Secure through 2018, India has work cut out for New Year

Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Syed Ata HasnainUpdated: Dec 31, 2018, 10:14 AM IST

File photo: Indian Army personnel. Photograph:(Zee News Network)

Story highlights

India's major strategic security concerns revolved around its relations with China, US, Russia and Pakistan

India remained largely secure in 2018, but security being work in progress, always needs a pragmatic relook and year-end is a good time to take stock. 

Its major strategic security concerns revolved around its relations with China, US, Russia and Pakistan with doses of attention towards the Indo-Pacific and the nations there.

In spite of the above focus, 2018 began with an achievement, which triggered a continuation of positive events through the first quarter. This was the presence of ten ASEAN leaders as guests of honour at the Republic Day parade. Following it was the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister and the visit of India’s Prime Minister to Palestine, Jordan, UAE and Oman, all crucial areas for India’s engagement. 

The Iranian President’s visit to Delhi, so close to the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister, followed by the King of Jordan, truly demonstrated a straddling of interests and reflected the initial approach to multilateralism, which was to emerge later in the year.

After the palpable tension over Doklam that dominated the strategic discourse in the latter half of 2017, it needs to be recognised that India corrected course with the Wuhan and Sochi meetings allaying China’s fears about India’s strategic tie-up with the US. However, China has continued its campaign of psychological warfare, including the deployment of additional military resources and infrastructure along the Himalayan border. 

Yet, 2018 did not witness any major standoff although attempted walk-in operations to perceived LAC continued, albeit at a lower key. With Russia also firmly with China, a level of discomfort was entering Indo-Russia relations where traditional strategic bonhomie was being compromised by India’s creeping proximity to the US. 

A very deliberate diplomatic effort by the Indian government has apparently righted that perception and the $5 billion deal for acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defence system helped retrieve the relationship. The subsequent joint military training under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCC) at Chebarkulsky in the Ural Mountains further helped the retrieval. 

With China, the military-diplomatic domain saw greater positive strokes, but by no means should this be considered permanent. China exercises a repertoire of options to keep India under pressure such that the focus of Indian planners remains embedded at the Himalayan front. If a more aggressive strategy is contemplated, India will need to revisit its decision to put in cold storage the completion of raising of the mountain strike corps.

With India torn by multiple interests with different big powers, the situation demanded a level of multilateralism. To walk the multilateral route, various meetings were held of the different forums and summits of the developing Indo-US Strategic Partnership, including the Indo-US Leadership Summit, the Indo-US Strategic Partnership Forum and the 2+2 Dialogue. The two sides demonstrated appreciation of the constraints that influence the relationship due to extraneous factors. India’s ability to handle the sensitive issue of US sanctions on Iran and the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in relation to the S-400 deal, demonstrated political maturity of both sides. 

However, the year-end US decision to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan has caused some consternation in Indian strategic circles, which will need deliberation in 2019. India’s attendance of Asean-India and East Asia Summits in Singapore reflected its continued commitment to strengthen its engagement with Asean members and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

On the regional platform, the change of dispensation in Maldives marked a positive turn while Sri Lanka remained on the cusp with instability, although not negatively disposed towards India. To play an effective role in the Indo Pacific strategy, India will need to be deliberate in its relationships with important nations of the Indian Ocean Region.

It is with Pakistan that the relationship remained unchanged even with the arrival of Prime Minister Imran Khan at the helm. With the trust deficit and Pakistan’s continued intransigence over J&K, India had to be diplomatically and militarily alert, a stance which will have to extend even more robustly into 2019. 

The country’s national elections in the first half will prevent any decided response to Pakistan’s overtures. It would be far better that its strategic community deliberates on how to deal with Pakistan in the long run and have this in readiness for whichever government comes to power in May 2019. 

This recommendation is as much applicable to J&K where a season of high military achievements has been offset by the continuing local recruitment to terrorist ranks and increasing alienation. 

The Kartarpur Corridor is a positive development, but contingent on how it is handled in the future. Clearly, Pakistan’s ISI is sensing an opportunity. That opportunity, which it seeks in embroiling India in a continuum of internal security challenges in Punjab and J&K has to be met head-on; as much as the year-end discovery of fledgeling Islamic State networks in North India.

(This article was originally published on DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)