By Shashi Malla
The region “South Asia” has become crucial in international relations, not least because it is at the crossroads of the political “East” and “West”. Two of the states are nuclear armed and at daggers-drawn, posing a grave danger not only for the region, but for the wider world. Here two world powers, the United States and China confront each other with their conceptions of the future world order. In a certain sense, India with its “Hindu Civilization” clashes with the Islamic world. In terms of realpolitik, India and China compete for dominance in the region.
Thus, “South Asia” is more than the so-called “Indian Sub-Continent” or even “Indo-Pakistan Sub-Continent” – both terms being not only outdated and discriminatory, and, therefore roundly rejected by the other countries of the region. From west to east, the countries of “South Asia” comprise Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. These are also members of the “South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation” (SAARC), which has been kept on ice because of the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. However, two countries in the periphery – Iran and Myanmar – may be included, depending on issues. Since China borders on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, it may also be considered a ‘South Asian Power’.
Although US President Barack Obama had already initiated a ‘pivot’ towards Asia, it was not until Donald Trump became president that his administration took broader initiatives to concentrate US strategic planning to Asia. Thus, then Defence Secretary Jim Mattis broadened the “Asia Pacific” concept – comprising the Western Pacific [East Asia & South-East Asia] to “Indo-Pacific” – comprising the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean littoral area. This comprised a huge geographical belt reaching from the Suez Canal connecting to the Strait of Malacca and onwards through the South China Sea to the north-western Pacific Rim. A major portion of the world’s trading sea-routes pass through these sea lanes. Choke points on these major trading lanes is the Strait of Malacca controlling the vital passage from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the narrow Bab el Mandeb connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden (Indian Ocean). Another choke point is the Strait of Hormuz [between Iran and Oman]connecting the oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf countries to the Gulf of Oman and the wider Indian Ocean.
President Trump is supposed to have introduced the strategic concept of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” with a scripted speech in Da Nang, Vietnam. However, since it is still at the formulation and implementation stage, it may be termed a “Work in Progress” [WiP]. In contrast, China’s “BRI” is already far advanced, and is a “Project in Progress” [PiP]. The US administration considers “free” at two levels. On the international plane, it wants the nations of the Indo-Pacific to be free from coercion and pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose in the region. At the national level, it wants the societies of the various Indo-Pacific countries to become progressively more free – in terms of good governance, fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption[US Department of State Briefing/April 2, 2018]. The Department of State (DoS) argues that by “open” it means, first and foremost, ‘open sea lines of communication and open airways’ since “these open sea lines of communication are truly the lifeblood of the region” considering that 50 percent of total world trade goes through the Indo-Pacific along the sea routes, making the open sea lanes and open airways “increasingly vital and important to the world”.
Second, by “open”, the Trump administration implies ‘open logistics’ leading to ‘sound infrastructure’. It underscores the infrastructure gap throughout the Indo-Pacific and the need to encourage greater regional integration, pushing economic growth. It wants to promote infrastructure in the right way that truly drives integration and raises GDPs of the constituent economies, not weighing them down.Third, the US also supports more open investment environments, so that the region is not only open to more US foreign direct investment, but that indigenous populations, indigenous innovators, indigenous entrepreneurs can take advantage of the investment environments to drive economic growth throughout the region. Fourth, by “open”, the US means open trade, since the US has supported ‘free, fair, and reciprocal trade” for decades.
US Department of State concedes that the principles underlying the “new” strategy doesn’t sound much different from what the US has been practicing for 70 years. However, as the population and the economic weight of the Indo-Pacific grows, the focus and the efforts in the region have to simultaneous and commensurately grow at the same time. Second, the name “Indo-Pacific” was chosen for a good reason – to acknowledge both the historical and current-day reality that South Asia, and in particular India, plays a key overarching role in the inter-connected regions of the Pacific, East Asia and South-East Asia. DoS insists that it is in the US interest, as well as that of the entire region that India, in particular, play a predominant role in the region. DoS is of the opinion that, after all, India has invested in a “free and open order” and is already a functioning democracy and can, therefore, support and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region. It will be US policy “to ensure that India does play that role, does become over time a more influential player in the region.”
