Event ReportsPublished on Feb 14, 2019
Emerging China changing South Asia balance, says ex-NSA

“Tensions between countries are far higher today than at any time in the last half century,” observed M.K. Narayanan, former National Security Advisor (NSA) and ex-Governor of West Bengal. Delivering the keynote address at the national conclave on ‘National Security Perspectives’ held jointly by Observer Research Foundation, the Madras Management Association (MMA) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) at Chennai, on 5 February 2019, Narayanan pointed to a growing leadership vacuum caused by US President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ policy and rhetoric.

According to Narayanan, this, combined with a ‘Russian resurgence’, was beginning to disturb the global equilibrium of the post-Cold War era. The world outlook appeared bleak against a backdrop of renewed nuclear armament, climate-change challenges, a wave of extreme nationalism and uncertainty regarding international rules of conduct, he said.

Proper balance

Russia’s relations with the West, Narayanan felt, were at its lowest point. Consequently, Russia has forged a strategic partnership with China. This partnership and how it shapes up in the future will be of significance to the countries of Asia and in particular to India, he said. India is being forced “to strike a proper balance in its relations with Russia and the US”, he observed. He said, “It appears we are moving closer to the US and Russia is now closer to China.” Against this changing nature and balance of international relations, New Delhi’s main security challenge will be:  how should India manage relations with a rising and resurgent China in Asia?

China’s is attempting and to some extent succeeding in out-manoeuvring India in Asia and as a result the regional balance of South Asia is titling in China’s favour, assessed Narayanan.  This can be seen particularly in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar where China’s influence is growing in critical ways. South Asia’s security challenges are concomitantly growing with political wrangling in Sri Lanka, instability in Maldives and the remaining threat of radical Islamic forces in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s ever-growing closeness to China continues and will continue to concern India well into the future.

“Eternal vigilance is essential,” remarked Narayanan, particularly in maintaining the security of South Asia, but equally in neighbouring West Asia where new alignments are creating further uncertainty and volatility. Terrorism will remain the greatest threat to internal security, and cross-border terrorism will be India’s single biggest challenge.

In this context, Narayanan explored several internal threats faced by India, including the highest levels of violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the widespread unrest in the North East (caused in large part by the Citizenship Bill) as well as the agrarian and Dalit protests. He also discussed various external threats including challenges to maritime, nuclear and cyber security while focussing more closely on the dynamic domain of cyber security.

Cyber security

While the challenges to cyber security were myriad and almost occurring on aday-to-day basis in terms of data breeches, Narayanan said it was critical to focus on those cyber attacks that advance strategic goals i.e. those related to cyber espionage and cyber intelligence gathering. Narayanan believed the advantages accrued from 5g computers were far more in the terms of the military and intelligence capabilities than on the economic side.

“Those who are able to be the first movers in 5G computing will also take the lead in military and intelligence capabilities, with the potential to thwart other military technologies,” Narayanan said. In this regard, he recommended an in-depth study of the ‘Huawei controversy’ involving China and the US, which highlighted some of the core challenges of cyber security and the real issues in the debate on 5G computing.

Shifting contours

Narayanan explained: “The contours of national security were constantly shifting” as determinants of geopolitics and geo-economics intersected more frequently in today’s international system. The slowing down of the Chinese economy, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the spiralling trade war between the US and China were all creating an intimidating political climate, a ‘New Cold War’ which was impacting on India’s ability to achieve economic growth, and as a result it impacted severely on India’s security and diplomacy.

Extreme vigilance was the corner stone of national security, along with dexterity and deftness, “to handle problems before they become serious issues,” Narayanan concluded.

Maritime security

Peter Rimmele, Resident Representative to India, KAS, echoed the sentiment of many on the panel, that in the post-Cold War era, the security concerns of each nation had multiplied. He emphasised the importance of naval and maritime security, particularly as they related to trade routes and energy security.

Rimmele asked whether it was possible to improve maritime security through partnerships and wondered whether India should look to like-minded allies who believed in a world order based on rules? It was equally crucial to deliberate the ways in which we could reduce cyber security threats in an increasingly interconnected world, he stressed.

Comprehensive security

Lt-Gen V R Raghavan (retd), former Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Indian Army, said that national security was a concept that had expanded beyond the military dimension to include several other dimensions such as trade security, energy security, environmental security, political security and so on. In today’s inter-connected world, the economic dimension was the most important, he concluded. When talking about India’s national security we needed to use the term ‘Comprehensive Security.’ This was because when it came to the many internal and external challenges faced by India, a military solution was no longer viable he believed.

Restricted policy?

Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami, foreign Policy Analyst and Head of the Department of Media Studies, S R M University, Chennai, noted that the international system was no longer a picture of stability and order. As the INF treaty is set to expire, there is only more looming uncertainty in the future. It was difficult in this scenario to predict trends or patterns, particularly vis-à-vis the US policy in Afghanistan, which he noted had changed drastically.

Prof. Varun Sahni, Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, provided a granulated perspective on the core issues of India’s national security. He regretted in particular the delays related to the Agni-5, stressing his belief that “if there is a case to be made for a single weapons system that can fundamentally transform strategic and geo-political relations for India, it is the Agni-5.

Prof. Sahni outlined other roadblocks in India’s national security goals, which included organisational issues, such as the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), as also an integrated national defence university. Overall, he believed that in an era of strategic uncertainty, hedging was a reliable and rational strategy for India. He argued being simultaneously engaged in the QUAD, BRICS and the SCO, though, it may appear contradictory in superficial terms, was a good hedging strategy.

Kavitha D Chitthuri, Immediate Past President, Madras Management Association, in her welcome address, hoped the discussions at the conclave would form the basis of future discourse, at various levels of governance and also at the level of public opinion.

This report is prepared by Dr Vinitha Revi, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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