs. India edged closer to the energy-rich regions of West Asia and Central Asia during the next 10-15 years as its need for hydrocarbons developed rapidly. Various geo-economic and geo-strategic imperatives fuel India’s expanding involvement with its wider neighbourhood. The geo-economic imperative requires greater economic integration through trade, investment, technology transfer, and innovation. Additionally, it entails creating a network of connected free trade agreements throughout the area. Engaging and collaborating more frequently to tackle a wide range of intertwining concerns, such as terrorism, maritime piracy, transnational crime, disaster mitigation, and countering transnational pandemics.

INDIA’S INTERESTS IN THE EXTENDED NEIGHBOURHOOD

India’s interests extend beyond its borders, its fixation on the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood can no longer be deployed as a useful analytical framework to evaluate India’s regional diplomacy. India’s extended neighbourhood, therefore comprises of the South Asia, Indo-Pacific, South-East Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. Each of these neighbourhood comes with its own opportunities and challenges as far as India is concerned.

BIMSTEC/ACT EAST/ INDO-PACIFIC:  India’s preference for BIMSTEC over South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) stems from the diplomatic strategy to ‘isolate Pakistan’ which translates to keep Pakistan out of its strategic interests in the region given the turbulent past of the two countries. However, this isn’t necessarily the only reason for India to focus on BIMSTEC more. Both internal and external strategic considerations prompt India’s involvement in the sub-regional conference for the Bay of Bengal[1].

Internally, countries in the Bay of Bengal subregion are involved in the development and security concerns of India’s eastern shore, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the Northeast region. Externally, three key policy initiatives—the “Neighbourhood First” policy, the “Act East” policy, and the “Indo-Pacific” construct—direct Delhi’s present regional strategy, which involves the BIMSTEC subregion.

The frontier regions of India, such as the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are far from the country’s main economic centres. With other BIMSTEC members, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal, India shares sea and land borders (maritime boundaries with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand). The Bay of Bengal subregion is being envisioned as a result of the BIMSTEC summit, which makes the Neighbourhood First policy more vital than ever. This suggests that the sub-regional grouping plays a crucial role in the efficacy of this approach. India’s “Act East” foreign policy strategy is launched in the BIMSTEC subregion. India’s journey to the east will proceed smoothly if it maintains good relations with the BIMSTEC countries[2].

As far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, it is a relatively a new concept. Despite being an American initiative, India adopted the Indo-Pacific framework to expand its hub-and-spoke network beyond its current alliance structure and integrate India into the new security system led by the US. The development of the strategic alliance between Japan and India, which served as the foundation for the Indo-Pacific region, has had the fervent support of the US. India’s prominence on security concerns in the area has improved as a result of India’s growing strategic engagement with the Pacific littoral countries. The idea that major nations should assume more responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region has culminated with the creation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) framework.[3]

India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific framework is largely due to the prominent position that other nations have given it in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). How other major countries see India will play a role in determining its position within the larger international power system. India is also confident that cooperation with the US, particularly in the Indo-Pacific area, will help it acquire the state-of-the-art defence technologies needed to counter threats from its long-time adversaries like Pakistan and China. India benefits naturally from its proximity to the Bay of Bengal subregion, but it also means that major powers are becoming more interested in its backyard. Long-term strategic problems for India are posed by China’s expanding influence in the wider Indian Ocean region as well as the Bay of Bengal subregion. Beijing has proposed numerous projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Laos-Thailand Railway Cooperation etc[4].

WEST ASIA: In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the “Look West’ policy as an extension of India’s economic hinterland and widening strategic cooperation. Indian interests in the Gulf have continued to be primarily focused on trade, energy security, and protecting the rights of the Indian diaspora in the area. India is actively promoting its culture and educational system in the area with a focus on cooperation and exchange. Strengthening the relationship in the fields of education and culture has been intended to maintain India’s soft power dominance by promoting Indian culture and assisting human resource development in the region. By forging strategic alliances and fostering the region’s crucial energy and trade relations, India has made clear that it wants to incorporate the Gulf region in all practicable new industries[5].

When Modi was elected in 2014, the broad outlines of India’s Middle East strategy were well established. Instead of choosing a different direction, the new administration continued along the same road but reinforced the “Look West” policy by concentrating on three key areas: the Arab Gulf states, Israel, and Iran.

Fast forward 2022, the I2U2 group of countries, ‘I2’ standing for India and Israel and ‘U2’ representing the United States (US) and United Arab Emirates (UAE), held their first summit level virtual meet on 14 July, during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. The summit-level talks come as a welcome push since the meeting of I2U2 foreign ministers in October 2021 was followed by a lull despite many analysts christening this new setup as the ‘Middle East Quad’ (or ‘West Asia Quad’).[6]

Each of the four member countries has emphasised one of the six focal points of collaboration that will serve as the beginning of the next stage of this engagement. The first batch of pilot projects will focus on cooperation in the fields of water, food security, health, transportation, and space cooperation. These initiatives will operate under broader global issues like climate change, international economic stability, volatile energy markets, and food markets that have disproportionately impacted the Global South in comparison to the more developed regions of the world. The foundation of these projects is geoeconomics. As far as India is concerned, joining the I2U2 allows India to take use of its favourable relations with Israel, the Gulf, and the US to develop economic exchanges that are mutually beneficial and have virtually no potential drawbacks.