Whether intended or not, China’s wide-ranging “Belt and Road Initiative” [BRI/the modern Land and Maritime Silk Road] not only seeks to connect all the countries involved economically and commercially, but is also a geo-political strategic concept. China hopes to bind the countries involved in BRI to the Chinese mainland economically and geo-politically. The US claims that China is attempting to control the major trading routes, and thereby politically control much of the world. This is the road China is taking to establish itself as a super-power with imperial ambitions. The US criticized that China has unilaterally claimed the whole of the South China Sea, and thus all its natural resources, including fishing rights, mineral oil and gas – depriving the other maritime states of these.
The US long-term “Asia Pacific” strategy has been conceptualized to just counter China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI). In order to strengthen its trading routes, China is building a port in Myanmar with a direct overland route to its Yunnan province in the south-east, cutting short thousands of sea-miles of circuitous sea travel. It also controls a port near Colombo in Sri Lanka. It is building a port in Gwadaron the Arabian Sea with a direct land connection through Pakistan’s Balochistan and the north-west through the Khunjerab Pass to China’s Xinjiang province. This route has great economic and political possibilities. China also has a military base in Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden [as has the US] commanding the entrance to the Red Sea [between the Arabian Peninsula and the continent of Africa].
India, which the US considers its strategic partner, also has an impressive geo-political presence. It may have land-border problems and low-intensity conflicts with its immediate land neighbours Pakistan and China, but it does command [theoretically] the two arms of the Indian Ocean – the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. In the former, it has the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Andaman Sea, which can oversee the Strait of Malacca. Its ports on the west coast are not too far from the strategically placed Bab el Mandeb, dominating the entrance to the Red Sea [between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean], and the Strait of Hormuz, exercising control over the entrance to the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman/Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. Whether the weak Indian Navy is a match for the Chinese Navy operating far away from its home bases, is another question altogether.
India does have a relative naval advantage in that it will be operating from home bases while China will have to distribute its naval forces in wide-ranging theatres: in the Pacific Rim [the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East Sea], as well as, the vital Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and then, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. It is, of course, a completely different matter when the US Pacific fleet in the west and the US Central Command are considered in the equation. Figuratively speaking, these two fighting groups could ‘squeeze’ the whole geo-strategic region of South Asia from two directions.
Whereas Pakistan is firmly aligned with China, the maritime states of Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will definitely have to take a neutral position. The same is true of the land-locked states of Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan, however with nuances. Nepal is a special case – the classic buffer state. Ever since its founding in its modern manifestation in 1768, its raison d’etre and raison d’etat, as laid down by the great Prithvi Narayan Shah has been the unequivocal foreign policy of “equidistance” from both Imperial China/Communist China and British India/Republic of India (Bharat/Hindusthan). Today, this is even more so in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Nepalese have more cultural affinity with the people of our southern neighbour. To put it in a nutshell, India’s ‘soft power’ is more attractive than that of China. Still, Nepal has taken the path of ‘dynamic neutrality’ in the South Asian region, and is thus in a unique position to step along the fine line between China’s BRI and the American ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’.
Most Nepalese now have some sort of education, and they are deeply aware of India’s depredations on a political/state level. Indian bureaucrats and politicians always attempt to take advantage of Nepal – this is in any case the widespread perception in our country. Most Nepalese are also aware that Indian politicians and the Indian state have a running scheme to corrupt the higher echelons of the Nepalese bureaucracy and the political establishment. Since many are mere marionettes of India, it is a moot question whether they actually pursue our national interests. The US has offered Nepal a ‘central role’ in their ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ in contributing to regional stability.
Therefore, since we are already in precarious political/geographical/economic straits vis-à-vis India in the external sphere, it would be the height of foolishness if we did not hedge our bets and become part of the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose by our participation.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]