Global Review had the honour and the great pleasure to have an interview with Indian Major General Sashi Asthana about Indian foreign policy and military affairs. General Asthana gives the Western reader a wellinformed insight about India and its relations with China and Pakistan. Major General Asthana is a veteran and gives his own opinion which is not that of any organization. However he is member of the United Services Institute (USI). USI, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) are the three most premier defense and security think tanks in India. IDSA is funded by Ministry of Defense and CLAWS is under the administrative control of the Indian Army.
About the author: Indian Major General Asthana (veteran)
Highlights of Experience within India:
An Infantry General with 36 years of Defence experience at national and international level. Held various key appointments in Army and UN during military carrier. Awarded twice by President of India, and twice by UN.
Retired from active Army Service in 2014, presently the Chief Instructor of all Courses for military officers in United Service Institute of India.
Life member of various Think Tanks like Institute of Defence & Strategic Analysis, USI of India, Center for Land Warfare Studies. Has been interviewed by various National and International media channels in various appointments in India and abroad, including NewsX, Rajyasabha,Sputnik, Bloomberg, SCMP, Washington Post. Writing for Economic Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and SCMP in different forms.
Currently on Board of Advisors in International Organisation of Educational Development (IOED), and Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE).
Researches on International issues mainly China, has authored over 26 publications and 55 blogs, mostly on international issues. Delivering talks on strategic issues in various universities, and is external examiner for M Phil, with Panjab University, in institutes like Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi.
Doctoral researcher with JNU, holds two M Phil degrees with outstanding grade, PGDHRM and various management degrees.
Global Review: General Asthana, India is celebrating its 70th anniversary of independence. In the beginning it supported the Non-Alignment Movement, and then had close relations with the Soviet Union and after the end of the Cold War its relations with the USA are getting closer and closer. Some experts even claim that India is already part of an anti-Chinese US coalition together with Japan, Australia and South Korea. Is this reality or could this become reality?
Major General S B Asthana: In my opinion India has always been following an Independent Foreign Policy, and that position has not changed so far. Every sovereign country steers its foreign policy as per its own National Interest, and India is no exception. India has a strong strategic partnership with USA, because of commonality of interest in many fields, but is not forming any coalition with/for/against any country. Such perceptions as mentioned in your question come up whenever you find convergence of interest between two or more countries on specific issues. I must remind the readers that between 2000- 2016, India’s import of military hardware was approximately 64 percent from Russia in comparison to 14 percent from USA. Before meeting President Trump, Prime Minister Modi had gone to Russia. China is our next door neighbour and big trading partner. Both countries are together in BRICS, SCO, AIIB and many global and regional forums, wherever we have commonality of views/interests. In response to the last part of your question I can only say that in international relations it’s difficult to predict the future because of so many variables, but India will like to have friendly relations with all.
Global Review: Was the partition of India unavoidable? Gandhi tried to prevent it; many Hindu nationalists even say that it was a “Divide and Rule” strategy by Great Britain which then tried to incorporate Pakistan into CENTO. What was the aim of CENTO and why did it disintegrate? Pakistan became the main enemy of India in the following decades– supported by the USA, but mainly by China. Are there Chinese plans to use Pakistan as second frontier against India in the event of a conflict? Is this likely as all three countries have nuclear weapons?
Major General S B Asthana: I am not a historian hence it will not be appropriate for me to comment on Partition or CENTO. I can only say that certain historic events happen under certain circumstances, and when we evaluate them in hindsight it’s difficult to assess the actual circumstances under which concerned decision makers took such a decision, and we land up speculating. Many historic versions conform to what you mentioned in first part of the question.Central Treaty Organization (CENTO),as I understand from historic record was formed as a mutual security organization, formerly called Middle East Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact Organization, dating from 1955 to 1979, composed of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, with Iraq added later. Formed at the urging of Britain and the United States, the Central Treaty Organization was intended to counter the threat of Soviet expansion into vital Middle East oil-producing regions. It disintegrated because of pulling out of Iraq and Iran, who were oil rich significant players.
