Global Review had the pleasure to have another interview with General (ret.) Asthana about the Asia, India and related geopolitical conflicts in the new Biden era-
Maj Gen S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)
Chief Instructor,United Service Institution of India Council, Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE) Security Council, International Organization for Educational Development (IOED) International Police Commission, (IPC, India)United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA) Internet TV Media News Network (ITVMNN) Advisory Board, Swedish Armed Forces International Center – SWEDINTExpert Group, Challenges Forum for International Peace, Sweden.
Global Review: General Asthana, how do you perceive the four years of Trump ́s foreign policy worldwide, in Asia and for the US-Sino-Indian relations? What was positive, what was negative, what should and what could change? How do Indians perceive the storm on Capitol hill?
Major General S B Asthana In international relations normally countries follow the national interest and the personalities have a limited effect international Strategy and President Trump’s era is no different, although his personal style of handling issues may be different. President Trump’s era started with ‘America First’ pronouncement in letter and spirit. While every country keeps its national interest as utmost priority, but he was quite vocal about it which made many world leaders uncomfortable in dealing with him. Although I don’t see much changes in American global outlook before him, during his period, and later, but his expression of foreign policy was slightly different from the fact that he wasn’t a ‘Politician President’ but a ‘Businessman President’. His walking out of JCPOA was a Republican agenda, and backing Israel was a legacy. Making NATO increase defence budgeting was economic agenda, where he did well domestically, but for the wild card entry of coronavirus, which spoiled his efforts. He was successful to some extent in Israel- Afghan patch up, but not in Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and Syria. Regarding Asia, he inherited a situation wherein, China had revealed its expansionist design by illegal conversion of features into military bases, rolling out of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), trying to achieve China centric Asia edging out US, to name a few; hence a tough stance on China was inescapable. It was not specific to him; hence it continues till date. He did expose Pakistan’s support to terror outfits more than any other President, but his idea of peace deal with Taliban hasn’t helped the situation in Af-Pak Region. The US- Indian relations were on upward trajectory ever since China started asserting itself, posing viable challenge to US. President Trump build up on it after President Obama era, as US realised the potential of India in balancing China in South Asia and Indo-Pacific (specially Indian Ocean). President Trump build up the relationship as a continuum. The personal equation between President Trump and PM Modi helped it to prosper further. It was followed up with Global Strategic Partnership and few interoperability agreements. Both countries had their share of differences too, especially in Iran policy and induction of S-400, which continues. Capitol Hill was an unfortunate incident, however, stable democracies are resilient enough to handle such incidents.
Global Review: The new Biden administration focuses on diversity and nominated 11 Asian- Americans, among them many Indian- Americans as government officials including Vice President Kamala Harris? Do you think this will play a role in the perception of Asia and India in the US administration?
Major General S B Asthana The nomination of Asian Americans including Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to bring better understanding of Asian affairs and some joy to Asians/Indians but all of them are American First; hence expected to work for American interest as first priority. The diversity is also indicative of domestic politics and vote bank shares which can’t be ignored in democracies. My expectation is that all Asians/Indians will continue to work in their national interest, however any gains due to their better understanding of Indian positions will be welcomed. It’s a fact that Indian diaspora is growing in many countries and is increasingly becoming influential, thus adding to soft power of India.
Global Review: Putin declared at the Valdai Club that he wanted to get in a military alliance with China and had nothing against China raising its number of 250 ICBM to 1500 ICBMs. The Global Times also proposed this. Do you see the danger of an arms race and that this could destabilize the whole fabric of deterrence and strategic balance and what would it mean for India? Has it also to arm itself despite financial stress due to the Covid crisis? Also in perspective of new weapon systems as cyber and space weapons, hypersonic weapons, drones, etc.?
Major General S B Asthana The Russian closeness with China is a compulsion because of financial problems due to sanctions slapped by the West, and having US as common adversary. Both countries share a common Eurasian dream. It is also a fact that a rising expansionist China is a threat to Russia also and Russians realise it. There are some serious differences between the two with respect technological theft, IPR issues and increasing claims of China in CAR countries like Tajikistan (despite settled borders) and competition over influence in erstwhile USSR countries. Russia is therefore a reluctant junior partner in such partnership and is unlikely to formalise it as an alliance, where President Putin is a junior partner. The fact that Russian action in Ukraine and Chinese action in South/East China sea are solo actions, indicates that neither side is ready to chase others drea . When US walked out of INF treaty, one of the reason was that China was out of it and free to increase its nuclear capabilities. Any increase of nuclear arsenal by China is a global concern impacting global stability adversely. Indian capacity building in nuclear, cyber domain, hypersonic weapons, drones and space assets will be as per its own threat perception to boost its own defence capability and adequate to deter any potential aggressor. India, unlike China doesn’t have any expansionist design, nor its contending for superpower status; hence its capacity building need not be to compete with China in absolute numbers of military assets.
