Insights into Editorial: Dark clouds across Asia
In 2017, Washington put “America First” and Pyongyang rattled the nerves of the entire globe with its relentless missile and nuclear tests. Beijing steadily pursued its new-age resurrection of the Silk Road across Asia, by land and by sea, and anointed its mastermind, Xi Jinping, as “core leader.” India faced off with China on a remote triangle of land, Doklam, in the Himalayas and relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to fester. ASEAN celebrated 50 years in 2017, marking an important milestone, but challenges remain to the bloc’s consensus-driven cooperative mandate.
What awaits the Asia-Pacific in 2018?
Asia-Pacific an area of intense geostrategic and geo-economic competition
- Rising Chinese influence:
China is the rising economic and military power in Asia today — the second most important economic power after the U.S. and having the second or third most powerful military. In seeking dominance over Asia, however, it not only has to contend with a strong military and economic U.S. presence in the region, but it also cannot afford to ignore the competition from Japan and India. In mid-2017 in Doklam, India had demonstrated that it was more than capable of standing up to China’s bullying tactics.
- The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (October 2017) essentially highlighted China’s quest for global leadership and the means to achieve it, including making China’s military ‘world class’, one capable of ‘winning wars’.
- The Maldives has recently concluded a free trade agreement with China, and is growing much closer to Beijing in all respects.
- New National Security Strategy of US:
In its National Security Strategy (NSS), the U.S. has called China a “challenger” and “rival” while welcoming India’s emergence as a “leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”
- The NSS also states that the U.S. would support India’s growing relationships throughout the region
- NSS uses this term Indo-Pacific instead of Asia-Pacific, indicating that the United States has as deep an interest in South Asia as it does in East Asia.
This is followed by US president’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which created anger among Arab countries.
- Troubled East Asia:
East Asia will remain a troubled region for much of 2018, with the leadership of North Korea intent on playing increasingly dangerous games and engaging in nuclear threats. It is unpredictable at this point whether this would lead to a major destabilisation of the region, with far-reaching consequences for Asia and the world.
- China-Pakistan Axis:
The future of the rest of the Asia in 2018 is again dependent on how the strategic triangle of state relations between China, Pakistan and India plays out, as also the extent to which events in West Asia deteriorate. The situation has become more complicated as China and Pakistan have further strengthened their axis, which is inimically disposed towards India.
- Quadrilateral Security Dialogue(Quad):
US, Japan, Australia and India had agreed to create a coalition(Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad) that would patrol and exert influence on waterways from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to the (much disputed) East and South China Seas.
The Quad’s rebirth highlights the growing suspicion and unease about China’s military and economic rise.
In addition to it, the breakdown of the institution of the state, as is evident in Afghanistan and Syria, that poses far more pressing problems for Asia.
India – China relations
In 2017, India-China relations had steadily deteriorated. China is clearly peeved that India refuses to participate in its Belt and Road Initiative that straddles Asia and Europe. The stand-off at Doklam in mid-2017 was possibly intended by China to be a ‘shot across India’s bow’, to send a message to India.
China can also be expected in 2018 to resort to other pressure tactics against India.
- Backing Pakistan in ‘needling’ India is certain to be one.
- Additionally, China can be expected to intensify its moves to displace India as the major partner in relations with many of India’s neighbours — 2017 had already seen China moving in this direction vis-à-vis Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
- As it is, China has succeeded to some extent in denting India’s long-standing relationship with Russia, having established a strategic congruence with that country.
Way ahead for India in dealing China
India would need to be on its guard in 2018 as China consolidates its takeover of Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) ports. Together with China’s establishment of a base in Djibouti (on the Horn of Africa), India could find itself at the receiving end of China’s encirclement game.
As India grows closer to the U.S. in 2018, the India-China equation could further worsen. The most recent National Security Strategy of the U.S. refers to China as a ‘rival’, while welcoming India’s emergence as a ‘strategic and defence partner’. This is certain to ratchet up the rivalry between India and China in the Asia-Pacific region, likely to be further compounded by India’s association with the Quad.
Looking at Pakistan
Again, 2018 holds out little prospect of an improvement in India-Pakistan relations.
- The last year ended with a serious ceasefire violation along the Line of Control in the Rajouri Sector, in which army men, including a Major, were killed.
- In 2017 there was an over 200% increase in ceasefire violations, with infiltration touching a four-year high.
- This year began with a major terrorist attack by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) elements on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in Avantipur (Pulwama district) in which five CRPF men were killed.
- The treatment meted out to the family of Kulbhushan Jadhav (currently incarcerated in a Pakistani prison) and the fake news that followed their visit provides an index of Pakistan’s cold, calculated and consistent hostility towards India.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) continues to remain in cold storage.
- Pakistan has also not refrained from persisting with its proxies like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the JeM in its war with India.
India must be prepared
In its neighbourhood, India must be prepared during 2018 for a further deterioration of the situation in already disturbed Afghanistan. The Afghan state is in real danger of imploding, and this situation could worsen.
The latest attack by Mr. Trump on Pakistan’s duplicity in dealing with terrorism could well result in Pakistan adopting a still more perverse and disruptive role here, and providing further encouragement to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The current peace talks may well collapse as a result. Any possibility of exerting greater military pressure by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and allied forces may prove futile.
West Asia in turmoil
The situation in West Asia in 2018 could well turn out to be far grimmer than in 2017. The entire region is in turmoil.
- Syria has almost ceased to be a state. The war here entails major powers like the U.S. and Russia, proxies for certain West Asian countries, a mix of non-state actors, apart from terrorist outfits such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.
- Intrinsic to the Syrian and West Asian imbroglio is the on-going war within Islam featuring intense rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.
- In addition, there are other forces aggravating an already complicated situation, viz. the war in Yemen, the disruption within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Both the IS and al-Qaeda seem to have acquired a new salience lately. The collapse of the so-called Islamic Caliphate and its territorial demise has hardly weakened the terror potential of the IS.
None of these issues is likely to find resolution in 2018, and could suck in more states of the region.
If the U.S. were to follow through with its announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it might well ignite new tensions across the entire Arab world. This will further inflame radical Islamist ideas and tendencies across the region, paving the way for a new round of conflict.