Interview with Indian geopolitical analyst Dr. Bawa Singh: „India’s Central Asia policy did not show any remarkable results“

von Ralf Ostner

Global Review had the pleasure and opportunity to invite another Indian geopolitical analyst to an interview about the situation in Asia, the Sino-Indian-Pakistan relations, SCO and other related questions. After geopolitical analyst Debasis Dash and Indian General Ashanta we present our interview with Dr. Bawa Singh.

Dr. Bawa Singh has been teaching in the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations (Central University of Punjab, Bathinda-India). Several research articles/book chapters have been contributed by him in renowned journals and books. He had supervised Ten M. Phil degrees and currently, supervising six Ph. D students. One major research project has been completed entitled- Role of SAARC: Geostrategic and Geo-economic Perspectives. He has been regularly contributing articles in the:  Modern Diplomacy, Diplomat, Eurasian Review, and South Asian Monitor and Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA).
Bawa Singh
Bawa Singh
Assistant Professor at Central University of Punjab, Bathinda
Central University of Punjab, BathindaPanjab University Chandigarh (India)

Global Review: Mr. Singh, what are India´s interest in South  Asia and Central Asia– which countries are its main competitors and which role play China, Russia with the SCO, OBOR initiative, Eurasian Union, and Pakistan?

Dr. Bawa Singh: Being located in the center, India has been sharing land and maritime borders with almost all South Asian countries. Hence, all the South Asian countries are crucial for India’s interests. However, these interests varies from one country to another given their geographical and strategic locations. Nepal and Bhutan are strategically holding strategic significance given the sharing long borders with China. Apart from strategic salience, the same countries are important for hydroelectric power for India. Bangladesh is holding crucial position for its security and geopolitical interests as it is sharing borders with the Southeast Asia, where India is attaching importance to the region under Look East Policy and currently Act East Policy. Sri Lanka is important for ethnic, economic and maritime security interests. Pakistan, of course, is for economic and security (terrorist organizations). Geopolitically and geo-economically, Afghanistan is holding crucial importance for India being gateway to Central Asia and richly endowed with minerals. Afghanistan is also important from strategic and geopolitical perspectives.

·         As far as South Asia as a whole is concerned, China has been making strategic foray in the region manifested in terms of ‘String of Pearls’, OBOR, and Chequebook Diplomacy. Chinese geopolitical and geostrategic support, particularly in terms of military and nuclear to Pakistan, are the major concerns of India in the region.

·         For India, Central Asia is important from geo-economically, geopolitically and geostrategic perspectives. Geo-economically, the Central Asia is a major link between South and Middle East as well as the Eurasia for India. Moreover, it is rich in energy resources and major untapped market of 70 million people. Geopolitically, the ‘New Great Game’ (influence of major powers like China, the US, and Russia) is a major challenge for India as it’s economic and energy interests are being at stake. India and Central Asia have been sharing common security concerns like radicalization, drug trafficking, human trafficking and nuclearization, worsening security in Afghanistan etc.

·         Realists particularly Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau were of the opinion that international relations/ foreign policy revolves around the protection of national interests. Therefore, geo-economic and geopolitical competition and Darwinian concept- survival of the fittest are the realities in the global political landscape. In order to make space, one has to outdo the other countries. It is very true in respect of India’s interests in Central Asia in general and SCO, OBOR, and Eurasian Union in particular. No other alternatives available to avoid competition from China and Russia. As far as, SCO is concerned, it is important for India from the geo-economically, geopolitically and geo-strategically. However, trade and FDI wise, India is at the lowest ebb. Geopolitically, China, Russia, and Pakistan are closer and it is anticipated that it would remain a major challenge for Indian interests.  Security is one of the major SCO objectives like elimination terrorism, fundamentalism and secessionism are concerned, but India has been failed to enlist support of China and Russia particularly in respect of terrorist groups working against its interests. Even China blocks Indian bids in UN to list Masood Azhar (Founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed) as a global terrorist, who is responsible for terrorist attacks in India. Similarly, Russia has been sharing close proximity with Taliban in Afghanistan, where India is not on the same page. OBOR is also one of the critical issues and concern for India.  China, Russia and of course Pakistan are on the same page as far as OBOR is concerned, whereas India opposing the ambitious project given its passage through the disputed area violating it’s sovereignty.

Global Review: The SCO is a regional organization between China, Russia, and 5 Central Asian states. However, have Russia and China the same interests in Central Asia and don´t the Central Asian countries fear that they become too dependent on the two great powers? Do they try to use the USA, India and the NATO Partnership programmes to counterbalance these powers?