Global Review : What do you think will change under a Biden administration and what will remain? As the old engagement policy with China seems to be dead and will be replaced by co-engagement or coopetition policy, the question will be how much elements of containment and of engagement will fill this new concept with concrete content. Biden portrayed Trump as a Putin- Trump, Trump his opponent as Beijing-Biden. Do you think that this sort of characterization is appropriate regarding their foreign policy?
Major General S B Asthana President Joe Biden administration has given enough indicators that there is unlikely to be any change in US policy towards China. Chinese threat and competition has further increased, so has adversarial response of US. The only difference is the manner in which Joe Biden is trying to deal with China. President Biden is trying to repair old NATO alliances and increase strategic partnerships further to collectively address Chinese challenge. Quad Summit was one such example, wherein Joe Biden along with other leaders showcased the idea of collective response to coronavirus pandemic, cyber threats, technological and digital invasion, threat to free and open Indo-Pacific and rule based order. The idea of alternate technological, digital and supply chain, independent of China is gaining traction, with some NATO allies and regional countries intending to come out of Chinese hegemonic design. Joe Biden portrayal of Trump and vice versa are incidents of election campaigning in democracies, which doesn’t affect the overall foreign policy of US in any significant way.
Global Review: Many Indians were joyful as Kamala Harris was the first US Vice-President with Indian origins, or Afro-Indian origins. The Democrats criticise Modi-India for its Kashmir law, the suppression of Muslims, its Hindutva policy, which they see symbolically around the debate about the Hindu temple, which is very similar to Erdogan-Turkey which wants to transform the Hagia Sophia in a mosque, want a more balanced relation to Pakistan, because it wants it not to get in the exclusive interest sphere of China and also was a mediator in Afghanistan. There were now also joint military drills in Pakistan and NATO members and Russia participated. Putin also wants Pakistan to become a member of his Great Eurasia as Erdogan-Turkey also discusses dual citizenship with Pakistan and the delivery of attack helicopters and other weapons? How do you evaluate this and its implications for India?
Major General S B Asthana The appointment of Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to bring better understanding of Asian affairs and some joy to Asians/Indians/African but the fact is that she is American Vice President First; hence expected to work for American interest over Indian interest as first priority, as any other Vice President. The silver lining is that the interests of both countries are matching in most issues. India is a strong country with strategic autonomy and doesn’t interfere in internal affairs of any other country and expects reciprocation. Criticism of few about Indian internal affairs doesn’t affect Indian policy making. India being the largest secular democratic country, with 1.3 billion population having all possible variations of religion, culture terrain and problems; hence its governance is most complicated in the world, which outsiders find it difficult to understand. The facts are Kashmir is much more peaceful after abrogation of Article 370, Muslims in India are much more free and patriots is indicated by least recruitment in ISIS in percentage terms and the fact that anyone can air his grievances in India speaks volumes of freedom of speech. The critiques highlighting Hindutva don’t even know that the word Hindu is not related to religion, but relates to Indus Valley civilisation and Hindukush mountains in geographic terms, which includes India and Pakistan both. Erdogan is looking to lead Sunni Muslim world and wanting to work out Sunni Axis with Pakistan. India has more Muslims than Turkey or Pakistan who don’t believe in such bifurcation. Pakistan is already under heavy debt of China to an extent that its sovereignty is symbolic as it can make no major decision without Chinese nod. Russia needs to sell its weapons to any purchaser for economic reasons is understandable. Joint exercises don’t raise eye brows, because India has also done exercises with Russia. Sino-Pakistan nexus has been and continues to be of concern to India; hence India is ready to deal with two front threat, and continues to do capacity building accordingly.
Global Review: Xi and Putin at the beginning didn ́t congratulate Biden for his election victory. China as a first reaction signed the RCEP- a Pan-Asian Free Trade Zone to counter a possible new TPP and TTIP as competing trade blocs against China under Biden. Obviously the Asian countries and US allies as Australia also, but with the exception of India joined the RCEP? Do you think that the Asians don ́t think that the USA is reliable anymore and that they don ́t want to wait as a new TPP could also be cancelled if Trump or a similar Republican candidate would reappear as US president in 2024 and cancel the multilateral agreements? Has China achieved a strategic goal that the USA sustainably is perceived by the world community as a not reliable partner, while Beijing is the vanguard in multilateralism, free trade and pacta sunt servanda? Didn ́t Trump do a good job for Beijing when splitting the West, ignoring Western values and allies, cancelling TPP and TTIP and some sort of Beijing- Trump Beijing silently liked?
