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Why go it alone?

Illustration: Keshav   | Photo Credit: keshav

The Salma Dam in Afghanistan’s Herat Province, built with Indian assistance and scheduled to be inaugurated during Prime Minister > Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Afghanistan, is a significant landmark in India’s engagement with the war-ravaged country. Coming close on the heels of the > Indian investment in Iran’s Chabahar port complex and opening a land route onwards to Afghanistan, the ongoing strategic engagement with Tehran and Kabul represents New Delhi’s ambitious foray into its extended neighbourhood. Momentous though these initiatives are, there is considerable scepticism within the strategic community regarding India’s material and political wherewithal to stay the course vis-à-vis these long-term projects, especially in the context of India’s not-so-impressive record when it comes to delivering on strategically important projects in the region and beyond.

The problem and the solution

India’s strategic engagements in the region and beyond suffer from several handicaps. First of all, New Delhi lacks the financial resources to invest in crucial projects in a sustained manner due to budget constraints and compulsions of domestic priorities. New Delhi’s inability to accept Colombo’s offer to build the Hambantota Port some years ago is a case in point. Clearly, there is only so much that a developing country like India can do to assist others. Second, there is also a problem of severe attention deficit resulting from an inability to commit diplomatic and political capital to pursue key strategic objectives. Third, many of India’s strategic initiatives in the region, Chabahar for instance, often get portrayed in competitive terms, thereby getting into the cross hairs of adversarial/insecure neighbours.

Finally, this problem is compounded by the fact that New Delhi has traditionally displayed a self-imposed “unilateral bias” in addressing key challenges in the neighbourhood and near abroad. Indeed, this tendency to “go solo” partly explains the lacklustre performance of at least some of India’s strategic initiatives, and has, indeed, contributed to a certain “strategic diffidence” in our strategic culture.

How can we overcome this material and political inability to take our strategic initiatives to their logical conclusion and leverage them in the longer term? The solution to this problem, to my mind, is not throwing more taxpayers’ money at these initiatives, but by a) adopting a grand strategic approach to addressing key strategic challenges. We need to know why we are doing what we are doing: there should be a clear rationale guiding our strategic engagements (I am not sure, for instance, if there is such thinking behind the development of the Ayni airbase in Tajikistan by India); b) moving from a unilateral approach to tackling problems to a multilateral approach, and c) creating a regional/global consensus on key challenges. Let’s examine some of our current strategic engagements in the region and see whether a multilateral approach can help us pursue our objectives better.

Co-developing Chabahar

Take the case of the Indian investment in Iran’s Chabahar port complex. At the outset, it is important to be cognisant of four important issues. First, much of the Indian commentary has overstated the strategic significance of the recently signed Chabahar deal, with some overenthusiastic media commentators even positing it as a counter to the Chinese-built Gwadar port in Pakistan. Second, Iran was unambiguous in stating that it is not an “Indian” complex (the Indian presence would be limited to developing a small part of a huge complex). The Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honerdoost, went even further: “The deal is not finished. We are waiting for new members. Pakistan, our brotherly neighbours, and China, a great partner of the Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome.”

Third, it is delusional to think we can develop the port complex and the land access to Afghanistan onwards to Central Asia all on our own and maintain them. Finally, even if we are able to, hypothetically speaking, carry out all these grand plans on our own, we may not be able to sustain them in the longer run due to financial and security reasons. Let’s recall that the Chabahar project was conceived of 13 years ago but it could not be completed due to a number of reasons, including financial commitment issues and U.S. sanctions on Iran.

There is therefore no point in trying to do it all by ourselves: why not get some of India’s key strategic partners, such as the Japanese who might have both the inclination and the money, interested in developing the port with India? Partnering with Japan or European countries to co-develop the port with India would save us some money, enable us to complete the project on time, and ensure more security and acceptability to the project.

