Global Review had the honour and the great pleasure to have an interview with Indian Major General Sashi Asthana about Indian foreign policy in the Greater Middle East. General Asthana gives the Western reader a wellinformed insight about India and its relations with the MENA region. 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:
Interview of Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM, Chief Instructor USI of India
Global Review on Global Issues
BIODATA : MAJ GEN S B ASTHANA,SM,VSM
- Veteran Infantry General with 40 years of varied experience in national, international fields and UN. Former Additional Director General of Infantry of Indian Army and Head of Training at Defence Services Staff College Wellington. Awarded twice by President of India, twice by UN, and CEE excellence award for Nation building by Governor of Haryana.
- Presently Chief Instructor of all Courses for military officers in United Service Institute of India.
- Prolific strategic & military writer/analyst on international affairs. Authored over 83 publications/articles and 90 blogs, on international & National issues. Has been interviewed by various National and International media channels in various appointments in India and abroad, including frequent discussions/opinions on WION, Rajyasabha TV, NewsX, Doordarshan, Samay TV, APN TV. Interviewed by Sputnik, SCMP (Six Times), twice by Global Review (Germany), Safety & Security International (Germany), Financial Express and ANI (Several Times). Editorials in Financial Chronicle. Writing for Washington Post, The Guardian, Modern Diplomacy (EU and Africa), Global Review (Germany), FDI(Australia), Korea Times, Economic Times, South China Morning Post, Global Times (China), Asia Times (Australia), WION News, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Journal, Tuck Magazine(Australia), Eurasian Review, Business Standard, Diplomacy and Beyond, Indian Defence Review, GIAP Journal, USI Journal, Indian Military Review, Synergy Journal, ANI, Kootneeti, Borderless Newsonline, National Defence, Salute, Newsmobile, and Newsroom 24X7 in different forms, besides own publications.
- Currently on Board of Advisors in International Organisation of Educational Development (IOED), Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE), and Security Council of United Nations Association of India (UNAI), United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA), International Council on Global Conflict Resolution (ICGCR) and International Police Commission (IPC). Life member of various Think Tanks like IDSA, USI of India, Center for Land Warfare Studies & FDI (Australia).
- Delivering talks regularly on strategic, military & motivational subjects in various universities/organisations, UN subjects in Centers of UN peacekeeping (globally), CUNPK, New Delhi, & conducting UN exercises. External examiner for M Phil, with Panjab University, in Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi.
- Doctoral researcher with JNU, holds two M Phil degrees with outstanding grade, PGDHRM and various management degrees, UN Courses, prestigious Defence Courses, Advanced Professional Program in Public Administration at IIPA, and National Development Course in Taiwan.
Reachable at Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, asthana_shashi on twitter, and writing on own site https://asthanawrites.org/ email email@example.com www.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6
Global Review: The G-7 meeting showed that the classical West seems to disintegrate. Trump wants Russia in the G7 and a meeting with Putin, while the other G7 states with the exception of Italy disagree. In Western media there were no reports about the SCO meeting in Qingdao where India and Pakistan and India attended as full members the first time. The People´s Daily portrays the SCO as new model for global governance for a new era. While the G7 included 2/3 of the world economy, the SCO only represented 20% of the world economy and 40% of the world population. With the Indian full membership in the SCO and the BRICS and the present disintegration of the G-7 do you think this symbolizes a shift to the Asian pivot?
Major General S B Asthana I think we need to see the G7 Summit 2018 in the backdrop of United States withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and from the Paris Agreement, American tariffs, trade-related disputes, and unpleasant exchanges between Trump and other leaders of G7 prior to the meet. President Trump on taking over had vowed for ‘America First’ with no prior diplomatic experience, hence a large number of his business oriented actions seem to be leading to ‘America Alone’. In fact his idea of Russian inclusion, not compromising on tariffs, and letting down some of his allies in various global strategic situations has not been appreciated, with many calling the summit as the „G6+1“.
I would still not call it as a disintegration of classical West, because the majority of western countries still have convergence of ideas and thoughts, with a temporary phase of ‘US under Trump’ looking differently in some issues. With Chinese global ambition, strategic and economic expansion designs through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and a more confident Russia under Putin, the western countries may find that their being together in organizations like NATO, EU and G7 is more of compulsion than a choice. I therefore feel that we need to wait for checks and balances within US to function and these organizations can definitely outlast the interim period.
India and Pakistan attended the SCO Summit in Qingdao as full members for the first time, but beyond the optics of the Summit, the China centric nature of the summit, quest for global leadership by China, with Russians opposition to US unilateralism was quite evident. Officially the Summit aims at “Mutual trust, mutual respect, equality, respect for diverse civilizations and pursuit of shared development”, however, economic engagements, and sideline engagements also gain significant importance. It is expected that in a multilateral world of today, no one country will be able to dictate the strategic choices of others or force any country not to act in its national interest in future; hence the idea of global leadership is outdated. The economic as well as population fulcrum is definitely shifting towards East, hence it is well on the card that the next few decades will see the pivot shifting towards East, as it has fastest growing economies as well as population centers.