CENTRAL ASIA: The Silk Road provides the basis for the history of India’s relations with Central Asia. However, as time progressed, India’s ties to Central Asia continued to weaken, which is also apparent from the fact that India didn’t have any sizable post-independence policy aimed at Central Asia. With India’s economy growing, so did the demand for energy, necessitating a diversification of suppliers outside of the Gulf. In order to lessen its reliance on pipelines through Russia, Central Asia also thought about how it could supply energy to Asia’s fast rising countries, such as India and China. India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy” is the result of its growing fascination with the region. E. Ahamed, who was the minister of External Affairs for the State at the time, drew attention to the increasing political and economic integration of Central Asia with the rest of the world in 2012 and noted the region’s proximity to India. India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy” was enhanced when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five in 2015, making him the first Indian head of state to do so[7]. This renewed interest is due to the region’s altering geopolitical landscape, particularly the growth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the external security concerns the region faces. India has strengthened the institutional underpinning for its bilateral defence cooperation in the region. Notably, agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) relating to defence and military technology cooperation were signed between India and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan during Prime Minister Modi’s trips to those nations in 2015. In order to safeguard its energy interests, India has also boosted its civil nuclear cooperation with the region.

KEY CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES VIS A VIS INDIA’S ACT EAST POLICY

India has been engaged in the South-east Asian region on all fronts since 1992, when Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao announced a “Look East Policy” to engage with Southeast Asia. These fronts include diplomatic, security, economic, and people-to-people engagement. Building on Narasimha Rao’s foundation, Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh developed a solid partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Following this strategy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi transitioned his Look East strategy into an Act East strategy. 

Challenges:

The northeastern region has seen slow development on the AEP overland connection strategy, even though the majority of the 4Cs (commerce, connectivity, capacity-building, and culture) under AEP are classed as “anticipated” or “ongoing” with a flexible/infinite timeframe approach. Despite being in charge of a vital strategic overland connecting point to Southeast Asian countries, Modi continues to have a serious strategic flaw in his determination to play a significant role in world events at the expense of ignoring fruitful engagement in the North East Region and with India’s close neighbors[8].

The Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2017 strengthened the hedging of a China-counter strategy through the AEP, but the incoherent and vague China policy of the Trump administration was marked by uncertainties in terms of priority and emphasis, leading to a “worrying” policy situation in Modi’s strategy against China

According to Sanjaya Baru, many ASEAN nations wanted India to counterbalance China’s expanding power, which was initially sparked by China’s rapid rise after the transatlantic financial crisis and the Xi Jinping regime’s increasing assertiveness. Regional business was dismayed by India’s economic slowdown and inward focus, which were indicated in its decision to renounce the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact. While the ASEAN and Indian governments worked to maintain positive ties, Southeast Asia’s influential corporate communities—mostly Chinese—started to become less interested in India[9].

OPPORTUNITIES

When the world was perhaps dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, India in its extended neighborhood offered COVID-19 related assistance by supplying HCQ and Paracetamol and other medical equipment’s to almost 123 countries including US, Germany Spain etc. India’s stand on Act East policy is perhaps diminishing. Although during the peak COVID-19. Modi’s broad spectrum diplomatic approach is appreciated, it overlooked its key foreign policy interests in the region that is BIMSTEC and ASEAN which emerge as India’s key interests in the ambit of India’s Act East policy. The long-term effect of continued Indian cooperation with ASEAN would bring stronger, more effective, and more outcome-oriented AEP would automatically involve greater engagement, including easier physical connectivity and more interpersonal contact. This should act as a strong incentive for both parties to set up a robust joint pandemic response structure, preventing quicker pathogen transmissions from being caused by improved connection. In order for India to fortify its credibility in the region and given the China question, India should actively pursue a more serious and concrete Act Est Policy.


[1] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[2] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[3] Indo-Pacific: Evolving perception and Dynamics

‘INDO-PACIFIC’: EVOLVING PERCEPTIONS AND DYNAMICS – National Maritime Foundation (maritimeindia.org)

[4] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[5] Accelerating India’s Look West Policy in the Gulf: IDSA

[6] The I2U2 summit: Geoeconomic cooperation in a geopolitically complicated West Asia

[7] Realising India’s Strategic Interests in Central Asia

[8] India’s Act East Policy: Warning to China or Flawed Strategy?

[9] What’s going wrong with India’s Act East Policy

Sanjaya Baru writes: What’s going wrong with India’s Act East policy? (indianexpress.com)

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