Wednesday, 08 January 2014

India's Challenges in Central Asia

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By Stephen Blank (the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

As India enters 2014 it faces multiple and mounting security challenges in Central Asia, which originate first of all in Afghanistan and second in Iran. The impending U.S. and NATO withdrawal leaves India as the most exposed foreign power supporting Afghanistan, which few believe can survive without continuing large-scale allied support and at least some military presence. The U.S. withdrawal, which might be accelerated if no Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is signed between Washington and Kabul, would expose India to the risks of intensified fighting in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s belief that India’s presence there represents a  threat also exposes India to further terrorist onslaughts, particularly by forces trained and supported by Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. 

BACKGROUND: This allied withdrawal may also expose Central Asian governments to intensified terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan. But if that occurs, India will be unable to provide much assistance to them, particularly as Pakistan continues not only to block it geographically but also politically. Moreover, China continues to work to restrict Indian influence to South Asia, both in its own right and through its “use” of Pakistan. Beijing shows no sign, for example, of supporting Indian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has far outstripped India as an investor in Central Asia, particularly in energy. In 2013, China prevailed over India in gaining a share of Kazakhstan's giant Kashagan field. Since the U.S. functions as the creator of political space for India to operate in both Afghanistan and Central Asia, the U.S. withdrawal reduces India’s ability to gain a major foothold in an area that will probably be subjected to increasing political and strategic rivalry  after 2014.

This could create major problems for India in obtaining vitally needed energy from Central Asia. The TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan remains suspended even though all the paperwork has been signed, because no financing or project management has yet been secured. And this consideration leads to the challenge of Iran. The recent  5+1 agreement has created opportunities for India to resume at least limited forms  of commerce, especially in energy, with Iran. There are already signs that India and Pakistan, both of whom desperately need new and increased energy sources have resumed discussions with Iran about a pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India (IPI). Yet too close a relationship with Iran still risks either Congressional or  governmental pressure from the U.S..

India has already invested over US$ 2 billion in efforts to help strengthen the Afghan state, and has earned a considerable reputation in Afghanistan to the extent that Washington has asked it to help persuade President Karzai to sign the BSA and allow a continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Yet precisely the size of its  investment in Afghanistan has aroused immense Pakistani suspicion and since many of the terrorist groups operating there have ties to the ISI or the Pakistani army, they are poised to strike at Indian interests in Afghanistan or directly against India.  This remains the case despite signs of improvement in bilateral Indo-Pakistani relations. Without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the challenges to India to sustain its investment there in the face of declining Western support, continuing terrorism,  and Pakistani machinations multiply. Moreover, China will exercise whatever  capabilities it has to prevent India from becoming a true Central Asian power as it has done throughout the  post-1991 period. 

IMPLICATIONS: India’s investments in Afghanistan are not only intended to  strengthen that state and reduce the terrorist threat. They also aim, as the TAPI pipeline indicates, to promote Indian economic growth. Neither is energy the sole  factor even if it is a crucial one. The U.S. government’s proclaimed Silk Road, even if Washington is not doing much to promote it, is largely intended to promote ties between India, Central Asia, and Europe. If Afghanistan is destabilized and Pakistan  hostile or if Central Asia itself becomes convulsed with violence, India’s commercial  exposure abroad as well as its access to Turkmen gas will be seriously negatively affected. The TAPI pipeline, an idea  that has existed since at last 1997 cannot gain traction amid increasing violence as that will scare off investors and any company that thinks about actually managing the project.

This would force India to turn to Iran for energy and to other actors like China and Russia for support in Central Asia. Iran is at best a questionable partner because its nuclear issues are by no means resolved. And even in the earlier negotiations over the IPI, Iran constantly raised the price for tariffs and changed the  conditions it was prepared to accept. Therefore, there is no guarantee it will not do so again. In other words, the impending allied withdrawal from Afghanistan places India in a situation where it risks isolation in Central Asia.

It did not take Moscow or Beijing long to size up  this situation. Indeed, both these governments have recently met with both Pakistani and Indian officials to work out  agreements of mutual support against terrorism. Hence, Russia and China are already trying to moderate Pakistani and Indian rivalry in Afghanistan and tie India to their Central Asia agenda of preserving the status quo, while denying India the means to conduct an independent policy. They thus hope to supplant the U.S. and redirect the geopolitical trends generated by its large-scale intervention into Afghanistan and Central Asia after 2001. This might also mean increased pressure on India to join the IPI rather than the U.S. backed TAPI pipeline scheme, in turn implying an end to any independent Indian or Indo-American silk road project through Central Asia. Both China and Russia have their own transcontinental trade and transportation route programs, neither of which supports a U.S. proposal that bypasses both of them for deliberate geostrategic reasons.

In that context the IPI becomes much more important, especially for China because it becomes the physical frame for a potential Iran-China pipeline through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar and then to China, provided China can build and sustain the Karakorum highway. This route would essentially freeze out TAPI, leave Turkmenistan dependent on China, and deprive other Central Asian states of opportunities to provide energy to India, thus curtailing their freedom of maneuver.  Thus  throughout South and Central Asia geoeconomics and geopolitics march hand in hand together.

At the same time there is no guarantee that India’s security would be enhanced.  Russia and especially China are both unlikely to commit either large-scale military aid or actual troops to Afghanistan should the situation there deteriorate and India might be left holding the bag in such a situation. And it is unlikely after a U.S. withdrawal that Russia and China would both willingly support closer Indo-Pakistani cooperation and restraint when doing so contradicts almost 65 years of Chinese policy.

In 2014, India will face a difficult situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia and regarding its security and energy supplies with a diminished hand. While this is a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal; it is also the outcome of India’s past failure to develop a sufficiently robust strategy for Central Asia and the means to carry it out. This failure concerning India's national security strategy in general is widely commented upon in the literature on Indian foreign and defense policy, and its negative results now looms in Central Asia and elsewhere. 

CONCLUSIONS: Yet, challenge or crisis could, as the Chinese character for crisis suggests, provide an opportunity for India. India must use this crisis or series of challenges to  develop stronger and more efficacious means for advancing and defending its national interests in Central Asia lest the region becomes the object, at least  to a certain degree, of a Russo-Chinese rivalry under the guise of a condominium. India, like the U.S. and Central Asian states, is interested in preserving the security,  integrity, and sovereignty of these sates. Although India, Russia and China all oppose terrorism for good reasons, Russia's and China's records indicate that they do not support the other key goals of Indian policy in Central Asia and certainly have no interest in good or improved governance in the region. Given the likelihood of regime change or of volatility due to internal factors in Central Asia, India's interests will suffer if it cannot play an independent role there and so will the vital interests of the Central Asian governments.

India is not directly challenged by internal crises in Central Asia, however, if they occur in conjunction with a breakdown of the Afghan situation then  both Indian and Central Asian vital interests will be at stake. But the means available to both sides to cooperate effectively against those challenges will have been seriously reduced along with the chances for an effective resolution of such crises.  Strategic challenge and transformation are coming to both Afghanistan and Central Asia, forcing India to confront the question of its ability to develop the policy resources necessary to secure its interests in this volatile period.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. 

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