Global Review: In its National Security Strategy (NSS) the USA defines China, Russia as revisionist powers and North Korea and Iran as rogue states, while Iran would be the world´s most threatening supporter of terrorism. Does India perceive Iran similar as the NSS does? And doesn´t India perceive Saudi Arabia as the greatest sponsor of terrorism with its proliferation of fundamentalist Islamist ideology, also in Asia–from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia to Indonesia?
Major General S B Asthana In my opinion India continues to follow an independent foreign policy since its independence and its perceptions are independent of the National Security Strategy (NSS) of the USA. India has good relations with almost all countries mentioned in the question, except Pakistan which continues to wage proxy war against India, sponsors, harbors, trains and infiltrate terrorists into India for killing innocent people. The countries you mentioned are often linked to age old Shea – Sunni rivalry. Indian perception to my mind is to denounce terrorism in all forms and manifestations. India also does not believe in the idea of good and bad terrorism, which many countries do to promote their short term interest, thereby causing long term damage to humanity.
Global Review: Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salmann is pushing remarkable reforms in Saudi Arabia and his future programme Vision 2030.He even thinks about recognizing Israel. How does India perceive these reforms and what relations have India and Pakistan with Saudi Arabia?
Major General S B Asthana In my opinion, India has very good relations with Saudi Arabia, and welcomes the reforms being undertaken there, which are very encouraging. We can see Saudi Arabia slowly transforming into a much freer, liberal, and progressive society. Saudi Arabia continues to be the third largest suppliers of crude oil to India. Pakistan has also good relations with Saudi Arabia with many convergences and looks at them for financial help to remain economically afloat. Unfortunately Pakistan is on a regressive path due to its terror industry and radicalized, archaic ideas, which seem to be different than Saudi Arabia’s liberalism raising doubts over the possibility over Saudi Arabia’s money being diverted for terrorism.
Global Review: General Asthana, US geopoliticians speak of the MENA region (Middle East North Africa) or the Greater Middle East (MENA plus Afghanistan/Pakistan) as a geopolitical entity. How do Indian geo-politicians perceive this region? Is Afghanistan/Pakistan separate from MENA a part of Asia or is Afghanistan/Pakistan connected with MENA? Which category makes more sense?
Major General S B Asthana US geo-politicians speak of the MENA region from the Western point of view, as to how they look at the globe in geographical terms. MENA is an English-language acronym referring to the Middle East and North Africa region, covering the region stretching from Morocco to Iran. Common global institutions like UN, World Bank also use this terminology. Afghanistan-Pakistan region is often referred as Af-Pak Region and sometimes counted in MENA. The term Greater Middle East is a political term, introduced in the early 2000s, denoting a set of contiguously connected countries stretching from Morocco in the west all the way to Pakistan in the east. Due to the geographic ambiguity and Eurocentric nature of the term „Middle East“, some people prefer use of the terms Arab World, WANA (West Asia and North Africa) or the less common NAWA (North Africa-West Asia). In India geo-politicians normally refer these three regions separately, namely Middle East, Af-Pak and North Africa to avoid any confusion.
Global Review: As India and China import a lot of gas and oil from the Middle East, how dependent are India, China and the rest of Asia from Middle East oil and from which countries do they import most? Is US and Russian oil and gas/LNG an alternative? Do you think this will change due to the rise of renewable energy, electro mobility and the so called de-carbonization of the world economy?
Major General S B Asthana India is the world’s third-biggest oil consumer, with crude oil import of 4.37 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2017, having raised its refining capacity to about 5 million bpd. Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the three top suppliers in the same order. US shale oil is a major source and viable alternative of oil in future, but India has to develop enough refineries for the same. The refined oil from US for the time being may be a costly option. India also has enough gas dependency, but has not been very lucky with gas pipelines to import gas from CAR through Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, which is expected to meet some of its needs when fully functional.
China surpassed U.S. in annual gross crude oil imports in 2017 by importing 8.4 million bpd as compared with 7.9 million bpd of U.S. crude oil imports. Imports from Russia, surpassed Saudi Arabia as China’s largest source of foreign crude oil in 2016, totaled 1.2 million bpd last year, while Saudi Arabia accounted for 1.0 million bpd. OPEC countries, and some non-OPEC countries, including Russia, agreed to reduce crude oil production through the end of 2018, which allowed other countries to capture Chinese market share in 2017.New refinery capacity and strategic inventory stockpiling, combined with declining domestic production, were the major factors contributing to its recent increase in imports. In 2017, an average 56 percent of China’s crude oil imports came from OPEC producing members. Russia is a major supplier of gas to China and will continue to be so, as their pipelines keep extending. It meets the economic interest of both the countries. The renewable energy sources are being explored and promoted in India as well as China, but they can meet only a fractional requirement of each, hence heavy dependence on imported oil, gas and coal will continue at least for next two decades, as the energy requirement of these countries is growing at a very fast pace.
