By B Raman
Slowly, but steadily and unrelentingly, India has been expanding its strategic presence.
One dimension of this became evident during the recent visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to New Delhi. The visit saw the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between India and Afghanistan covering military as well as non-military aspects of the relationship.
The non-military aspects were open and well-known to the international community even earlier. These included, inter alia, Indian assistance to Afghanistan in the development of its strategic infrastructure and in strengthening its democratic and non-radical foundation. A democratic and non-radical Afghanistan is in India’s strategic interest as it is in the strategic interest of many other countries.
Pakistan views a genuinely democratic and non-radical Afghanistan as being not conducive to its interests. This accounts for its strong opposition even to India’s non-military assistance to Afghanistan. It made out even India’s political and economic links with Afghanistan as designed to trap Pakistan in an India-Afghanistan nutcracker.
Pak hysteria has run its course
The staged Pakistani hysteria on this subject initially met with a sympathetic and understanding response from the West. However, as the West’s understanding of the real nature of Pakistan and its role as a catalyst of radicalism increased — particularly in the wake of the Abbottabad raid of early May by the US Navy Seals to kill Osama bin Laden— the West has come to realise that a robust Indian presence in Afghanistan after the West presence thins out is desirable and necessary.
One hears less and less from the West in line with past articulations of concerns regarding the impact of the Indian presence on Pakistan’s psyche.
The Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement seeks to expand the Indian role from the non-military to the military sphere with an active Indian involvement in the training of the Afghan National Security Forces. The details of this training – in terms of its magnitude, and in terms of where it will be carried out (Indian or Afghan territory) — are still to be worked out. However, a decision in principle has been taken to make firm commitments to Afghanistan in the military field too, just as India has made in the economic field in the past.
Reaching out to Vietnam
The second dimension of this became evident coincidentally in the recent decisions of the Indian government not to let itself be inhibited from expanding its strategic ties with Vietnam for fear of Chinese concerns over it. In the past, India’s strategic ties with Vietnam were restricted to expanding the political and economic presence in Vietnam’s land territory and laying the foundation for a strong military-military relationship without rubbing China the wrong way in relation to the South China Sea and the island territories in it under Vietnam’s control and sovereignty, which are challenged by Beijing.
The Indian government’s recent decision to permit a government-connected oil company to accept oil and gas exploration rights from Vietnam in respect of two blocks belonging to Vietnam, which China claims as its territory, is an indication of a decision in New Delhi not to let itself be inhibited any longer in expanding the strategic relationship with Vietnam by staged Chinese dramatics over the South China Sea and the island territories.
Congruence with US strategic interests
These are very important decisions indicative of a well thought-out Indian strategy for an incremental increase in Indian activism in areas which are of interest and concern not only to India, but also to the US. Whether India has kept the US informed of its moves and sought its blessings or not, its moves will ultimately redound to helping the strategic interests of the US too in Afghanistan as well as in the South China Sea area. The open signs of Indian activism should also be welcome to ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea .
India has proclaimed subtly, but firmly that its continuing desire for friendly relations with Pakistan and China will not come in the way of its promoting its legitimate strategic role and interests in the Af-Pak and Sino-Vietnamese regions.
To embark on a policy of activism is easier than to keep the activism sustained. Sustaining it will require better intelligence and military capabilities. There is bound to be resistance from Pakistan and China to the Indian strategic activism and to the expansion of the Indian strategic presence to areas that they consider as coming under their own sphere of influence.
Do we have the required national capabilities to counter their resistance separately and jointly? If not, how do we strengthen them quickly? What role can and should play the US? These are important questions that should be addressed by the Task Force on National Security headed by Naresh Chandra.
B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is currently Director of the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai; and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Republished with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.