Interview with Major General Ashanta about the Indo-Pacific and AfPak: “ China exhibits a hegemonic design“/“Peace in Afghanistan is not possible without Pakistan being on board“

von Ralf Ostner

Global Review had the honour and the great pleasure to have an interview with Indian Major General Sashi Ashanta about Indian foreign policy and military affairs. General Ashanta gives the Western reader a wellinformed insight about India and its relations with China and Pakistan. Major General Ashanta 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)

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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, the USA issued a new National Security Strategy calling Russia and China „revisionist powers“ and using the term „Indo Pacific“ instead of Asia Pacific for the first time. Is Indo Pacific just a propaganda slogan or has it a deeper strategic meaning? Do you agree with the findings of the NSS? What are the implications for the USA and India?

Major General S B Asthana:   Indo-Pacific is a combination of two large interconnected water bodies, with few choke points, and cannot be dealt separately in maritime domain. It stretches from the West coast of India to the western shores of the United States, representing the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world. The geographic contiguity also brings in the sense of a common strategic look. Asia- Pacific on the other hand had continental component in it. Strategically USA and India will like to have a free and open Indo-Pacific, as any other trading nation in the world, whose trade is passing through this maritime region.  Chinese efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade. Chinese island grabbing efforts on a flawed historic logic of its own perception of sovereignty, over riding claims of other contenders, and possible threat to freedom of navigation and free flights brings convergence in strategic thoughts of all other countries adversely affected by it. Chinese act of junking the UNCLOS and decisions of ICA on South China Sea, its modernization and expansion of Naval arsenal, conversion of features/atolls into islands, and establishing bases in Indian and Pacific oceans have automatically given rise to convergence of strategic interests of other countries in the region to deal with it collectively as one entity for establish regional stability. I think China’s adventurism in Pacific and Indian Oceans is the main reason for this new strategic change from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific as a natural reaction of other affected countries.

The findings of NSS are purely from US strategic prism, hence it may not be fair for me to comment whether I agree or disagree in Toto. Having said that, I must also say that in my opinion, I do find that there are a lot of strategic issues which are in convergence with strategic interests of India like Counter-terrorism, countering cyber threats and situation in South China Sea and Afghanistan. There are some issues of divergences like Indian approach to Russia and Iran may not be the same as US has stated in the document.

Regarding implications of NSS, US and India are already working on areas of convergence, and working out solutions to areas of divergences, in a routine manner. The Indo-strategic partnership is in place and is on positive trajectory.  NSS is a country specific policy document, giving directions to enable various related organisations of that country to steer the security architecture in that particular direction. It also gives some signaling to the rest of the world, especially if the NSS is of an important country like US.

Global Review:  What will change in Asia economically and politically after the USA canceled TPP and China proclaimed its OBOR/New Silk road initiative? What will be the reaction of the Asians and in particular of India?

Major General S B Asthana:   In Asia almost every country has major trade relations with China.  Following the formal exit of the United States from the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP), China will be hoping for success of two of its regional trade proposals the Free-Trade Agreement of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but it may not be that easy because some of the exploitative trade deals of China has irked many countries in the region. Some members of TPP are still of the view to move ahead with it, despite US exit, but it will be a weak partnership. Some of the countries are part of all these partnerships like TPP, FTAAP and RCEP, as they do not want to be on the wrong side of China or US. In my opinion although trade is linked with politics, but in such a confused state of these partnerships, each country will pursue its own national interest and I do not visualize any major political shift on account of these partnerships.

India follows an independent foreign policy. In this region it is following ‘Act East Policy’ and dealing with each country on bilateral and multi lateral basis. India was not part of TPP hence it is not affected by US pulling out or otherwise.  India has major trade relations with US and China and will continue to deal with both bilaterally. India is unlikely to join OBOR as CPEC (which is part of OBOR) violates Indian sovereignty. Some of the Asian countries who do not have economic muscles to build their own infrastructure will be part of it, while some may take more time to understand its implications. The progress so far has not been up to Chinese satisfaction. I do not visualize that US exit from TPP will have any major impact on it.