Global Review: If it comes to conflicts and wars in the MENA region, there seems to be no visible role of India—Syria, Yemen, Iran, etc. As India has not the strength for military power projection in this region, which diplomatic and economic instruments does India use in this region?
Major General S B Asthana India has friendly relations with most Middle East countries, and Afghanistan. It has the largest diasporas in these countries besides heavy oil dependency. India has given all kinds of humanitarian and developmental aid to Afghanistan and some other countries. Most of the conflicts in these regions are without UN sanctions. Indian declared policy is not to commit troops unless approved by UN Security Council. The oil import, developmental initiatives like Chahbahar port in Iran, humanitarian and technical assistance in Afghanistan, and large diasporas working in these countries are the focus of diplomatic and economic engagements in this region.
Global Review: In its National Security Strategy (NSS) the USA defines China, Russia as revisionist powers and North Korea and Iran as rogue states, while Iran would be the world´s most threatening supporter of terrorism. Does India perceive Iran similar as the NSS does?
Major General S B Asthana The National Security Strategy (NSS) of the USA is not the NSS of India. India is a strategic partner of USA, but also maintains an independent foreign policy. India’s relations with China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as asked by you are not governed by NSS of US. Russia is the largest supplier of military hardware to India. China is a neighbor with different set of convergences and divergences of policies with India. The historic, cultural, civilization and oil centric umbilical cord between Iran and India cannot be cut, and crude oil supply to India cannot be brought to zero. It is also a fact that India can never compromise on its ‘Energy Security’. India however agrees with tough actions on Pakistan to deter it from sponsoring, nurturing, shielding and propagating terrorism and proxy war.
Global Review: At the moment we see the formation of an anti-Iranian axis between the USA, Israel, Egypt, Jordania, most of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia on the one side and more pro-Iranian axis between Russia, Turkey, Qatar and China on the other side? What are the Indian interests in the conflict with Iran and on which side does India position itself?
Major General S B Asthana As I mentioned earlier, India follows an independent foreign policy, and does not take sides. The scenario mentioned in your question is no different, where to my mind India will pursue its own national interest like any other sovereign country. India has historic, cultural, civilizational and oil centric relations, which are deep rooted. Iran has jumped one notch up by becoming the second largest crude oil supplier to India.
Global Review: What does the Indian government think about Trump´s cancellation of the JOAP/Iran deal? Mike Pompeo said in his speech that the USA wants to implement an international sanction front with the hardest possible sanctions to reach the goals: Cancellation of Iran´s nuclear program, missile development and test and expansion in the Middle East. Do you think that on this basis a compromise is possible? Do you think a color revolution and regime change in Iran is likely or is there the real danger of a new war?
Major General S B Asthana President Trump´s cancellation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) /Iran deal has been under controversy globally. The effect of sanctions has resulted in rhetoric and provocative speeches between US and Iran. EU has not withdrawn from the Iran Deal so far, and I sincerely feel that compromises are possible. If US found it difficult to pursue against North Korea, then it is even more difficult to pursue against Iran which is much larger in size, has much more strategic significance/clout due to its location as well as oil export, which concerns US allies, strategic partners and China. I do not feel that a regime change under the pressure of US sanctions can happen, nor do I anticipate a war on this issue. I visualize that US sanctions on Iran may continue and US may have to rethink about CAATSA, because it cannot afford to put EU, China, Russia and other strategic partners on sanctions together and expect to prosper.
Global Review: War scenarios with Iran include the bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities and of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and abroad, the blockade of the Persian Gulf, Iranian counterstrikes against the USA and its allies as Saudi Arabia, an escalation in the whole Middle East, hiking oil prices with potential effects on the world economy and even some pessimists speak about the possibility of a third world war or great power conflict should Russia get involved and side with Iran. On the other side optimists and some Israelis military experts say that such a war might be the first cyber war in history and that Trump had also his Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), a electronic super weapon with high-frequency microwaves which destroy the microchips of their counterparts by electronic warfare comparable with an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP).Do you think an US-Iranian war could be limited in its effects and scope?
Major General S B Asthana The war scenario painted in your question is something like a strategic war gaming exercise normally conducted in hypothetical scenarios. I visualize that the US- Iranian clash will remain limited to economic, diplomatic and at best information warfare to include electronic and cyber domain, to the extent that can be conducted without formal declaration of war. Some of the activities like US trying to capture Iranian oil market are already on.