Unilateralism in Afghanistan

Engagement with Afghanistan is yet another area where India seems to favour unilateralism instead of multilateral approaches. There is no denying the fact that India’s engagement with Kabul has so far been praiseworthy thanks to its well-conceived reconstruction and development assistance (over $2 billion so far) to Afghanistan. The Afghan Parliament, constructed with Indian assistance and inaugurated by Mr. Modi in December last year, and scores of school buildings and hospitals, among others, have generated a lot of goodwill for India there.

And yet, there is a real danger of Indian interests and assets being the target of adversaries in the days ahead with the Taliban on the rise and NATO and U.S. troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. In the past eight years, the Indian embassy was attacked twice. So were the Indian consulates in Herat and Jalalabad. Moreover, a number of Indian reconstruction workers have been killed, and there was even a reported plot to blow up the Salma dam.

The problem is twofold. One, while there is no guarantee that India’s investments in Afghanistan would be safe from future attacks, New Delhi does not seem to have a contingency plan to deal with it other than perhaps putting an end to the good work there. Two, New Delhi does not seem to have recognised the fact that reconstruction and peace-building should go hand in hand. It is important to calibrate reconstruction efforts with reconciliation and peace-building to sustain the former. India has so far shied away from participating in the Afghan peace process since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

If New Delhi’s Afghan policy is to be meaningful and sustainable, it needs to do two things: get like-minded countries on board India’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and support and engage in the Afghan reconciliation and peace-building process. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently stated that “India, Iran and Russia should be included in the talks with the Taliban”. Why not?

India-China strategic partnership

India should also try to engage China more proactively and with a long-term geopolitical imagination. Even though the two sides have a “strategic partnership”, it remains one of India’s most underutilised strategic partnerships. One of the major reasons behind this is that both India and China have traditionally viewed each other through the Pakistan prism, and the resultant faulty view of each other has constrained us from fully utilising our potential in addressing the challenges faced by the region.

A more meaningful Sino-Indian strategic partnership should therefore be undertaken at three levels. First, by jointly fighting terror in the region. While India is more at the receiving end of terrorist violence, China has also started feeling the heat and will increasingly do so both on its own territory and its assets abroad, including in Pakistan. Late last year the two countries issued a joint statement on combating international terrorism and described potential steps such as “exchanging information on terrorist activities, terrorist groups and their linkages, exchanging experiences on anti-hijacking, hostage situations and other terrorism related crimes and coordinating positions on anti-terrorism endeavours at regional and multilateral levels and supporting each other”.

Although Beijing has been less than helpful in confronting terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, this joint statement is a rare opportunity for New Delhi to nudge China to cooperate more on the terror question. A Sino-Indian joint task force on terrorism to discuss the spread of terrorism in the region and to devise methods to deal with it would be a useful way ahead. More so, if New Delhi is serious about getting Chinese cooperation on fighting terror, a lot more high-level engagement with Beijing would be required.

Second, China today is a major contributor to South Asia’s developmental needs. While it is true that India had traditionally wielded a great deal of influence in the region due to ethnic, political and economic linkages, there is no point in crying foul about increasing Chinese forays into the region: it’s perhaps natural for a rising global power to do so, and there is hardly anything we can do to prevent that. New Delhi should therefore join hands with Beijing to develop the region’s economy, trade and infrastructure.

Finally, Indian reactions to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project need not be either dismissive or worried, nor should we dismiss it as a “Chinese national project” and look the other way. Our objective should be to see how we can utilise the many economic, infrastructural and other opportunities opened up by OBOR. The rise of China, and the attendant geopolitical transformation of the region, will take place with or without India: so let’s try to use this transformation to further our own national interests.

It is important for New Delhi’s strategic planners to recognise that when it comes to dealing with key regional challenges and opportunities, unilateralism is not the way. We need to create alliances and coalitions to confront challenges and better utilise opportunities, and in today’s “loose multipolar” world, our alliance behaviour should be guided by clear strategic objectives rather than traditional friendships alone.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 8:13:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Why-go-it-alone/article14380513.ece

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