Global Review:    In an op-ed in the South Morning Post (25 Nov 2017 ) Cary Huang writes: „US, Japan, Australia, India…is Quad the first step to an Asian Nato? (…)It’s more than just changing the name of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – the ‘Quad’ grouping of like-minded democracies has the potential to dramatically change the region’s security landscape.“ However, James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation has a different point of view- in his article „A strong US-Indian Partnership is our strategic interest “he argues: „The U.S.-India relationship doesn’t fit well into either the category of friend or ally. What is driving strategic convergence between Washington and Delhi is Beijing. But the United States and India don’t need a treaty alliance. It is not about deferring to Indian sensibilities that may cling to the country’s nonalignment legacy, or crave strategic autonomy, or envision India as independent balancer in South Asia. No. There just isn’t a need for a defensive alliance to deal with China. No one is trying to deter or contain China. What is required is a regional structure to manage China’s disruptive influence in the region. Beijing is now attempting to rewrite international norms: threatening freedom of the commons, intimidating smaller regional powers and spreading corrupt practices. What Washington and Delhi have in common is not the desire to counter China per se, but a desire to foster peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific—and to deal with Beijing when it undermines that effort.“ Which of this statements and visions are more compatible with India´s national interest?

Major General S B Asthana:    In my opinion India, as well as US will like to see a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific, with unrestrictive trade and observance of international laws/norms and global order in the region. Over-riding of UNCLOS and over-ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration by China, its claim to be “Insurer of world order and peace” in the New Year message of President Xi Jinping in 2018, and trying to rewrite global norms which may not make sense to rest of the world outside China, exhibits hegemonic design. China’s aggressive posture is visible in incremental encroachment of features and converting them into islands in South China Sea, stretching its sovereignty claim as per its perception based on impractical historical logic will definitely push others together, who are directly or indirectly affected by it. In my opinion no one is trying to contain China, but China would be over ambitious if it thinks that the whole world will follow its dictate or sign on the dotted line laid by it. Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) may be at official level talks on sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits, to discuss regional and global cooperation in Manila, may be an old idea with limited scope today, but it signals thinking and talking about balancing China’s growing assertiveness. Malabar exercises, global use of word ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (cutting out China from it), Asia- Africa Growth Corridor are some examples of it. Quad may not be a relevant balancer today, but it may become formal, relevant and powerful in future, in case Chinese stance continues to be aggressive.

Global Review: China has a very holistic approach to assess its “National comprehensive power”, including hard and soft power in this term. Do you think that the USA and India have a similar comprehensive and holistic view of power and a global strategy like OBOR as Beijing has? Isn´t Trump underestimating the role of soft power with his angry tweets?

Major General S B Asthana:  China continues to pursue its long term goals of developing its “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP), while ensuring a favorable strategic configuration of power. It pursues an integrated strategy that seeks to apply diplomatic, military and economic, technological and other instruments of power. This power play is neither new nor exclusive to China. Every country uses hard and soft power to pursue its national interest. USA and India also do the same, as any other country in the world. USA and India are democratic countries; hence the methodology of exercising power is different in these countries than China. In China President Xi Jumping’s thought or idea of OBOR may easily find place in their constitution, but it may not be that easy in democracy. Democracy however has a major advantage of adequate checks and balances, unlike China where disagreeing with the ‘Core’ may lead to jail, hence there is no room for dissent, and no check on the leader. USA and India also have their own strategies as per their national interests. Tweeting is a personnel style and space of everyone, in which anyone can comment in his personnel capacity, to express his views and I do not feel it deserves my comments. In my opinion, US has been using its soft power effectively and will continue to do so.

 Global Review:   After the Doklam crisis the conflict doesn´t seem to be settled. The Global Times (January 04, 2018) writes: “An Indian road construction project connecting all border posts along the China-India frontier could lead to new military standoffs between China and India, Chinese experts warned on Wednesday. During his New Year visit to the „Indo-Tibet Border Police“ at Nelong valley in Uttarkashi district bordering China on Monday, Indian Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that a number of border posts had already been connected with roads and many would soon be linked, The Times of India reported on Monday.(…) India is clearly preparing for war, and it is drawing much experience from the defeat it swallowed in 1962, when it lacked such an infrastructure, Wang Dehua, head of the Institute for South and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Center for International Studies, told the Global Times. The road infrastructure will surely enhance Indian border force maneuverability, but also increases the possibility of confrontations between the patrols of the two countries as the border issues remain unsettled in many of these areas, Qian Feng, a researcher at the Chinese Association for South Asian Studies and a senior fellow of Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute, told the Global Times. “Will we see a new border conflict in 2018? How could the dispute be settled? Does China and India need a final definition of their borders?