Global Review: Do you think if Iran is restarting its enrichment that we will see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with the possible outcome of a Saudi Arabian, Turkish, Egypt nuclear bomb? Saudi Arabia just started a 35 billion $ nuclear project and tries to get access to nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Turkey and Egypt are building nuclear plants with the Russian support. How would this alter the strategic balance in this region and the Nonproliferation Treaty?
Major General S B Asthana The inability of US and its allies to deal with North Korean nuclear and missile achievements is definitely going to encourage some other countries to go nuclear. Most nuclear countries went nuclear citing the excuse of safety. The possibility of countries you named having such ambition cannot be ruled out. Some of them may be looking at nuclear energy as a clean source of energy and not necessarily enriching it for weapon grade. Iran or any other country going nuclear will definitely alter strategic balance of power in that region. As any other Indian I do not believe in the Nonproliferation Treaty, because countries have proliferated this technology even after signing it, otherwise Pakistan and North Korea would not have been nuclear today. I would treat it as outdated treaty dividing the world in ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Not’s’. Countries trying to go nuclear often cite the example of regime change in Libya and Iraq would not have happened if they were nuclear.
Global Review: Would an Iranian nuclear bomb change the strategic balance and deterrence for Israel which is the sole nuclear power in the Middle East with 200-400 nuclear weapons? Some expert say that Iran couldn´t use its nuclear weapon as Israel would in response totally destroy Iran. But Israel perceives an Iranian nuclear bomb as threat? What would change strategically, militarily and politically?
Major General S B Asthana If Iran is successful in making the nuclear bomb, the strategic, military and political dynamics of Middle East will undergo a major overhaul, because US and Israeli capability to threaten Iran will reduce considerably. It will also ensure regime survival of Iran from outside threat. It may also embolden some Shia groups, which the world may not be happy with. It will immediately encourage Saudi Arabia to go nuclear. Iran which is the largest country in that region will become the strong military power in that region, if it is able to make a nuclear bomb.
Global Review: Which political and diplomatic position has India in Syria and Yemen?
Major General S B Asthana My opinion is that India denounces terror in all forms and manifestations, irrespective of the country which are affected. The ISIS caliphate was required to be demolished as it was a global threat including India. The killings of innocent people and the problems of refugees need sympathy of global community and India as part of UN has also contributed to UN Mission in Syria. In my perception military interventions without UN sanctions like the one by Saudi Arabia and some other countries will continue to be marred by suspicion over intention and should not be encouraged. India has some diaspora in both countries and has been diplomatically engaging for their protection and evacuation whenever required.
Global Review: Do you think that the US Middle East policy is causing more problems than solving them in this region? If Trump shouldn´t be reelected, do you think the US Middle East policy could change and would this be positive?
Major General S B Asthana US Middle East policy under President Trump has a mix effect of some success and turbulence. US contribution in shrinking the caliphate of ISIS cannot be ignored as a successful contribution. US cancellation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) /Iran deal has been criticized in most part of the world, and has caused turbulence in oil politics and strategic positioning. Similarly their hard action against terror sponsoring countries like Pakistan, which are harboring and nurturing all kind of terrorists are positive actions but with Taliban and remnants of ISIS getting foothold in Afghanistan shows that it has not been very effective. Re-election of President Trump is internal matter of US, hence I will not comment on it, but sufficient to say that the situation in Middle East will depend more on ground situation and many other factors, and not purely the personality elected.
Global Review: Which position has India in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? What about the Indo-Israel relations? Does India support the two state solutions and do you think after Trump´s Jerusalem decision it is still possible?
Major General S B Asthana In my opinion India is a nation friendly to both. Palestine has its embassy in New Delhi, and Israel is third largest supplier of military hardware to India. Indo-Israel relations are on upswing with increasing trade, and the fact that Jews have always been treated with grace in India and have been protected like any other community. The tourism is spiraling upwards, with Israeli youth feeling very secure in India to spend their holidays.
India has always been supporting Palestinian cause and has voted against President Trump’s decision of shifting the embassy to Jerusalem. What I have seen is that India has kept these two relationships independent of each other.
Global Review: What role does the MENA/Greater Middle East region play in China´s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and in India´s Asia-African Development Corridor? What are the concrete plans and projects?
Major General S B Asthana The MENA/Greater Middle East region plays an important part in China’s Belt and Road initiative as China is investing heavily in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), although India considers it as encroachment into its sovereign territory as a part of it passes through Indian Territory illegally occupied by Pakistan. China is looking for some part of BRI passing through Afghanistan and making heavy investment there. China has already established rail link with Iran to ease out inflow of oil from the Gulf. Most importantly China will like to occupy this strategic space, as and when vacated by USA. India´s Asia-African Development Corridor is still in the conceptual stage and details of the projects will be evident as and when they are in public domain. The corridor will be looking at connecting Japan, South East Asian countries, countries along Indian Ocean with Africa to include MENA.