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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

In Covid shadow, challenges from China and Afghanistan

🔴 The US exit and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have left India pondering how to deal with the new regime. China’s continued aggression on the border and expanding footprint remain a major concern.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: December 31, 2021 10:40:47 am
china, afghanistan, china covid, covid news, china covid newsA look at six hard realities India faced on the diplomatic front in 2021, and six challenges and opportunities coming up in 2022. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

After almost two years of disruption brought about by Covid-19, the world is looking at life beyond the pandemic. A look at six hard realities India faced on the diplomatic front in 2021, and six challenges and opportunities coming up in 2022.

Hard realities

Rise of Taliban

The United States’ chaotic exit after 19 years, and the Taliban’s recapturing of Afghanistan have meant a challenging time ahead for India.

New Delhi, which had begun the process of re-engagement, was finally forced to shed its hesitations and established publicly declared contact. While making clear its redlines on extremism and rights of minorities and women, India expressed its readiness to extend humanitarian aid. Last year, it made a commitment of $80 million — over and above its $3 billion commitment in the last two decades. This means New Delhi is looking at the Taliban as a political actor, burying the ghost of the IC-814 hijack, although the Taliban are influenced and even controlled by military establishment in Pakistan — which has hailed the takeover.

China’s muscle-flexing

A year and a half into the border standoff in eastern Ladakh, disengagement remains in two areas, while broader de-escalation is nowhere near the horizon.

In a world occupied with the pandemic, China has been flexing its muscle in the Indo-Pacific region. At the India border, it has deployed long-range strategic bombers, and there are reports of building of new runways and deployment of choppers and bombers in eastern Ladakh. In the recent past, Chinese naval or militia forces have rammed Vietnamese fishing boats, ‘buzzed’ Philippine naval vessels and harassed Malaysian drilling operations. China has raised fresh territorial claims with Bhutan, and is building villages in border areas of Arunachal Pradesh.

“What is clear is that Beijing’s decisions must have been made at the highest levels for political and strategic, not just tactical, reasons,” former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this month.

US under Biden

After four years of the unpredictable Donald Trump, US President Joe Biden took charge. He brought the US back to the global table by walking back into the Paris climate agreement and the UN and its agencies.

From India’s perspective, he continued with the Trump administration’s policies on China, and has made countering Beijing “Job 1” in foreign policy. The US has imposed trade tariffs on China, announced a boycott of the Winter Olympics, held the first-ever Quad Leaders’ Summit —  which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and signed up on the famous AUKUS deal with UK and Australia, to counter Beijing’s assertiveness.

But the hurried exit from Afghanistan and the signing of AUKUS deal, which angered US ally France, have raised questions about Washington’s reliability. Kept in the dark about the US negotiations with the Taliban, India now finds itself having to deal with the diplomatic and strategic fallout of the Taliban takeover.

Unrest in neighbourhood

Myanmar was rocked by massive protests after the military coup on February 1. Aung San Suu Kyi was among the key people detained by the military following the coup. India, which had stopped short of condemning Myanmar’s military regime, has now started engaging with the Tatmadaw with the Foreign Secretary’s visit. This outreach came after incidents in the Northeast where Indian Army personnel were targeted by insurgent groups.

With Pakistan, 2021 started with a reaffirmation of adhering to the ceasefire along the Line of Control, but the peace was shattered by drone attacks on Jammu air base in June, infiltration attempts and killing of heavily armed militants in September, and targeted attacks on civilians in October-November.

Change in aid policy

With the second wave of Covid-19 overwhelming medical infrastructure, New Delhi started accepting donations and aid from other countries, marking a change in policy since December 2004 when the UPA government decided not to accept such aid. India had “no conceptual problem” in procuring oxygen-related equipment and life-saving medicines from China, and state governments were also free to procure these from foreign agencies.

Relations with Russia

The standoff with China has shown Russia’s importance in India’s strategic calculus. Russia has remained a key supplier of defence equipment for seven decades, despite diversification to the US, France, Israel and others. But, the procurement of S-400 will test India’s ties with the US, and raises the potential threat of US sanctions once this missile system is deployed.

Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan after the US departure, too, throws up challenges for India. Moscow has emerged as one of the key stakeholders in the region, and its ties with Beijing influences some of its decisions.

Challenges, opportunities

Dealing with Taliban…

India’s efforts to engage with regional and global players on Afghanistan is an effort to put its foot in the door, since Pakistan controls the levers in Kabul through ISI’s handpicked Taliban leaders and groups.  India’s steps in that direction include getting central Asian countries, Russia and Iran in the NSA-level dialogue was a step in that direction, and the invitation to five central Asian leaders to attend the Republic Day celebrations — if that comes through amid the spread of Omicron.

Islamabad is in no mood to yield that strategic space, and has been holding talks with the US, China, Russia and Gulf countries to help the Taliban regime by allowing humanitarian aid.

India also has to worry about the events in Afghanistan emboldening radical groups in Kashmir and elsewhere.

… and with China

India’s strategic response to the standoff with China has been guided by a thinking that one has to stand up to the bully, but that has come at a cost with soldiers braving the harsh winter in eastern Ladakh for two years. Beyond the border, New Delhi will need the continuing support of partners including the US, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, and the UK to counter the threat of China. A second Quad leaders’ summit in Japan is expected to take place in 2022. A potential window of opportunity to unlock the standoff lies in the BRICS summit, scheduled in China. The Doklam border stand-off had been resolved days before the summit in September 2017 in Xian (China).

Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale writes in The Long Game, “As China becomes more powerful, both economically and militarily, and it seeks to establish its hegemony over the Indo-Pacific, the interests of India and China will begin to rub against each other, bringing to the fore more and more issues that may need to be resolved through negotiations.”

Pakistan: civilian-military ties

A major shift will take place if Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term ends in November. Jockeying for the position has begun, and civilian-military ties will be tested. The competition could lead to bold decisions that may complicate the situation in the neighbourhood. Also, hosting the SAARC summit is an ambition Imran Khan may want under his belt before elections in 2023.

India & neighbours

India’s challenges will exacerbate with China’s growing footprint in the region. Besides wooing Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa brothers-led regime as well as Tamils, China has also been politically active in Nepal.

In a  study by think tank Carnegie India published in October 2021, scholar Deep Pal says, “Due to India’s historical, political, and social connections with these countries, there seem to be limits to how deeply entrenched China can become.” However, he says, the balance is gradually shifting toward China, for the role it can play as a developmental partner as well as a balancing factor against the regional power, India.

Other challenges include the fact that 2022 is the year before elections in Maldives and Bangladesh: The anti-India rhetoric usually catches up before polls in the neighbourhood.

Outreach to the world

India has invited the leaders of Central Asian countries — three of whom share a border with Afghanistan — for the Republic Day parade (which may own depend on the pandemic situation). By the end of the year, it may be time to prepare for the G-20 summit in 2023.

South Block will be keeping a close watch on Presidential elections in France in April-May, and US mid-term polls in November.

Going into its second and last year at the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, India would want to leave a lasting impact, just like it did with the UNSC resolution on Afghanistan under its presidency.

Domestic and foreign

Elections in high-stakes states, including UP and Punjab, could mean raising the rhetoric against neighbours.

India’s domestic politics, including the recent Dharam Sansad, has meant a certain reputational loss for its secular credentials, and neighbours have raised their concerns.

On the other hand, countries in the region will look upon India as a leader in vaccines distribution and economic assistance as in the case of Sri Lanka and Maldives, and New Delhi will have to step up its game to match Beijing in such efforts. India may move on capacity-building on vaccines with the Quad vaccine initiative for the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Tomorrow: Technology

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