Major General S B Asthana:   The rhetoric about Doklam issue has been adequately responded by India including some of my comments on Global Times itself and many of my articles earlier. A large number of Indian articles have responded to the Chinese psychological warfare exercise, which did not deter India at all in achieving its operational objectives. Coming to answer of your question, in my opinion India and China want peace for their economic growth, their Confidence Building Measures are working fine, and hence I do not visualize any border conflict in 2018. The delimitation, definition and demarcation of border has not been completed, therefore chances of border skirmishes, face-offs and stand-offs will remain. The dispute can be settled only by delimitation, definition and demarcation of border, but prior to that the most important need is to demarcate the LAC on ground and let the troops manning the border know about it, because in absence of the same, and the two sides having differing perceptions about LAC, the chances of border skirmishes/face-offs/stand-offs will be very bright, which is not in the interest of either of the country.

Global Review:  What is India´s strategic answer to China´s continental and maritime Silk Road? Which projects is India promoting to counter the Chinese OBOR initiative?

Major General S B Asthana:  Indian connectivity plans and strategic initiatives are independent of China’s OBOR/BRI as India follows an independent foreign policy. India is better located to be the hub of global sea lanes with lesser choke points either side. Japan and India are working towards providing an alternate model of global connectivity like Asia- Africa Growth Corridor connecting Japan to Africa, connecting all the intervening countries along the routes. Domination of Indian Ocean is going to be another strategic competition, which will become unavoidable in due course. China can keep increasing bases in Indian Ocean, but whether they will be its strength or vulnerability will be a question mark due to distance involved, choke points and growing strength and operability of Indian Navy with other global Navies. The bases created by China will always have lesser density of airpower in near future, if Indian Navy is operating with its strategic partners in Indian Ocean, with whom the interoperability has already been established through joint naval exercises.

Regarding OBOR/BRI as I mentioned earlier, India may not be interested because it violates Indian sovereignty. It is of no use to India, because expecting Indian trade to be moving smoothly through a terror den like Pakistan is impractical. India is trying to build connectivity with Afghanistan and CAR through Chahbahar port of Iran which India is helping to construct. On the Eastern side India has already built railways connecting Kolkata to Agartala through Bangladesh. India is bilaterally working out connectivity with Myanmar bilaterally. India is also planning a highway connecting India-Myanmar- Thailand- and Vietnam through Laos and Combodia. As these countries are well connected with China, Indian connectivity with China will be automatically achieved. Under these circumstances, OBOR/BRI has no meaning for India.

 Global Review:   The USA has critizised Pakistan for a „double game“in Afghanistan, harboring and supporting the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other Islamist insurgent groups and suspended the military and civil aid for Pakistan. Do you think this is an appropriate reaction? Won´t China fill the gap and benefit from this measure? Pakistan threatened to flood Afghanistan with Afghan refugees from Pakistan, which could further destabilize the unstable situation in Afghanistan and swell the rank and files of the Taliban. Is this in the interest of the USA, India and the NATO states?

Major General S B Asthana:  I agree with USA’s criticism of Pakistan for harboring, training and supporting the Taliban, Haqqani network, al-Qaida and other Islamist insurgent groups and suspended the military and civil aid for Pakistan. While China will like to increase its strategic space in Af-Pak Region, exploit their resources, but it may not like the region to be in the hands of Jihadi’s if it wants its CPEC projects to succeed. A destabilized Af-Pak Region is not in economic interest of China. The militants in Xinjiang Province (ETIM) cadres are also being trained in Pakistan. China may try to buy peace with buying out some militant groups but may not try to deliberately destablise the region due to their economic interest. An unstable Af-Pak Region is not in USA, India or any body’s interest.