Dr. Bawa Singh:      The SCO is a Eurasian regional organization comprising of major powers like Russia, China and all five Central Asian countries including the latest permanent members like India and Pakistan. Prima facie, SCO seems as a regional organization but in reality, it the mechination of geopolitics to control one and another.   As far as the same interests of Russia and China are concerned in the Central Asia, it is only limited to only geostrategic concerns such as the US presence in the region, otherwise, these countries are engaged in contradictory interests. This argument is substantiated by India’s inclusion as a permanent member in the SCO supported by Russia and, whereas Pakistan’s entry supported by China.

·       Given the Central Asian countries being landlocked between the two major powers like Russia and China, hence, the region used to remain apprehensive being dominated by these major players.  Consequently, the CARs used to manage their relations with the US, NATO, and India in such a way to maintain balance in the region. Moreover, the US, NATO, and India have their own concerns/interests in the region. Thus, reciprocating positively to the CARs demands become compulsions for these countries.    

Global Review: Will the SCO remain a regional institution or become some sort of a bigger entity as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India are thinking about to join the SCO? Will the SCO one day become interconnected with BRICS?

 Dr. Bawa Singh:      First of all, I see the SCO as a product of the regional geopolitical compulsions. China has become one of the dominant players in the Central Asian countries, where it has challenged Russian interests. Similarly, the Central Asian countries also apprehended the Chinese unchallenged dominance in the region. SCO has become one platform to assure to protect each other’s interests.  Since its inception, in the recent past, the moratorium on SCO’s expansion has been lifted. Consequently, India and Pakistan have been joined in Astana Summit 2017. There is an anticipation that more countries likely to follow the suit like Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan as permanent members in the SCO. In that sense, it will grow a bigger entity given the SCO and BRICS as overlapping the membership boundaries. Some scholars and policymakers have already anticipated that SCO could be one of regional organizations to check the NATOs influence. However, in my opinion, the SCO will remain engaged among its members given the contrasting geopolitical interests. With the joining of India and Pakistan as permanent members, the SCO may be further divided into two geopolitical groups. China and Pakistan have already been enjoying cordial relations characterized higher than Himalayan and sweeter than honey. Russia is also coming closer to Pakistan as Indian foreign policy took a U-turn sharing more strategic proximity with the US. In the post-Cold War era, new alignments have been taking place. In the recent ASEAN Summit, ‘Quad’ is doing around, with the objectives to make Indo-Pacific free and rule-based world. Quad and China are pursuing contrasting geopolitical policies, here, India is a part of Quad. So, in my view, SCO would be a turn into a new ‘SAARC’ despite its growing scope and substance.

Global Review: Does the USA, India, China, and Russia have a strategy for Central Asia and South Asia? What are the strategic goals of these different powers?

Dr. Bawa Singh:  Given rich energy resources, major market and strategic location, the Central Asia has been holding an important place in major powers foreign policies. As the US is concerned, Central Asia is very crucial for geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic salience. Since the emergence of Central Asia, the US policy is divided into two phases- one (1991- 2001) and two (2001 to till date). The phase one was mainly focussed to protect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity against Russian potential neo-imperialism. The most important focus was to break the Russia’s monopoly over pipelines and transit routes for Central Asian oil and gas particularly ensuring its dependence from Russia.  However, it has been argued that during the first phase, the Central Asia has been remained at the lowest priority despite the above-mentioned geopolitical objectives.

·         The second phase was started in the post 9/11. During this phase, security objectives became important drivers in U.S. engagement with Central Asia. In order to get logistical support for the success of Operation Endurance Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, the Central Asian region remained an important place in the US policy

·         India and Central Asia have been sharing historical and civilizational relations. However, these geo-cultural relations had been enervated during the imperial subjugation of both the regions. These relations re-invigorated soon after the independence of the Central Asia. In order to give important place, India has reoriented its Central Asia policy in terms of its foreign policy frameworks like North Look, Extended Neighbourhood, and Connect Central Asia Policy. However, India’s Central Asia policy did not show any remarkable results. This argument has been substantiated by low level of trade, FDI and no realization of gas pipeline like TAPI etc. Anyway, in the recent past, the incumbent Indian government focusing on Central Asia. Until India be able to heighten economic relations in terms of trade and FDI, the policy would be remained merely rhetoric instead.

