A year of strategic shifts

Equations in South Asia are changing with the US getting more impatient with Pakistan and Russia moving closer to Islamabad.

The year 2016 will be long remembered in India for the dramatic decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to nullify all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. This demonetisation is perhaps one of the most far-reaching policy decisions taken by any Indian government in recent times. The nation is still struggling to come to terms with it and it will have significant long-term implications for India’s economic growth trajectory.

In 2016, the Modi government managed to pass the landmark Goods and Services Tax bill. By levying one indirect tax for the whole nation, it will make India one unified common market. It isthe biggest reform in India’s indirect tax structure since the economy started opening up 25 years ago and is likely to be implemented in 2017.

India remained one of the few fast growing major economies in the world in 2016, thereby managing to make its presence felt on the international platform. Modi remained rather unpredic-table and unconventional in his outreach to the world. In more ways than one, the Modi government is gradually altering the foundations of Indian foreign policy.

In a move of great symbolism, Modi did not attend the 17th non-alignment summit despite host Venezuela’s repeated attempts to woo him. Instead, he dispatched Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Modi’s shift away from India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is a significant departure from the traditional foreign policy approach of New Delhi. Indian policymakers’ fixation with non-ali-gnment has remained a central component of Indian identity in global politics.

Although India has had to accept help of the two global powers throughout the Cold War – notably from the US in 1962 against China and from the Soviet Union in 1971 against Pakistan – the country has preserved a façade of non-alignment, at least in rhetoric. But New Delhi faces a new set of challenges, in particular the rise of China. Indian policymakers confront a conundrum in calculating the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbour and a network of alliances with likeminded countries.

While sections of the Indian intellectual establishment still retain reflexive anti-Americanism, Modi has used his decisive mandate to carve a new partnership with the United States to harness its capital and technology for his domestic development agenda. He is not ambivalent about positioning India as a challenger to China’s growing regional might and assertiveness.

With this in mind, he signed  the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the United States in 2016 for facilitating logistical support, supplies and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis and providing a framework to govern such exchanges.

India is also busy pursuing strong partnerships with US allies in the region including Japan, Australia and Vietnam. It has taken a strong position on the South China Sea dispute in favour of states such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as expanded the US-India bilateral naval exercises to include Japan.

It also recognises the domestic challen-ges as Modi pivots India closer to the US. So he continues to invest in non-Western platforms such as the BRICS grouping – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Economically, the grouping is less attractive, given economic troubles in Russia, Brazil and South Africa.

The other dramatic change in South Asia came when the Indian Army’s special forces took out several suspected terror camps across the volatile Line of Control in response to an attack on an Indian army post in Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 20 soldiers on September 18. The Indian resp-onse came almost 11 days after the initial attack and reflected an attempt by the government to pressurise Pakistan on multiple fronts, thereby gaining leverage over an adversary that had long used te-rrorism and proxies to challenge India.

At the regional level, moreover, the government succeeded in the ensuring the postponement of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit after several member states took India’s lead and decided to boycott the Islamabad meeting in November. This was one of the rare occasions when regional states spoke in one voice against Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of state policy.

Military power
Even as Pakistan was reeling from these pressures, the NDA government decided to use the instrumentality of military power — a tool which New Delhi had avo-ided for long. What was new about the incident was not that cross-border raids took place, but that India decided to publicise them to the extent it did. The government’s Pakistan policy has not been predictable and keeping Pakistan on tenterhooks is part of the larger strategy.

While New Delhi sought to isolate Pakistan in 2016, it pro-actively reached out to other neighbours. India’s ties with Bangladesh and Afghanistan, in particular, deepened with New Delhi deciding to step up military cooperation with Kabul and resolve the boundary dispute with Dhaka. But Pakistan continues to be stro-ngly backed by China. Sino-Pak relationship is blossoming with China poised to deploy its naval ships along with Pakistan navy to safeguard the strategic Gwadar port and trade routes under the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

If this move goes ahead as planned, it will be the logical culmination of a long drawn Chinese involvement in Pakistan, giving the Chinese Navy a foothold in the first overseas location – the Indian Ocean and the Arabia Sea. This should not be surprising given China’s growing interest in the region and Pakistan’s eagerness to counterbalance India’s naval might.

Other equations in South Asia are also changing with the US getting more impatient with Pakistan and Russia moving closer to Pakistan, changing its decades-old policy of being consistently pro-India. The South Asian strategic milieu is in flux and old rules no longer apply. The year 2016 has been a year of dramatic changes which are only likely to gain further momentum in the coming years.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)
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