 Global Review: US supporter of Trump as Jeff Smith from the Republican Heritage Foundation think that this „double game „in Afghanistan is in Pakistan´s national interest and describes them as follows: „In efforts to persuade Islamabad to abandon this nefarious “double game,” the U.S. government has deployed a constant stream of diplomatic and economic carrots—including $33 billion in aid and “reimbursements” since 2002—but virtually no sticks. Predictably, each attempt has failed. It turns out it’s quite difficult to change a country’s cost -benefit calculation when you’re unwilling to impose any costs. Pakistan’s double game, on the other hand, has brought it tangible benefits. Islamabad has clear and consistent objectives in Afghanistan: It seeks a government in Kabul that is pliable, submissive, and hostile to India. Since the Afghan people—who are now deeply, understandably hostile to Pakistan and favorable toward India—will never vote such a government into power, the next best outcome for Pakistan is to ensure the government and the country are divided and unstable. Not only has their quest for instability in Afghanistan been wildly successful, they’ve convinced America to foot much of the bill. After being subjected to this double game for more than a decade, the patience and generosity of the American people has reached its limit. “Do you think this assessment is right and that the US sanctions are an appropriate reaction that will change Pakistan´s behavior and interest calculations? Will the Pakistan government, its military and ISI rethink their „double game“?

Major General S B Asthana:  I partially agree with some of the assessments mentioned above. In my opinion, Jeff Smith is right in making the above mentioned assessment, and USA’s actions of putting Pakistan on notice, and applying the sanctions is a step in the right direction. However I do not expect Pakistan to change its behavior towards Afghanistan or India. Pakistan Army and ISI treat terrorists as their strategic assets, and will not part with them. While Pakistan will not mind being harsh on TTP, or in doing ethnic cleansing of Pashtuns/Baluchis, but their helping attitude towards rest of the militants will continue.

From Pakistani perspective, they feel that US has used Pakistan military with over 6000 soldiers casualties and over 33000 civilians casualties to their advantage, and the amount paid does not meet their strategic interest. They still dream of Taliban/ subdued regime in Afghanistan. As regards militant groups directed by Pakistan against India, it will continue to support them and India will continue to deal with them as hithertofore.

Global Review: China and Chinese critics of Trump like Long Xingchun and Li Tian in the Global Times ( 2018/1/8). Have a different point of view: „ The fence put up on the US-Mexico border with razor-sharp concertina wire cannot stop Mexicans from entering the US. In the same way, the 2,400-kilometer-long Pakistan-Afghanistan border along intertwined mountains and valleys can in no way stop civilians from crossing, let alone terrorists. Therefore, adjusting its anti-terror strategy should be Washington’s foremost priority. The Afghan Taliban, in spite of its previous close relations with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, should not be simply termed a terrorist group. It still has a group of followers in Afghanistan. So an anti-terror war aimed at eliminating the Taliban will never succeed. Washington had already recognized the need to talk with the Taliban and achieving reconciliation is the most effective way to ensure Afghan stability. However, negotiations have failed to make substantial progress over the years due to lack of trust between the US and the Taliban, and Washington’s inconsistent policy.  Therefore, the US needs to cooperate with Pakistan and other stakeholders in a holistic way. Censuring Pakistan is of no help in solving the issue. The US war on terror will not necessarily succeed with Pakistan’s cooperation, but will definitely founder without it. That the White House froze security aid to Pakistan has fully exposed its arrogance and selfishness. Its image in the international community has been tarnished. If Pakistan’s national interests and security cannot be ensured, the region will never see peace and stability. But if Trump’s real intention is to maintain US military presence in the region by keeping the turmoil alive, he will probably have his way with this new policy.“ China was hosting  negotations between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban in Beijing. Do you think the Chinese point of view is correct and will bring a solution? Can China be a neutral mediator? What is India´s strategy for a political solution in Afghanistan? Is there any possibility for a political solution or can it only be achieved if the Taliban is eliminated?

Major General S B Asthana:   In my analysis one point is common that peace in Afghanistan is not possible without Pakistan being on board. The other fact is that no outsider can peacefully govern Afghanistan by proxy, other than Afghans themselves. Besides these two parameters I also feel that no militant group like Taliban, used to living with the power of gun can give a civilized, peaceful government. I therefore differ from Chinese point of view and do not agree that Taliban should be a stakeholder in the Government. If this model was to succeed, it would have happened last time but with Taliban in power, Afghanistan became a Jihadi empire and a threat to the rest of the world. With physical presence of US in Afghanistan, I do not visualize Chinese role as a mediator. I will like to go with the hope that Afghanistan Government be supported by all, ANSF be strengthened, Taliban be eliminated and a democratically elected government be given a chance to bring peace in Afghanistan. To make it happen USA, Pakistan, China, and India have to cooperate and help them.