Major General S B Asthana In the interconnected world of today trade between the countries is not bound by treaties and continues through multiple channels. Countries which signed RCEP saw benefits of regional trade and the fact that economic centre of gravity is slowly shifting towards Indo-Pacific. India did not sign it so far, as it has objections to some clauses, which may result in undesirable economic and digital encroachment into Indian market by cheaper Chinese goods, which is detrimental to growth of manufacturing sector in India. RCEP by itself doesn’t prove China to be more reliable than USA as the trade volume of most countries of RCEP with USA haven’t been affected much barring the pandemic affect. To the contrary a drive to decouple from Chinese supply chain is gaining global traction due to its exploitative policies. Beijing has junked maximum international laws like UNCLOS (Phillippines), BPTA (Ladakh) to name a few; hence can never be vanguard in multilateralism, free trade and pacta sunt servanda, unless CPC undergoes an overhaul.
Global Review: After the Ladakh conflict, some expert say that China has won tactically, but lost strategically as this would have pushed India sustainable in the anti-Chinese camp and that the Quad was not a loose alliance anymore, but became more and more of an Asian NATO, however not under direct US command as NATO. Other experts think that the Ladakh conflict was more complex, no tipping point or point of no return and that under certain circumstances China and India could reapproach? Which point of view do you think is correct? What is the actual situation in the Himalaya and the Indian Ocean?
Major General S B Asthana Ladakh standoff is not yet over, as disengagement and de-escalation is still work in progress; hence speculations like winning and losing are irrelevant. China, having marched in areas, where it was not supposed to be, junking all CBMs, as part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy ’, exploiting first mover advantage, making unfair use of Indian engagement in combating COVID-19 pandemic. China soon found itself handicapped by strong Indian response, resistance and resolve, with proactive actions resulting newly created vulnerabilities to Maldo Garrison and its launch pad, South of Pangong Tso. Despite disengagement in Pangong Tso area, Chinese discomfort due to Indian dispositions in Sub Sector North including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, as a threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity remains. India is also not comfortable with Chinese dragging their feet in disengaging from remaining areas. Both sides have mobilised similar number of troops, and awaiting further disengagement and de-escalation through talks. After Doklam and Ladakh standoffs, it’s quite clear to Indians that China can’t be trusted, which has brought relatively better clarity in Indian position vis a vis Quad. China views Quad as a major challenge to its dream of China Centric Asia Pacific, in its call for a free, open, inclusive, healthy, Indo-Pacific region that is “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion “. China’s hope that the four-country group hasn’t formed a cohesive force from within , may need a revisit, after the Quad leaders agreed to give joint statement, committed to holding an in-person leaders’ summit by the end of 2021 and agreed to pursue important agendas through focused working groups. The economic entanglement of each of the Quad members with China necessitates a resilient supply chain, digital and technological eco system, with minimal dependence on China. Indian Ocean continues to see Malabar exercises between Quad countries and also some of the NATO countries. In light of no major breakthrough in 22 nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation for demarcation of LAC, which, is necessary to prevent repeated standoffs, even if the present one sees some resolution. This is a pre-requisite for India -China reproachment. Wang Yi suggestion to get back to business as usual, sidelining border/LAC issue may not find favours in India, wherein the Indian Foreign Ministry seems to be conveying that disengagement at all friction points leading to deescalation, peace and tranquility on borders are pre-requisites to progressing smooth bilateral ties. A temporary solution/side-lining main issue is recipe for the next standoff, leading to LOC-ization of LAC further. Apparently Chinese will like to keep border unsettled, till the time the political cost of Not settling it, becomes higher than doing so, for CCP, China. Any misadventure by China is likely to be confronted with full national resolve and military might each time.