·         The breakup of the former Soviet Union had opened a rich opportunity for China in the Central Asia. Though China has no formalized Central Asian policy, but have been remained successful in achieving to secure and protect its interests like raw materials, market, energy, and of course security coopetition related to sharing information related to terrorism particularly in Xinjiang province where the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has been fighting for its autonomy.  Realizing Russia is one of the important actors in the Central Asian regions, China has been avoided to come in any conflict with Russia. Keeping this point in perspective, China has carefully oriented its military and economic strategy for the Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Resultantly, China had outdone the other external powers in the Central Asia like Russia and the US in terms of trade. China and Central Asia trade ($US 50 bn) have experienced phenomenal growth as compared to the US ($US 30 bn) and Russia ($US 10 bn). In order to secure energy, China has invested massively in Central Asia in the areas of pipelines, roads, railways.  All the Central Asian countries have supported Chinese ambitious project like OBOR project. As far as security challenges are concerned, China has been ramping up its military influence in Central Asia through the SCO as well as cooperation with the individual countries.  The ‘Shanghai Five’ was created by signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions in Shanghai with the Central Asian countries in 1996. Under the aegis of SCO, the Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) was created to fight out the terrorism, fundamentalism, and extremism. To broaden security, crime, and drug trafficking cooperation, with the other member of SCO, China has signed an agreement to establish the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Thus, China has made strong influence in Central Asia not only economically, rather geopolitically and geo-strategically as well.

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 this 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 an German sphere of influence in the Greater Middle East and Asia against the British Empire which eventually lead to WW 1?

 Dr. Bawa Singh: Beyond doubt, the OBOR has the capacity to change the geopolitical landscape of the world as it is covering more than 60 countries of the Asia, Africa and Europe. The OBOR project is very ambitious project with massive investment ($US 4 to 8 trillion), proposed by the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is conceived as  a developmental strategy connecting the Eurasian and African countries covering about 60 countries. Under this project, building roads, railways, ports, and allied infrastructures to connect Eurasian and African countries, prima facie, it has been believed that for China, the OBOR is not driven by political motivations rather it is to geo-economic in nature to meet the under-developmental regions infrastructure demand. But on the other hand, some scholars (Tom Miller, Christopher Balding and Chenggang Xu) are of the opinion that the project could not be seen without the geopolitical veil and cobweb. It was basically to expand its geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic influence over the US and regional competitors like India and Japan.  Though, the US reluctantly has joined the OBOR by joining the Summit organized by China, but India had not only opposed it, rather out-rightly refused to join it  given the rationale of violating its sovereignty. Since CPEC project is passing through Jammu and Kashmir, which is conceived it as disputed territory between India and Pakistan.

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 separatist 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? And what about Sri Lanka? Has India a similar global geostrategic project as China´s New Silk roads?

 Dr. Bawa Singh: Gwadar port is a strategic project, prominently manifested in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is conceived as a link between the OBOR and Maritime Silk Road projects. It is strategically very important for China, as it provides an alternative sea route to connect energy-rich Middle East and African continent. The main objectives of the CPEC is intended to develop Pakistan infrastructure and develop economy by constructing modern transportation networks, energy projects, special economic zones and connect Pakistan, Western China, and Central Asia. Though its name signifies geo-economic cooperation but to me, additionally, it is veiled with strategic objectives.

·         As far as India is concerned, the CPEC has been passing through the disputed territory, so it is taken as violation of its sovereignty. Except this, there is no other objection/s on part of India. Of course, the strategic utility of the port and use of economic corridor for strategic maneuverability would remain main concerns of India, given the Pakistan-China strategic nexus and two war front strategy of both countries vis-a-vis the former. Moreover, many people and scholars have been criticising the CPEC project as they are being conceived it would make Pakistan as a vassal state.  On the same note, the Balochi common people, leadership, and even the separatists have been opposing the project by tooth and nail as they used to come across and face lot of discrimination, human rights violation, atrocities etc. on part of Pakistani government. Anticipating its serious concerns from project for Baluchistan, in terms of demography, security and many more concerns, these people are opposing it. The global public opinion is taking place in favor of the Baluch issue. In order to divert the attention of the public opinion, Pakistan has the right to level charges against India in this respect.

Yeah, to counter Chinese maritime strategy, India has also its own version of maritime strategy, where it is also focussing on ports like Chabahar, transport corridors like INSTC , but these projects are going on snails speed. Recently, India has been discussing with Japan to come out with similar maritime project.

Global Review: What is the role of India, China, and Pakistan in Afghanistan? Do they support the central government? Is there a political solution for Afghanistan as the political groups in Afghanistan have different agendas and different goals for a new political system—be it a Taliban god state or a secular presidential system? Trump said that the US military was in Afghanistan to win the war and not for nation building? Is this a realistic goal or will Afghanistan be unstable and a warring state for a long time to come or how could a political solution look like?

Dr. Bawa Singh: The triumvirate has very important role in Afghanistan given their strategic, economic and geopolitical interests. India has been playing very positive and constructive role in Afghanistan in terms of road, railway, bridges, buildings, schools, hospitals and electric grids etc. Apart from this, India has been part and parcel of several peace-making mechanism like Heart of Asia  (HoA) and SCO etc. Till the post-ISAF withdrawal (2014), China has not been ready to play any strategic role in Afghanistan, however, currently through bilateral and multilateral forums peace-making mechanism like HoA, SCO, Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), China has been playing very important role in Afghanistan. China has also made massive investments in Afghanistan.  As far as Pakistan is concerned, it has been consistently engaged in Afghanistan.  It started it role more pro-actively in Afghanistan, particularly during the Russian intervention.  Although Pakistan is part of many Afghanistan peace-making mechanisms, but it has been seen with distrust by the Afghan peoples.