I do not subscribe to the idea of USA supporting Pakistan to become enemy of India because it did not serve any purpose for them, even in cold war era. China may/ may not have any plans to use Pakistan as second frontier against India in the event of a conflict , that only Chinese can answer, but in all previous conflicts with Pakistan, so far, they have not done much for Pakistan except some moral and material support and some military posturing, without entering into conflict. In future, however we have to be prepared for it. Sino-Pak nexus, Chinese support in case of Masood Azhar, rolling out of CPEC, and reported presence of PLA along it, are not good signs. Pakistan is already working as frontline state of China by keeping a significant part of Indian Security forces engaged in proxy war. I do not visualise any conflict with China as we have many convergences of interest, especially in light of the potentiality of our economic engagements.
Global Review: Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted to create a secular democratic Muslim nation Pakistan. But Pakistan was mostly controlled by military dictators. If you compare India with Pakistan—which role has the military and the intelligence (ISI) in both societies? India never faced a military coup, but Pakistan many. Why is Pakistan such an unstable democracy?
Major General S B Asthana: Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted to create a secular democratic nation. The country was named as Islamic republic of Pakistan during the President Zia ul Haque’s tenure, who seized power after a coup. Pakistan since independence had been an unstable state, and continues to be so with sham democracy and Pakistan Army holding the reins of power. Their undue fascination for Kashmir (which had legally acceded to Indian Union), ill treatment of East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) and forced occupation of Baluchistan were some events to make Pakistan unstable. Due to internal instability, Pakistan Army could sell the narrative that they are a Force which can bind the country together and protect it against India (Indian threat theory), hence they must hold the reins of power. Repeated corruption disclosures of elected politicians further helped the Army to strengthen its hold on power, which continues till today. India on the other hand has been, and continues to be a stable secular democracy, with professional Defence Forces looking at security of the nation, and not diverting their attention towards Governance and Politics of the country.
Global Review: Under military dictator Zia ul Haque Pakistan was undergoing some sort of islamization which became breeding ground for Islamist terrorism and even the Taliban with its maddrassas and Saudi Arabian Wahhabist support. Pakistan Nobel prize winner Malala describes the Islamization of Pakistan in her book. Besides the international implications Pakistan was also becoming the breeding ground for Islamists in the Kashmir conflict and Afghanistan.India often claims that Pakistan is supporting and instrumentalizing the Islamist groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan for its own interests, but Pakistan denies an direct involvement and claims that it is fighting these insurgency groups and Islamism. What is the real story?
Major General S B Asthana: You have just narrated in the question, what is believed to be true, not only by me, but by the rest of the global community including USA and China. The new US South Asia Policy released last month totally supports this view. The real fact is that Osama Bin Laden was finally found in Pakistan near a military camp proves the nexus. Most of the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, India and rest of South Asia have safe sanctuaries and training camps in Pakistani territory duly supported by Pakistan Army and ISI. Almost every leader of consequence of these terrorist groups has been based in Pakistan. Even China is concerned of ETIM terrorist group operating in Xinjiang province being supported and trained there; hence they have a very tight security on their possible entry points. They are also concerned about the security of CPEC and other projects because all militants are monsters and can turn the guns towards its sponsors any time, hence Chinese policy of buying peace by appeasing militants may not work in long term. Pakistan’s claim that they are fighting militancy mainly refers to the militant groupslike TTP, which have gone against them and are killing their Army personnel and families as Pakistan tried to do ethnic cleansing by killing innocent people, not following their dictate. In Kashmir Pakistan has launched proxy war by inducting militants and supporting killings of innocent people and security forces.
Global Review: China´s OBOR initiative will change the geopolitical landscape of the world, also in Asia, South Asia and Central Asia. As India doesn´t want to participate in these New Silk roads does it perceive the maritime and continental new silk roads as a danger comparable with the German Baghdad Bahn which tried to build a German sphere of influence in the Greater Middle East and Asia against the British Empire which eventually lead to WW 1?
Major General S B Asthana: China would like everyone to believe that its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is purely developmental, for global, inclusive growth, as a win-win situation for the participating countries. Since infrastructure development is a dual use facility (civil and military) it will affect the geopolitical landscape. It will have serious strategic and security implications for the affected region. China wants to have ‘China Centric global communication network, which will increase China’s strategic footprints in the region affected by OBOR. It will also help China in offloading overcapacities and trade surpluses, besides exploiting mineral resources of affected countries. The construction of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as an extension of OBOR, violates sovereignty of India, hence India has no reason to participate in it.OBOR is of no worthwhile use to India, as India already has better sea connectivity, and the land connectivity is being worked out with our eastern neighbours bilaterally. CPEC is a concern for India with Chinese in our backyard. Joining OBOR from maritime perspective is also not in Indian interest as India has better sea connectivity with lesser choke points. Moreover joining OBOR would give a licence to Chinese entry in dangerously closer distance in Indian Ocean.