Global Review: A new momentum is the Indo-Pacific strategy of the German government which shall become the blueprint for a European Indo-Pacific strategy. However, the term Indo-Pacific was first created by the USA and the Trump administration. It replaced the old geographical concept of the Asia-Pacific. Under Trump the Indo- Pacific strategy pronounced an economic decoupling and containment strategy against China. The German Indo-Pacific strategy pronounces that decoupling and containment and confrontation with China was not desirable. Germany had to see that Asia is the new centre of world politics and the world economy and that Germany had to realize this. Germany should reduce its dependence from China, diversify its economic and political relations and focus on the ASEAN which were also the frontrunner for RCEP in Asia. While RCEP has just excluded labour and environmental protection conditions, the German Indo-Pacific Strategy wants that Germany must use the EU internal market leverage to strengthen a value-oriented, ecological, multilateral policy and pursue an inclusive approach, also towards China, which however should not be understood as the main centre of all German foreign policy perspectives. As an export nation, Germany had also to support the freedom of navigation in the open seas and even militarily support this goal and like-minded allies. In the German version Indo- Pacific doesn ́t mean a defined geographical area, but a geopolitical and geoeconomics space. While the French government already had a Indo-Pacific strategy and already send some military ships to this region, , even to the Malabar drills, Great Britain is building a new naval base in Singapur along the already existing US naval base. German defense minister Anngeret Kramp- Karrenbauer already proposed to send German military ships to the Indo- Pacific and to build and support alliances with Indo-Pacific partners, especially Australia. The German government wants to push its Indo-Pacific strategy within the EU and to integrate it with the French Indo-Pacific strategy to design an EU Indo-Pacific strategy. NATO for the first time declared China as a new challenge for the transatlantic military alliance. It remains to be seen if Germany ́s plans for an Indo-Pacific strategy will see a unilateral approach which is unlikely or a European pillar, militarily relying on French and German vessels, maybe even with British as it seems unlikely that a Global NATO will appear or NATO extends its reach to the Indo-Pacific. Has the German Indo-Pacific strategy received any greater attention by the Asians except the article in the South China Morning Post and how is it perceived in India or by you?
Major General S B Asthana The German Indo-Pacific strategy as stated by you in the question is no different than what other Quad members perceive. For an export oriented country like Germany, it is significant to note that the global economic fulcrum is tilting towards Indo-Pacific; hence a free, open, inclusive, healthy, Indo-Pacific region that is “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion” as envisaged by Quad members suits Germany as well. The challenge to such call by every user of Indo-Pacific comes from expansionist design of China; hence it makes strategic sense for Germany to align with call of Quad countries as other NATO members like UK and France have expressed. As you mentioned above, The German Indo-Pacific strategy pronounces that decoupling and containment and confrontation with China was not desirable indicates a cautious approach towards China and main focus on RCEP countries and ASEAN for trade. Quad also sees significant role of ASEAN in free and open Indo-Pacific, but looks at an alternate supply chain, coronavirus response system, technological and economic eco system, which is not China centric but well diversified to avoid Chinese coercion faced by many countries like Australia during pandemic. Quad is neither a military alliance, nor part of NATO or Asian/Global NATO, but it is honing its interoperability of forces for variety of roles, from HADR to ensuring free and open Indo-Pacific. In my opinion, The German Indo-Pacific strategy is giving mixed signals to environment to include making best of trade opportunities in Indo-Pacific, RCEP countries and ASEAN, not fall out of place with NATO allies, not annoying China and Russia and yet desiring for free and open Indo-Pacific. Some of these are contradictory; hence German initiatives haven’t been taken seriously by anyone.
Global Review: How have the Indo-Pakistan relations developed and what will become of Afghanistan? Pakistan also tries to portray itself as new mediator between the USA, China and Russia and held joint military naval drills where the USA, some NATO countries, China and Russia participated. Do you think that the new Biden administration will have closer contacts with Pakistan and not so close relations with India as Trump and Modi had (Namaste Trump!)?