·         Of course, National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan sharing good terms with neighbors except Pakistan. Hence, the strategic, economic and geopolitical support are being extended by the neighboring countries like India, China, and Pakistan to the NUG. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been sharing good terms in the recent past given charges, counter-charges, mistrusts and distrusts. The Afghan leadership, bureaucracy, and even common people not sparing any platform, forum and time to level charge against Pakistan for aiding, abetting, and supporting safe havens to Taliban, who have been fighting against the NUG. Hence, one can believe beyond doubts that Pakistan wanted to institutionalize that Afghan government which should toe its line in Afghanistan.

·         Despite highly infested by terrorism, Afghanistan is able to manage secular government (presidential type). However, several terrorist groups like Taliban, Haqqani Network, and many more groups have been working in the direction of Islamic state, but in the current milieu, there is no possibility of Islamic State type of government. Therefore, to me, no political solution is not visible in near future.

·         Military solution is not workable here. During the Obama regime, more than one lac troops had been deployed but they did not show any phenomenal improvements in terms of its peace, stability, security and even sovereignty.  With the changing geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics, the US had to withdraw the ISAF (2014), working under its leadership. In the interregnum (2014-August 2017), the warring groups regained their lost strength, substantiated by killings, assassinations, and control over geographical areas in Afghanistan. Again, South Asian Policy has been launched by the Trump regime in August 2017, without much nitty-gritty. Moreover, keywords of the speech wherein he said, we would be over there for killing the terrorists, not nation-building. But the Afghan history had substantiated that no external powers could won it rather proved as ‘graveyard of empires’. The Old Great Game players like Russia and the UK are in the case. Russia again jumping into the misadventure. Military is not the solution. Direct dialogue between the warring groups and political leadership could be one of the option. External mediation used to have their own agenda to fulfill, therefore, till date peace, prosperity and stability have been remained as distant dream. So, only political solution could be a way from pogrom to peace!!

Global Review: Who are the Taliban? A German diplomat said to me that Taliban was a term which incorporates several militant groups: Islamist, Hekmatyar (who was reintegrated by a peace treaty) the Shura-Taliban of Mullah Omar and his successors, the Haqqani network, local groups, and warlords. There is also a Afghan Taliban and a Pakistani Taliban—are they interconnected? Rumours say that Pakistan is supporting the Afghan Taliban to have strategic depth against India and that it fears that Afghanistan could question the Durand border, while it is fighting the Pakistan Taliban as they attack the Pakistan state.

Dr. Bawa Singh: Etymologically, the Taliban groups seem one and the same. But all the groups have different goals, motivations, and leadership.  However, Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban groups are not connected, rather they are working in different goals. Time and again, Pakistan and Afghanistan leaders and journalists have acknowledged that Pakistan has been aiding and abetting the Afghanistan Taliban to have strategic depth vis-a-vis India.

Global Review: Do you think that the Islamic state could be a real competitor for the Taliban and tries to expand its influence to Pakistan, Kashmir, Xinjiang, Bangladesh and parts of India? Could the Taliban become some sort of counterbalancing power against the IS?

Dr. Bawa Singh:     After Iraq and Syria, IS is moving to Afghanistan, wherein the Taliban has already been well entrenched. Although IS is aggressively expanding its base as visible by attacks carried out but I feel it would remain difficult to compete with Taliban. The Taliban has already controlled near about 50 percent of the geographical area of Afghanistan. IS has remained very limited in its influence even in Pakistan India Bangladesh and Xinjiang.

Global Review: To which extent can India replace nuclear and carbon energy as oil and gas by renewable energies and how much does it still need the oil- and gas producing countries for its energy supply?

Dr. Bawa Singh: Seeing the present consumption and production energy scenario particularly related to oil and gas, it seems that there is a lot of scope for renewable energy transition. Nuclear energy is already at the lowest ebb, hence not making any case for replaceable. Moreover, it has been subjected to the environmental, social, geopolitical and geo-economic externalities.  Same case holds for the renewable energy. Until date, India has been reached to the production extent of renewable energy is about 6 percent only.  Seeing the current scenario, it seems that there is lot of scope for renewable energy, which is still at the lowest ebb, but oil and gas would remain dominating sources of energy for another two-three decades. During the last decade, however, declining trends in energy intensity of India show that it is progressing towards harnessing the renewable energy technology.

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