Slowly, but steadily and unrelentingly, India has been expanding its strategic presence.
One dimension of this became evident during the recent visit of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to New Delhi on October 4 and 5,2011. The visit saw the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between India and Afghanistan covering military as well as non-military aspects of the relationship.
The non-military aspects were open and well known to the international community even earlier. These included, inter alia, Indian assistance to Afghanistan in the development of its strategic infrastructure and in strengthening its democratic and non-radical foundation. A democratic and non-radical Afghanistan is in India’s strategic interest as it is in the strategic interest of many other countries.
Pakistan views a genuinely democratic and non-radical Afghanistan as not conducive to its interests. Hence, its strong opposition even to India’s non-military assistance to Afghanistan. It made out even India’s political and economic links with Afghanistan as designed to trap Pakistan in an India-Afghanistan nutcracker.
The staged Pakistani hysteria on this subject initially met with a sympathetic and understanding response from the West, but as the West’s understanding of the real nature of Pakistan and its role as a catalyst of radicalism increased--particularly in the wake of the Abbottabad raid of May 2 by the US Navy SEALS to kill Osama bin Laden-- the West has come to realise that a robust Indian presence in Afghanistan after the West thins out its presence is desirable and necessary. One hears less and less from the West past articulations of concerns regarding the impact of the Indian presence on the psyche of Pakistan.
The SPA seeks to expand the Indian role from the non-military to the military sphere with an active Indian involvement in the training of the Afghan National Security Forces. The details of this training--what will be the magnitude of it, where will it be carried out, in Indian or Afghan territory-- are still to be worked out, but a decision in principle has been taken to make firm commitments to Afghanistan in the military field too, just as India has made in the economic field in the past.
The second dimension of this became evident coincidentally in the recent decisions of the Government of India not to let itself be inhibited in expanding its strategic ties with Vietnam by fears of Chinese concerns over it. In the past, India’s strategic ties with Vietnam were restricted to expanding the political and economic presence in Vietnam’s land territory and laying the foundation for a strong military-military relationship without rubbing China on the wrong side in relation to the South China Sea and the island territories in it under Vietnam’s control and sovereignty, which are challenged by Beijing.
The recently reported decision of the Government of India to permit a Government-connected oil company to accept from Vietnam oil and gas exploration rights from Vietnam in respect of two blocks belonging to Vietnam, which are claimed by China as its territory, is an indication of a decision in New Delhi not to let itself be inhibited any longer in expanding the strategic relationship with Vietnam by staged Chinese dramatics over the South China Sea and the island territories.
These are very important decisions indicative of a well thought-out Indian strategy for an incremental increase in Indian activism in areas which are of interest and concern not only to India, but also to the US. Whether India has kept the US informed of its moves and sought its blessings or not, its moves will ultimately redound to helping the strategic interests of the US too in Afghanistan as well as in the South China Sea area. The open signs of Indian activism should also be welcome to the ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea .
India has proclaimed subtly, but firmly that its continuing desire for friendly relations with Pakistan and China would not come in the way of its promoting its legitimate strategic role and interests in the Af-Pak and Sino-Vietnamese regions.
To embark on a policy of activism is easier than to keep the activism sustained. Sustaining it would require better intelligence and military capabilities. There is bound to be resistance from Pakistan and China to the Indian strategic activism and to the expansion of the Indian strategic presence to areas which they consider as coming under their sphere of influence. Do we have the required national capabilities to counter their resistance separately and jointly? If not, how to strengthen them quickly and what role the US can and should play in this regard are important questions, which should be addressed by the Task Force on National Security headed by Shri Naresh Chandra.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and , presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies