Regional dynamics in South Asia have been rapidly evolving. The manifestations of these shifts in the geopolitical environment can be analysed through four prominent regional developments.
The worsening tensions between the US and Iran following the American drone attack killing Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commander of its Quds Force, has very strong regional reverberations for South Asia, particularly Afghanistan, which could be made a target for reprisals. More than 10,000 US troops are currently stationed across the eastern Iranian border in Afghanistan. Possibilities of Iran’s potential proxy partners (Fatemiyoun Division, for instance, a militia mainly comprising Afghan Shias deployed by Tehran in Syria to fight the ISIS between 2013-17) carrying out reprisals on the US troops cannot be ruled out. It is noticeable that Iran has provided an episodic level of support to the Afghan Taliban, owing to the shared enmity of the Afghan Taliban and Iran against the US. There have been documented instances of the Iranian support to the Afghan Taliban in terms of small arms and training. Further complicating situations, the successor of Soleimani, General Esmail Ghaani, who overlooked the Quds Force operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a man who holds significant experience in the region. A resultant emergence of a proxy war in the region could lead to detabilisation, thus impacting all of South Asia.
Moreover, the deep diasporic and economic ties between the Middle East and South Asia, India and Pakistan in particular, increase the regional relevance of the issue. The Arab gulf region is home to nearly 9 million Indian workers; 2/3rds of India’s oil imports and almost half of its LNG imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz – a choke point near Iran. There is a high possibility that Iran could attack ships near this choke point, all of it collectively impacting India’s energy security, diaspora and trade.
Deepening Chinese Footprint in South Asia
Rapidly deepening Chinese footprint in South Asia, fueled by the desire to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is another regional development with global implications. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance, the most operational elements of BRI, had its second phase launched in Pakistan last year, incidentally following the strident criticism by the United States. In the last visit of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to Beijing, 9 new agreements focusing on increasing cooperation in the domains of energy and technology were signed. Chinese presence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar too is a secret no more. Over 33 new agreements were signed on the recent visit of the Chinese Premier to Myanmar to speed up infrastructure and BRI projects – China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) being central to this development.
Interestingly, China has been recently increasing its influence in areas beyond its traditional presence. In Nepal, for example, China is currently the top investor. The current project of a 16-km road project to encourage trade between China and Nepal is one such instance. China is also funding the construction of Nepal’s second international airport – the Nijgadh International Airport.
Besides this, Doklam, in 2017, can be considered as a significant event in the geopolitics of South Asia. It can be seen as a rare instance of a third country involvement in a military engagement between India and China – Bhutan.
Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan
The emergence of the US Exit Strategy is another significant development impacting the geopolitical situations in South Asia. Despite being opponents of staying in Afghanistan, both Obama and President Trump, during their respective tenures, continued to stay on. However, a plan is now in place for an eventual phased withdrawal of the US troops. There have been direct talks between the US and the Taliban for over a year for the troop withdrawal deal. It is expected that a deal may be concluded soon. Another more likely possibility, if the talks between US and Taliban stumble, is that President Trump might initiate a unilateral withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This would allow US to maintain a minimum presence of troops for training and counterinsurgency purposes – a move that the Taliban might not agree to. The US would see it significant to maintain some presence on Afghan soil, but Taliban’s clear stand of absolute withdrawal could threaten the peace process. In either case, we are heading closer to a post-America Afghanistan, or one towards a much lighter American presence. By the time of the US General elections, President Trump would like this shift to be well underway, if not completed.
Changing Indo-Pak Dynamics
The changed dynamic of the Indo-Pak Relations is another significant issue impacting the region as a whole. The repeal of Article 370 has worsened the already tensed Indo-Pak Relations, following the Pulwama and Balakot Strikes last year. Possibilities of Pakistani provocation have consequentially increased. Islamabad has been so far raising a diplomatic offensive, trying to garner sympathy around Kashmir and generate global pressure against India, although in vain. In terms of policy, following the developments in India, Islamabad has become quite boxed in. Jammu and Kashmir has been completely taken off the table. Much to Pakistan’s displeasure, what is left for potential discussion is the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This has left Pakistan with limited options of destabilising India through its proxy non-state military actors. Although, it must be noted that it has been slightly under pressure following its grey-listing post-FATF proceedings last year. Provided that it is able to meet its commitments, it might turn to these tactics. Additionally, it could try to target Indian interests in Afghanistan (as it has targeted earlier), owing to its leverage in the region with respect to its relations with the Afghan Taliban.
Implications for the United States
The implications for the same appear four-fold. One, growing Chinese presence in South Asia coupled with heightening Indo-Pak tensions amplifies the importance of US-India relationship. Core areas of mutual interest including widening Chinese influence and regional terrorism with respect to Pakistan act as convergence points for American and Indian interests. Although the US-India relations have struggled over economic and commercial issues, the contemporary geopolitical situations favour this relationship. Additionally, China’s inroads in South Asia amplify a broader policy challenge for US – to strike a balance the US-India-China triangle. Both New Delhi and Washington face a similar challenge of balancing containing China along with continuing to have diplomatic relationship with Beijing.
Second, in a shift in US policy, it has been seeing China not just as an imperative strategic rival, but as a strategic threat. The first National Security Strategy released by the Trump administration in December 2017 designates strategic rivalry, and not terrorism, as America’s top National Security Threat. Washington needs to confront the reality of its biggest strategic rival and its casting an increasingly wider net across regions that have comparatively lesser US presence. An increasing emphasis on Indo-Pacific in American foreign policy considerations is an implication for the same. All of South Asia, among other things, also as mentioned in the Raisina Dialogue, is regarded by the US as Indo-Pacific, much in line with how Japan and India see the region. Recent Trump administration documents speak of the need to encourage cooperation with the countries of the Indo-Pacific for counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, anti-piracy and connectivity. The stakes for the US in the region have clearly gone up.
Third, the decreasing US presence in Afghanistan is likely to cut US interests in South Asia. But, it is unlikely that this could lead to Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for international terrorism, as it was in the late 1990s. It must be noted that the main groups present in the country are the Al-Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan (the South Asia branch of the ISIS). Al Qaeda today does not have the required capacity as it earlier did. ISIS-K is resilient and deadly, but has been hit on the battlefield by Afghan forces, as well as by Taliban, which is the ISIS-K’s rival. While there are claims that with losing ground in Syria, ISIS might relocate itself in Afghanistan, with more rivals than allies, it is highly unlikely. A more likely outcome is the achievement of a battlefield advantage by the Taliban post US-withdrawal, thereby strongly disincentivising them to negotiate peace with the Afghan government. With no peace deal, it could well succeed in overthrowing the Afghan government, especially with Pakistani aid. This emergence of a ‘civil-war scenario’ could result in a destabilised region. The best possible outcome of this situation – a kind of power sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan government – does not appear as a positive outcome for the region.
Amidst this, a point of speculation is also that it is not exactly the withdrawal of foreign forces, but of foreign funding that might indeed lead to destabilisation of Afghanistan. The Afghan government, for instance, didn’t collapsed when the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, but when the Soviet funding was stopped post the fall of the Iron Curtain. In the present context too, the snapping of the financial support from the international community has greater possibility of creating instability, which is very likely following the withdrawal physical presence.
Four, the self-perceived role of a crises-manager by the US will be more challenging with increasing tensions between India and Pakistan. Another incident like Pulwama could further heighten up tensions. This would pose a serious challenge to the US in diffusing peace with such strong escalation dynamics.
The regional developments clearly underscore the geopolitical significance of the region, thus highlighting the reason why the region is so deeply embedded in global affairs. South Asia comprises more than 1/5th of the world’s population and 15 per cent of global economic growth. The growing Chinese presence is prominent. The Indo-Pacific strategy gaining increasing significance in American foreign policy considerations only testify this fact. Inclusion of all of South Asia in Indo-Pacific translates of the emerging significance of South Asia for the US, as well as in the global context.
This article is a synopsis of the talk given by Michael Kugelman in CLAWS on February 3, 2020.