Event ReportsPublished on Jan 31, 2020
Afghanistan potentially new flash-point in West Asia: Former NSA

“In order to make sense of what is happening in the Indian nation, it is important to study global trends and developments,” said the former National Security Advisor of the Government of India, M K Narayanan.

Initiating a discussion on "Global Trends and the Indian Nation" at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai on 18 January 2020, Narayanan said, “The world is heading into turbulence. Democracy and democratic ideas are under attack, globalisation is in retreat, the world economy is in the doldrums, jobs are at risk and geopolitical fault lines are widening.”

He observed that geo-politics is dictating geo-economics and China’s emergence as a contender to the US power is perhaps the most important geopolitical factor altering the global landscape today.

Painting with broad strokes, Narayanan said that the overall global political scenario was riddled with uncertainty. Though significant political changes were taking place in several countries with potentially huge consequences for the entire world, there was tragically very little understanding of what is happening and or about how these global political challenges will be addressed. This is as true of BREXIT, as it is of the East China and South China Seas, as well as of Afghanistan, he pointed out.

“Afghanistan is at cross-roads and is potentially the new flash-point in West Asia,” remarked Narayanan. The uncertainty surrounding the political future of Afghanistan, along with the collapse of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and conflict in Syria and Lebanon places the entire region in jeopardy, warned Narayanan. 

Terrorism & threat from the seas

Security remains a major challenge as terrorism goes unchecked and offensive cyber strikes on infrastructure are becoming the trend, Narayanan said. Terrorism is changing and so too should India’s ways of dealing with it, he argued. “We can’t only look at Lashkar and Jaish, we need to worry about smaller terror groups that are absorbing their ideologies. Technology will be their biggest driver.” According to him, “We need to keep track of these developments across the world.”

“Threat from the seas is sadly neglected even now” he regretted. Despite the buzz around maritime security within the Indian strategic community, he was worried about India’s unprotected coastlines. “The edifice exists, but are we really secure?” he asked. 

Immediate & transactional

Assessing the state of the Indian nation, against this background, Narayanan reflected that Indian foreign policy had “undergone a series of mutations.” The most noticeable change is the propensity for risk taking. There is a focus on more immediate rather than long term goals. However, “this trend can be seen around the world, not just in India,” he observed. This approach, he believed, has hurt India-China relations the most. “The Chinese think in terms of decades rather than years. Their approach is far more long term,” noted Narayanan.

Another change in India’s foreign policy was the transactional nature of its goals. These trends had adversely affected India-Russia relations as well as India-China relations, he said. As far as India-US relations were concerned, Narayanan felt that though there were many positives, there were certain negative consequences. Narayanan questioned the move away from Non-Alignment both as a guiding principle as well as the Non-Alignment Movement, or NAM as it is known. Non-alignment, he believed, was the traditional way of conducting foreign policy and “it had worked brilliantly for India.”

China: Most imperative

China remains India’s most imperative foreign policy goal, more so now than the early 2000s. “Hun Jintao was an easier political leader to deal with, Xi Jinping is more difficult,” Narayanan noted. He believed that India shouldn’t read too much into the apparent warmth between India-China at the informal summit in Chennai. Instead, its foreign policy apparatus needs to ask important questions of itself such as:  Have the fundamental challenges in India-China relations changed? Are we achieving peace in Asia?

“Unless India-China relations improve, it is impossible to have peace in Asia and crucially it is impossible for India Pakistan relations to improve,” he explained. “Unfortunately, India-China relations have stepped back rather than stepped forward.” 

Neighbourhood Policy

Another major foreign policy imperative for India is to have a stable neighbourhood, said Narayanan. Assessing India’s neighbourhood policy, he was critical of India’s scorecard. He said, “Where are we with Pakistan? Nadir. Nepal our relations are less than satisfactory.  Sri Lanka, it could be better. Maldives though it may be good now, it has the potential to U-turn very quickly.”

However, Narayanan was most disappointed at the state of India’s role in Afghanistan. “We have invested so much in terms of effort, time and resources and we are outsiders now. We have lost our place in Afghanistan. We are nowhere in the picture,” lamented Narayanan. 

Internal issues

Assessing domestic internal issues, Narayanan said the scenario was far from reassuring. There was continuing violence, law & order challenges in J&K. He was also concerned about the North East. “We have not seen the worst of it,” he said. It was important to remember that the Naxalite movement was an ideological and grass root movement. Though it is a shadow of what it was 10 years ago, the potency of the Naxalite ideology should not be underestimated, he pointed out. It remains attractive among the youth, the urban and semi urban populations.

The ideology in recent times has not translated into violence, yet we must still meet this challenge, he said. “They are the most experienced in improvised explosives after the LTTE. They are in decline in one sense, but the ideology is not in decline. The Naga insurgency is more or less quiet, but these subdued concerns could well get reignited because of CAA & NRC” Mr Narayanan said.

Economic challenges are being taken for granted, Narayanan felt. “There is a lack of economic planning that is disconcerting. Though we may be doing better than EU, unless we sustain economic growth rate of 8%, several internal challenges will come to the fore. These will further result in major convulsions in the security challenges,” he warned. 

Democracy, soft-power

“India’s soft power is that it remained a democracy and a vibrant democracy at that. The Indian Constitution is one of the finest in the world, it took into account the diversity of India and ensured every caste and community felt an integral part of India. Our democratic credentials are being criticised by the rest of the world,” Narayan reflected.

In conclusion the former NSA said, “We are at an inflection point. Will we get back on the path to recovery? This must concern us all. The essence of a democracy is that its government listens to its people and their concerns.” Listening diffuses a tense situation, he recommended.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Independent Researcher, Chennai

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