Global Review: Jabin T. Jacob PhD, Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi analzyes the further implications of the Doklam crisis and the soft power and image of India for the sino-Indian relations in the South China Morning Post (September 2nd, 2017): „The Chinese government has sought to sell the deal as a case of the Indians having blinked, of bowing to Chinese threats and coercion. It is doubtful the line has much purchase even within mainland China, where the netizen community might have constraints on their conversations but are not stupid and not entirely without access to information from the outside world. What then explains China’s high-decibel campaign of vilification against India in the wake of the standoff and which shows no sign of letting up even now? The issue is worth examining for what it says about the future direction of India-China relations. It is a little-noticed reality that ordinary Chinese view India somewhat differently than they do other major global powers. While there is a template of nationalist rivalry with Japan and another of a larger, geopolitical rivalry with the United States, neither template fits the relationship with India.(…) Meanwhile, the challenge in India is to look at China more holistically as more than a security and/or economic challenge. As China’s early attempts to turn the narrative on India both within China and in the neighbourhood show, there is an ideological and political challenge that it perceives from India. Many ordinary Chinese know India to be a democratic country but also point out that it is ‘chaotic’, ‘dirty’ and ‘poor’. But if such a country can also grow faster than China, its citizens also possess political liberties, and, to top it all, is also now capable of standing up to it militarily, then the consensus about India being democratic but ‘ineffective’ or unable to catch up with China will eventually crumble. India, of course, cannot change its identity as a democracy, something Indians are justifiably proud of, but New Delhi must understand the implications of Beijing’s actions and work doubly hard to prevent a fraught security relationship with China from also turning into one where suspicion and prejudice dominate also at the people-to-people level. And Beijing, if it knows what is best for its own standing in Asia and the globe, will do likewise.“ Do you think besides military and economic conflicts India´s soft power will also create an ideological conflict between China and India as Mr. Jacob warns?

Major General S B Asthana:   Mr Jacob is entitled to his views. In my opinion India is a strong country whose strategic choices cannot be dictated by any other country in the world, is well understood by China and any other power on the globe. The mere fact that India boycotted OBOR Summit, does not join CPEC, is likely to overtake Chinese population by 2030, likely to be fastest growing economy, has the largest young technically qualified, english speaking manpower in the world, and most importantly the largest market for China in next decade, China cannot afford to ignore India anymore, if it has to fulfill its stated dreams. I therefore visualize that the inter-se relation between India and China will be of   „Cooperation with Competition”, which is unavoidable for either side.

 

Global Review: In an oped „Imagine what China and India can do together“ in the SCMP  Sashi Tharoor argues:

„The current tensions between India and China, facing each other in a military stand-off on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, are dominating perceptions of the two countries’ increasingly hostile relationship. Yet this obscures the extent to which opportunities for cooperation between India and China exist. There is, first of all, the regional plane, where China and India have notably strengthened their cooperation. China has acquiesced in India’s participation in the East Asia Summit and India has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. While Asia is devoid of meaningful security institutions, interlocking economic and trade relationships could knit China and India closer together. But the two countries’ cooperation need not be confined to Asia. China and India have broadly similar interests and approaches on a wide range of international questions, from most issues of international peace and security to the principles of world trade and the ways and means of coping with globalisation.“

Do you agree with this statement and what has to be done to overcome Sino-Indian conflicts? In which fields could India and China cooperate regionally and globally?

 

Major General S B Asthana: The argument of Mr Shashi Tharoor indicates wide scope for China- India cooperation. To prevent Sino Indian conflict a lot of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) have been put in place. India and China have a Border and Peace Agreement (BPTA) in place and no bullet has been fired on the borders since last four decades. Additional measures like Border meetings between local military commanders have also been in vogue to resolve minor misunderstandings. Twenty rounds of border talks have been held and continue to be in progress. Most importantly the trade between both countries is swelling every year, which by itself increases the stakes of the conflict, and is serving as a conflict prevention measure.

There are enough fields where India and China can cooperate regionally and globally. Counter terrorism, Disaster relief, climate change, are some such fields. Both being developing countries are on the same page regarding WTO. Trade, connectivity, anti piracy missions and various technological fields are some areas where both have convergence of interests. Cultural linkages and tourism are some other areas to work together. Notwithstanding the above, the growing trade relations are the cornerstone of relationship between India and China.

 



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