Major General S B Asthana India Pakistan Relations depend on variety of factors arising from legacy of partition of British India, accession of state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to India, forced illegal occupation of part of J&K by Pakistan, followed by a series of wars fought by the two countries. The humiliating defeat in 1971 and independence of Bangladesh left permanent humiliation in military led hierarchy of Pakistan, which turned towards religious fundamentalism, under late President Zia-ul Haque, determined ‘To bleed India with thousand cuts’. Nuclear weapons acquisition and fostering terror as a weapon for waging proxy war against India with focus on Kashmir, remained single aim of Pakistan military, as a recipe to hold all levers of Power, with former President Musharraf calling terrorists as strategic assets. Neither the aim nor the focus of Pakistan has changed. An unexpected sequence of events followed, much to the surprise of many people both sides of Line of Control (LoC) with announcement of re-implementation of Ceasefire Agreement of 2003, by both DGMOs, followed by pleasant exchanges for ‘Conditional peace’ by both Prime Ministers and Pakistan’s desire to reopen trade with India, wherein Pakistan did a U turn in a short time. Economic stress faced by Pakistan seems to the most important reason for Pakistan to seek peace with India. It therefore makes perfect sense for Pakistan to get into temporary truce with India, reduce some expenses on LoC, and repair its economy, before returning to business as usual on Kashmir. US relations with Pakistan were under stress under President Trump due to its involvement in sponsoring terrorist group. The experience of Democrats is no different because President Joe Biden cannot forget that Osama Bin Laden was found there next to military camp. Notwithstanding that US has kept working relations with Pakistan, as it feels that it may need its strategic space for logistics support for any future operation in Af-Pak Region. Pakistan, however is completely under debt obligation of China; hence it will always choose China over US. This equation is known to Biden Administration and it will caliberate its relationship accordingly. I don’t give much credentials to exercises, as they are conducted in a context. India has also conducted exercises with Pakistan and Chinese Army under SCO, but it doesn’t change relationship. President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by or before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that first drew the United States into its longest war, thus keeping remaining U.S. forces in the country beyond the May 1 exit deadline. US withdrawal will embolden Taliban, which already controls over two third territory to stake claim for governing the country. Taliban thus claims to construct an inclusive and comprehensive Islamic system of governance that encompasses all spheres of life. Their promise of renouncing support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS seems unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network continue with frequent attacks on Afghan security forces, civilians including minorities, with no visible reluctance from Taliban. Tired of combat fatigue, it is certain that US troops will withdraw, ceding strategic space to others, but it is unlikely that this Peace Deal will work. US pull back will thus leave stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS and suffering population of Afghanistan.
Global Review: Which role has ASEAN for Indian foreign policy and how should India react to the military coup in Myanmar? Also in the context of the conflict between China and the USA/India? Major General S B Asthana ASEAN is central to Indian “Act East Policy”. India has excellent relations with each of the ASEAN countries. Bilateral relations and trade prospects have been increasing consistently. In the Year all ASEAN Head of States were invited as Chief Guests of Republic Day celebrations in India. India and Japan are also looking at many connectivity projects with some ASEAN countries. Myanmar is immediate neighbour of India and India is concerned about the situation there. India has expressed concerns over killings of innocent people protesting the Coup and asked for release of democratically elected leader and restoration of democratically elected government in Myanmar. Indian concerns also include inflow of persecuted people entering India. India however doesn’t believe in intervention in internal affairs of any other country and Myanmar is no different. India is a strong country with strategic autonomy. I don’t think China or USA or India are interested in any conflict, however India will protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in continental and maritime domain at all cost. Although intense military posturing is happening in Indo-Pacific and LAC, and accidental triggers can’t be ruled out, but in my opinion it will not mature into a conflict and will be managed by existing mechanisms. There are certain flash points like Taiwan, but I still feel that red lines will not be crossed and the emphasis will be more on strategic, economic, technological and trade competitions restricting conflict situation to non-kinetic means.
Global Review: Are the farmer protests a threat to the stability of the Indian subcontinent? Do you think the protests are reasonable because Modi ́s land reform could negatively impact farmers ́living standard and existence? Are they dominated by Maoist Naxalites and Sikh separatists? How do you perceive the storm on the Red Fort?
Major General S B Asthana All incidents mentioned by you in the question are governance and law and order issues, which are peculiar to every country, but are normal happenings in all countries. India is the largest secular democratic country, with 1.3 billion population having all possible variations of culture, terrain and problems; hence its governance is most complicated in the world, which outsiders find it difficult to understand. Being a free democracy with no restriction on media/rights every problem gets blown out of proportion. Protests are signs of healthy democracies and India is capable of handling its own internal affairs including the ones you listed. Red Fort incident was law and order issue and the guilty are being punished.
Global Review: How does the Covid crisis affect Indian security and foreign policy? While China raises its defence budget has India the capacities to keep pace with China?
Major General S B Asthana COVID-19 has added new dimension to security threat to India in terms of health security. India has second largest population and fifth largest landmass in the world; hence it has one of the highest population density in the world, which makes the management of pandemic the largest challenge in the world. India has done fairly well so far with fastest vaccination drive in the world, but given the population size, it will take some time to get over it. Chinese defence budget is to cater for its global expansionist ambition and multiple threats which it has invited due to its adventurism. Indian ambition are limited to protecting own territorial integrity and sovereignty; hence the defence allocation are made accordingly. It is not an area of competition. The capacity building of India is not suffering due to financial inadequacy and progressing at desired pace. In every country financial allocation is as per competing priorities in front of Governments and India is no different in that context.