Global Review: China´s OBOR initiative also plans an economic corridor between Pakistan and China with a port in Gwadar. Pakistan claims that India tries to boycott this by all means and tries to destabilize Pakistan. As indicator it is claiming that India would support the Baluchistan separatists in Pakistan in order to prevent the Gwadar port and the economic corridor. How does India perceive the economic corridor and the Gwadar port? Will Gwadar also become a navy port for the Chinese navy? What about Sri Lanka and Bangladesh?
Major General S B Asthana: The construction of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as an extension of OBOR, violates sovereignty of India; hence India has boycotted it. India has no intention to destabilise Pakistan because a destabilised Pakistan under Jihadi influence is not in Indian Security interest. India is against killings of innocent people, and in my perception people of Baluchistan are suffering atrocities under Pakistani Army, hence they need global sympathy and support. CPEC is an effort by China to get warm water connectivity for its Western Region into Arabian Sea and Gulf region. It does cause certain security concerns for India, Gwadar port as military base may well be vulnerability for China in the long run as it can be blockaded. In case of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, China is looking for a foothold in the form of ports, which can be used as military bases in the long run. How far it will succeed will depend on permissibility of these sovereign countries.
Global Review: You wrote an excellent analysis about China´s new strategy in the South China Sea and the Doklam Plateau and claimed that both cases were indicators of an “incremental encroachment“. What do you mean by this phrase? Could you explain the reader China´s new strategy and what you propose to dissolve the problem?
Major General S B Asthana: China claims to have a strategy of“Active Defence” which implies protection of its sovereign territory (As China perceives it) even by pro-active defensive actions. In my opinion China has extended this strategy further by first increasing its claim line of its sovereign territory based on their unilateral historical logic and moving incrementally towards expansion of its territory by encroaching areas which have other claimants as well, create some infrastructure, and take a position to be defending its sovereign territory. This is what I mean by using the phrase “Incremental Encroachment”. In doing so China is takes proactive actions, and when the opposition is strong, it stops just short of War, continues with its claims and waits for an opportune time to pursue it further. Taking the example of South China Sea, where China extended its maritime claims into features claimed by other countries as well, (because their EEZ’s are overlapping), by one sided interpretation of its history and started converting them into islands, ignoring verdict of ICA, causing a serious concern to other users of South China Sea. Doklam was a bilateral issue, which stands resolved. In South China Sea, I feel all other users have to get together to stop further “Incremental Encroachment” by China to preserve Freedom of Navigation, international flights and any restrictions that China may think of putting on other users.
Global Review: If you compare China´s and India´s economic and military potential, which country will become the main regional power in Asia? Is a confrontation between China and India very likely or a Sino-American conflict which draws India into the conflict? E.G. if a Sino-American conflict occurs and the USA uses TX Hammes ´Offshore Control strategy’ would India be part of this Offshore Control scenario which is a naval blockade against China?
Major General S B Asthana: I see India China relations as of“Co-operation and Competition” together, as both need each other’s consumer markets to grow further. China is a much larger economy, and India is the fastest growing economy. China’s Defence Forces are larger in numbers, but it has much larger boundaries, concerns/commitments, and its capabilities are yet to be tested after 1979, whereas Indian Forces, although smaller in numbers, have been on a winning streak since 1971. Both countries can co-exist in Asia, hence a debate that which country will become the main regional power in Asia may not be of significance. This is also certain that both countries are strong enough to the extent that none can dictate the strategic choices to another. Both countries have stable relations with each other since 1962, and I do not see the prospects of any confrontation in the near future. In this era of alliances, cold war, trade wars, I also do not see the prospects of any Sino-US conflict in near future, although some divergences like South China Sea, may lead to some strategic/military posturing in near future. In reference to the last part of your question, any military analyst will tell you by pure military calculations that US Maritime capability is much more than China and blockade of some selected points like Gwadar ( if it becomes a Chinese military base) is well within their capability. Indian Navy is capable of securing own maritime interests and is capable of operating with US Navy. Notwithstanding the capabilities, the scenarios painted in your question are unlikely in near future as all these countries are fairly mature in inter-se dealings and have major economic interests in each other.
