Geo-political and Strategic development in South Asia
South Asia is a sub-region of Asian continent comprising the modern states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It covers about 4,480,000 km2 or 10% of the continent, and is also known as the Indian subcontinent. The countries of the region cooperate through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This was formed in 1985 following the initiative taken by the then Bangladeshi president Zia-ur-Rehman. The principal goal of SAARC is “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia, to improve their quality of life, to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential.” South Asia ranks among the world’s most densely- populated regions and approximately 1.75 billion people are living in the region.
The division of the Indian subcontinent between two major states, India and Pakistan (as well as a minor one, Bangladesh), may not be history’s last word in political geography there. For, as I have previously observed, history is a record of many different spatial arrangements between the Central Asian plateau and the Burmese jungles.
For example, Pakistan can only be considered artificial if one is ignorant of the past in the region. Pakistan is merely the latest of various states and civilizations anchored either in the Indus River valley or in that of the Ganges. The chieftaincies of the late fourth to mid-second millennium B.C., comprising the Harappan civilization, stretched from Balochistan northeast up to Kashmir and southeast almost to Delhi and Mumbai — that is, greatly overlapping both present-day Pakistan and India. From the fourth to the second century B.C., large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India all fell under Mauryan rule. There was, too, the Kushan Empire, whose Indo-European rulers governed at times from what used to be Soviet Central Asia all the way to Bihar in northeastern India. And so it goes: For so much of history, there was simply no border between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the northern third of India — the heart of the Gangetic state.
whereas the geography between Afghanistan and northern India was often politically united, the geography between today’s northern India and southern India was often divided. The point is, nothing we see on the current map should be taken for granted or, for that matter, is particularly anchored in history.
A post-American Afghanistan means a number of things. It means some further consolidation of Iranian influence in the western and central parts of the country and an extension of some Iranian influence in eastern Afghanistan as well. This is because Pakistan will be frustrated in projecting even more influence into eastern and southern Afghanistan because of its own Taliban problem on its side of the border. In the 1990s, Pakistan could simply provide logistical and other means of support to the Afghan Taliban; now it is not so easy. At the same time, though, the Saudis will work through the Pakistanis to project whatever influence they can in Afghanistan. And Russia, through the Central Asian republics — whose ethnic groups have compatriots inside northern Afghanistan — might exert more influence, too. India will work with both the Iranians and the Russians to exert its own influence as a limiting factor to that of the Pakistanis and the Saudis, even as the Pakistanis lately try to balance between the Iranians and the Saudis. Such competing outside influences and interferences may tend to work against central control from Kabul rather than in support of it. And an Afghanistan in partial chaos — let alone a complete state breakdown — may work over time to further destabilize Pakistan.
Despite denials by their regional leaders, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh are poised to witness a substantial expansion of China’s maritime footprint…The expansion of PLA Navy submarine activity in South Asia is quite in keeping with a powerful navy’s need to familiarise itself with alien operating conditions. The pattern of Chinese submarine visits reveals that the PLA Navy has been incrementally raising the complexity of its deployments, sending both conventional and nuclear submarines to learn more about the Indian Ocean’s operating environment.
Indian observers fear that Sri Lanka’s reluctance to allow basing facilities for PLA Navy warships and submarines immediately will lead Beijing to consider Gwadar, Maldives,Chittagong (Bangladesh) or Kyaukphu (Myanmar) as alternative options. For New Delhi, China’s growing maritime involvement with these states indicates a tightening strategic hold over the South Asian rim, a traditional Indian sphere of geo-political influence.
The cautious atmosphere has been trumped up by the recent Chinese submarine encounters in the IOR-that have arguably created a few ripples in the geopolitical context. According to Prof. Shen Dingli at Fudan University, “it is wrong for us to believe that we have no right to set up bases abroad”. He argues that China needs not only a blue-water navy but also overseas military bases to cut the supply cost .
The One Belt one Road Initiative (known commonly as OBOR) was a construct of the scholar – Wang Jisi’s strategic thinking, to have a significant Chinese footprint in Eurasia, especially to recalibrate the existing world order. The OBOR is the “project of the century”, according to President Xi Jinping. This trillion-dollar initiative aims to integrate Eurasia through the development of infrastructure. It is unquestionably the most ambitious project ever launched in recent times, which seeks to revisit and resurrect the Ming dynasty’s – admiral Zheng He’s – global legacy. Thus, the OBOR, when it comes to fruition, will symbolize what I have been talking about in this section – the twin powers of China’s economic and military strength in the IOR.
Not all nations support China’s OBOR, India recently was absent from the OBOR summit. According to LKY Prof Kanti Bajpai the real reason for india’s absence from the OBOR are quite different and its not the CPEC. It is galling to New Delhi that the entire world is lining up to do business with a rampant China and no one is paying India much attention. Envy apart, there is the strategic worry that China will ‘encircle’ India. That China with an economy five times the size of India, needs the BRI and an encirclement of India to deal with its weak neighbour is unlikely, but clearly this assumption motivates Indian strategic thinking.
India’s SAGAR vision
In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Modi, launched the concept of SAGAR – ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.
According to Indian Foreign Minister Ms. Swaraj, “the principles enshrined in SAGAR provide us with a coherent framework to address some of the challenges relating to economic revival, connectivity, security, culture and identity, and India’s own evolving approach to these issues. The challenge before us is to ensure intra-ocean trade and investment, and the sustainable harnessing of the wealth of the seas, including food, medicines and clean energy”.
The SAGAR vision has also laid out the objective of integrated maritime security coordination between India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius; building on the 2011 trilateral India-Sri Lanka-Maldives arrangement. While India’s strive to create a collaborative role with regional countries is a positive sign, its additional policy of keeping the extra-regional powers at bay in the IOR, will only be to its own detriment.
This illustrates the strategic thinking of modern India, in its determination to rid the subcontinent of residual colonial influence and exclude other powers from the entire South Asian region. It is further explained by the Indian scholar Bhabani Sen Gupta, that this is an underlying theme in Indian strategic thinking, where the presence of outside powers in India’s neighbourhood is considered illegitimate. Thus, India’s aspiration is for its neighbours to solely rely upon it as a regional hegemon and security provider. Furthermore, the scholar K. Subrahmanyam, stated that leadership in the Indian Ocean is part of India’s “manifest destiny”.
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