Geopolitics

Emerging Asian Security Environment
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Issue Vol 24.1 Jan-Mar2009 | Date : 05 Sep , 2012

To address the security challenges that Asia faces, the question needs to be asked whether any coherent concept of Asian security exists. Is Asia an integrated geographical entity, are its security challenges interlinked across the continent and can structures be established that could address them in their totality? In actual fact, there is no clarity even about the geographical frontiers of Asia.

On the western side, where does Asia end? In Israel? On the eastern side, the position is clearer. Asia can be said to end with Japan. But here too fluidity has been given to the definition of Asia by crafting an Asia-Pacific region. This makes for inclusion of not only Australia and New Zealand, but also accommodates the US in a broader Asian framework.

…the most important development is China’s inexorable rise. This is already changing the balance of power in Asia. A growing power may attract apprehensions, but it also attracts engagement.

The oddity is that the concept of Asia-Pacific excludes South Asia and countries west to it, which constitutes a major part of Asia. A further complication is that the West identifies Asia frequently with countries inhabited by people of Mongoloid stock. India is seen as part of a shared Indo-European identity, particularly in linguistic terms, and gets separated from Asia. Countries to the east of India are seen as forming a more coherent political and strategic space, with China and Japan providing the fulcrum. The US has promoted this kind of discrete view of Asia, as it has suited its political, military and economic strategy. India has been excluded from Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). India was excluded even from Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), until very recently when India attended the latest ASEM meeting in Beijing. Such an illogical approach has held sway despite the obvious fact that India is the second largest country of Asia and has marked the Asian cultural, linguistic and religious identity equally, if not more than China.

We call the Middle East, West Asia, which clearly means that we include it in Asia. There are many who would consider this region distinct from Asia from the security point of view, and in a category of its own because of Israel and the critical strategic importance of this geographical space full of hydrocarbon resources. Whether the Arabs have a strong sense of an Asian identity is not entirely clear. They have, certainly, a much stronger sense of an Arab identity. Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, is an African country. Much of the politics of West Asia has been traditionally influenced by Egypt, though Saudi Arabia’s money diplomacy is skillful and as custodian of the Muslim holy places, its stature is unique. North African countries are all Arab. Dividing the Arab world into Asian and African would, in the eyes of Arab strategists, weaken the unity of the Arab world and disaggregate the holistic view they take of their security. Arab solidarity is distinct from Asian solidarity.

The Arab world has been highly self-centered in its security concerns. It has leveraged successfully its Islamic linkages with Asian countries as well as the broad anti-western sentiments harboured by many of them because of colonial history and manipulation of regional politics by the West, to support Arab causes, especially the Palestinian cause. It has been called upon to give little in return, not the least because Asia is too divided, lacks a common political platform and does not have one single issue, like the Palestinian one, which represents Asia’s conscience and gives it a sense of victimhood vis a vis the West in particular. Even in terms of energy security, the Arab oil producers have been unmindful of the impact of their policies on developing Asia countries.

Japan’s political and military ambitions are not contrary to our interests; they are a problem for China. The security cooperation agreement we have recently signed with Japan is a step in the right direction.

The Arab have benefitted greatly over the years from political support from India for the Palestinian cause, without commensurate political returns on issues of vital concern to it, whether relations with Pakistan, the J&K issue or oil related matters. India’s concern about Israeli security has been essentially pro forma. In recent years the contours of India’s West Asian policies have changed, partly because the Palestinians themselves have relied on US and Europe to find solutions to the Arab-Israeli confrontation and support from countries like India and the non-aligned world has become of secondary importance, and partly because of improved relations between India and Israel. If with regard to Israel, India’s policy has become more pragmatic, so is the case of its stepped up engagement with the Gulf countries where India has security interests that range from its large expatriate population in this region, the sizeable remittances they send back home, trade and access to energy resources.

Terrorism in West Asia directed at Israel has become wider in its operational scope. It has now become a serious security problem for the West because of its continued support for Israel as well as the presence of large Muslim populations in European countries. The US assault on Iraq was seen as one more instance of western double standards in dealing with Arab countries on the one hand, and Israel, on the other. This has greatly aggravated the problem of terrorism associated with religious extremism not only for the US but the western world in general. The first Iraq war leading to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil led to the rise of Al Qaida, leading subsequently to the September 11, 2001 attacks against the US, which in turn led to US military intervention in Afghanistan, with all the security consequences this has engendered for the South Asian region.

The Iranian nuclear question is raising disturbing questions about the future security of the Gulf region. US, Europe, and even Russia, view Iran’s nuclear ambitions as unacceptable. Israel is pushing for military action against Iran before it crosses the nuclear pale. The Arab countries are greatly concerned, especially in the context of sharper Shia-Sunni rivalry in the region consequent to developments in Iraq. It is hoped that with Obama taking over the reins in the US, and elections in Iran later in the year, the worst would be averted in the region. Iran is pursuing a high-risk strategy, with US and Europe unable to find a counter. Because US is embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, its capacity to open a third front with Iran, which will aggravate its existing problems in dealing with the situation in the other two countries, is severely limited.

Terrorism in West Asia directed at Israel has become wider in its operational scope. It has now become a serious security problem for the West because of its continued support for Israel…

We now have Central Asia as a recently emerged strategic space, with its own security challenges. On the one hand, these countries, with the protective Soviet cover gone, are now more exposed to threats from Islamic fundamentalism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other, they are exposed to the danger of being brought into the orbit of a resurgent Russia, which would compromise their independence, and, of course, to the threat of Chinese over lordship. They are largely seen as weak, dysfunctional states, barring Kazakhstan, and as they are land locked to boot, their security environment is peculiarly hazardous.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has sandwiched Central Asian states between Russia and China, with both the giants keeping an eye on each other in this strategic space between them. China is more advantageously placed because of its greater financial resources and therefore pushes its economic agenda. Russia, to maintain its diminshed influence, pushes the security agenda. The US has inserted itself in the region mainly to have access to its hydrocarbon resources, without having to depend on Russia. To achieve this, the links of these countries with Russia have to be weakened and one way to do this has been to accelerate the transition of these countries to democracy, a project that has failed. The US effort to push these countries towards greater linkages to South Asia as part of the US’s Greater Central Asia project is seen with great suspicion by Moscow.

With the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan and fears of Pakistan’s collapse, this policy seems to have lost its immediate thrust, but Russia would watch closely if the feeling of obligation towards the US because of the nuclear deal leads to Indian military involvement in Afghanistan, as some elements in our strategic community seem to be advocating. Such a course of action would be ill advised for India as we would be backing US/NATO/European action in Afghanistan without being in control of policy and the ultimate goals of the intervention. We would have, in the process, created doubts in the minds of Russia, Iran, as well as the Islamic world about the new orientation of our strategic choices. Russia would expect India to determine its Afghan policy in cognizance of the shared interests of both countries in a neutral and independent Afghanistan and in preventing the return to power there of the Taliban. India would be expected to do nothing to weaken Russia’s overall position in the region.

By gaining access to this region in the aftermath of September 11 for the purpose of ousting the Taliban regime and combating terrorism, the US has gained a strategic foothold from which it will not allow itself to be dislodged easily. This enables it to check-mate Russian and Chinese hegemony in the region, a goal to which the Central Asian countries would not be averse so long as the US crusade for democracy does not destabilize the local regimes. The Russians, with Chinese support, have already, within the SCO, demanded the US to put a time frame for its departure from the region. However, this call has lost its insistence lately. On the contrary, reports are appearing about US effort to acquire more base facilities in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in order to reduce dependence on Pakistan for transporting supplies to its troops in Afghanistan.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary of India

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