Global Review: India has interest in the Himalaya region, especially Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. As China is pushing its new silk roads will these countries be integrated in a Chinese sphere of influence? The Tibetan exile government and the Dalai Lama are guests in India and India has close relations to Nepal and Bhutan. At the moment India is not supporting Tibetan independence. Could this change? The Tibetan Rangzen Alliance hopes that India will in future support an independent Tibet and that an Indian-Chinese war could lead to such a scenario. Especially as China wants to relocate the water resources in the Himalaya which are the dwells for many Indian and South-asian rivers to China (Heaven Channel), the Rangzen Alliance sees the water resource conflict as a possible scenario which could change the mind of India about Tibetan independence. Is such a scenario realistic? In your article about Chinese „incremental encroachment“ you wrote:
„The history can be interpreted by both sides to suit their claims, threat to revise policies can be from both sides (if China can talk about rethinking Sikkim/Kashmir policy/ or intervening in Nepal triangle,India can also talk about rethinking Tibet/One China policy or establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan).
Major General S B Asthana: India has excellent relations with all its neighbours including Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan. China has increased connectivity with some of them, as per their bilateral arrangements, which is not of concern to India, as they are sovereign countries entitled to take decisions as per their own national interest. Bhutan has a security arrangement with India which has not been disturbed so far despite all efforts by China. The dependency of Nepal on India is also heavy and will remain so, despite its connectivity with China. The stance taken by Bhutan and Nepal during Doklam stand-off adequately justices this argument.
India does not support any anti-China Tibetan movement or separatist activity. I do not think that this position of India will change, when India itself is a victim of Pakistan sponsored proxy war/ terrorist activities. A responsible nation like India cannot be seen to have double standards.
The line which you have quoted above from my article is in response to a provocative statement from Global Times during Doklam standoff, when China was trying to put psychological pressure on India by threatening to revise policy on a well settled border with Sikkim. It should be read as an appropriate reply to a provocation/rhetoric generated by China. Now both countries have resolved the standoff with matured diplomacy, I do not visualise India going back from any mutually agreed policy unless China does so, the possibility of which is remote.
Global Review: What do you think about Hindu nationalism? Is it good for India? Gandhi and Nehru as Congress Party supported a nonviolent, pacifistic, socialist, all-Indian, universal and anti-caste policy. Gandhi even wanted to put Mohammad Ali Jinah or a Muslim as new prime minister of all India in order to prevent the partition of India. However, the Muslim League, GB and the Hindu nationalists prevented this. The Congress Party held to the Non-Alignment, anti-caste, universal, pacifist and socialist policy for the next 30 years, only with the exception that after the Chinese aggression in 1962 they had closer ties with the Soviet Union. However Modi, born in the RSS and associated with other Hindu nationalistic groups replaced the Congress. Modi started his Hindu nationalism by burning down Christian churches and destroying Muslim temples. He was banned by the USA for entering the land of the free. But when he became prime minister, made a neoliheral economic policy, was moving towards the USA against China, everything was forgotten and he is seen as a welcomed guest of the USA. However his new identity policy is promoting a Hindu-Buddhist society, excluding Christians and Muslims, on the other side promoting World Yoga days and World Laughing Days to create the soft power of an ever peaceful India. While Modi is still promoting a neoliberal. military strong India, he is stirring up the divides within the Indian society. As Hinduism- Buddism are no religions which want to conquer the world as Christianity was and many sections of Islam still do, Hinduism-Buddhism is perceived by the West as not that dangerous. But the exclusion of Christians and Muslims in India can split and destabilise the country. Is the model of the Congress Party better than the Hindu nationalist BJP? Is the Indian army a Hindu-Buddhist army or an all- Indian army?
Major General S B Asthana: Your Question has political overtones and off the mark from actual reality. In my opinion India stands for Indian nationalism, and is a secular, stable democracy with equal opportunities and safety to all religion, looking for “Peaceful Inclusive Growth”. If the President of India/ supreme commander of Armed Forces can be from minorities, the question has no basis. The Indian Army is a secular Army having officers and troops from all religion. The fact that we presently have a Muslim Army Commander, and had Christian, Sikh and Parsi Chief of the Army Staff earlier makes the entire narrative of the question irrelevant.
Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM
(The views expressed are of Major General S B Asthana(veteran) and do not represent views of any organization. The General is reachable on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, also on website http://www.asthanawrites.org and USI website http://www.usiofindia.org )