Predicting the future in a confusing security environment is a challenge; with all the present fusions and fissions, it becomes even more challenging. The consistencies and inconsistencies, always, do not have a happy conclusion; the reason is obvious, the future is yet to happen! However, an analysis of strategic trends coupled with sound judgement does assist in minimising future shocks. The prospective outlook, however, can be affected by a flood of unpredictable trends, which inter-relate and inter-react dynamically, affecting sound analysis, and judgement. Some judgements and decisions, hence, factor in a few uncertainties and unforeseeable events, caused by quirks of human actions, but which, on occasions, can be reversed.
The region, importantly South Asia, is fundamentally important to the global development. If present trends continue, China and India, in all certainty, will be the two dominant nations in the Asian region.
Security decisions, per se, generally have long gestation, since security today has an all-encompassing definition. Decisions are normally taken with a studied and comprehensive risk analysis, and rightly so; weapon systems and platforms can take more than 15-20 years to design and produce, with substantial capital investment in the R&D, following which, retention in service could be for at least 30 years into the future, or even more. Alongside such an analysis, have to be attempts to look into the occurrences that could shape the environment, within which all agencies of the security establishment and the decision-making apparatus, would have to act.
The challenge is not in responding to what we come to know today, for that would be reactive; rather, one should be proactive by preparing for what tomorrow might bring. Approaches delve into, and identify the potential security challenges with an aim to suggest a suitable response. The process of identifying threats, challenges, and defence and security implications for policy and decision-makers, through the impact of human ingenuity, to influence future actions is essential, as forewarned is forearmed!
Looking out towards a decade or so ahead, the opportunities and challenges seem to be plentiful, as is seen today, and at times may even appear as overwhelming; yet what the future holds for the world is beyond predictions even for the best of analysts, commentators, strategists or astrologers. Asia, by itself, is so vast and diverse, and geographically fragmented that it is near impossible to analyse Asia as a whole, for this reason, the restriction of the area of interest. This Paper, hence, is not an astrologer’s attempt to predict the future; rather, it would attempt to analyse some of the occurrences and the indicated trends in the region of India’s attention, namely South and SE Asia. The challenge of crystal ball gazing for 30 years ahead, or even a decade ahead, cannot be overstated. The definition of the region for the purposes of the Paper, highlights the significance of two obvious poles of power: China and India. The examination confirms that the critical path for the whole region is defined by their future development. All the South and SE Asian economies will be affected, to some degree, by the performance of the Chinese and Indian economies and how they interact with India and China. This Paper notes that China and India will likely endure as significant economic, political, cultural, and military actors. An argument may be put forth that in a globalised and intensely networked world, interests are no longer localised; but in an area as large as Asia, the self-imposed restriction is itself a daunting task.
Over the next 10-20 years, the Western nations will need to consider carefully the continuing shift of global power from the West to the East and accordingly reconfigure their security policies and associated capabilities.
South and SE Asia : The Current Dynamics
The world has increasingly destabilized and it is necessary to try to understand, as clearly as possible, what has happened and why. This is not because the world is uniquely disorderly; it is that disorder takes a different form each time, and the form it takes, is always complex!
The emergent question of securing and resolving non-conventional security issues, such as global warming, environmental damage, and tackling virulent diseases, has received the due attention in recent times. This has been largely due to the effects of globalisation, spread of information technology, international travel, and the extended reach of the media; resolution of such issues, at times, has been through multi-lateral solutions when delayed due to inadequate national or bi-lateral response. Other non-traditional threats, such as terrorism, human trafficking, and other transnational crimes, however, continue to plague many regions of the world; the distinction between the traditional and non-traditional security threats is blurred when conventional forces are used to combat the latter.
The region, importantly South Asia, is fundamentally important to the global development. If present trends continue, China and India, in all certainty, will be the two dominant nations in the Asian region. Their economies would be the two largest contributors to the world, and the region’s GDP, while Japan would be the third from the region. USA would likely maintain a close economic relationship with both India and China. Over the next 10-20 years, therefore, the Western nations will need to consider carefully the continuing shift of global power from the West to the East and accordingly reconfigure their security policies and associated capabilities. China will continue to enjoy the benefits of a ‘demographic dividend’ over the same period, but is unlikely to benefit as much as India with its larger and younger population. Significant demographic challenges would surface for China thereafter, as its population ages and requires greater welfare support from the State; the recent revoking of the “One-Child Rule”
The growing strategic and economic significance of South Asia is likely to lead to a reorientation of US Government and business interests, with the US becoming more ‘Pacific’ than ‘Atlantic-focussed’.
There are encouraging trends for cooperation among the regional powers of the region, especially with deeper economic integration. China and India, for some time now, have embarked on confidence building measures (CBM), to resolve the long-standing dispute along the international boundary, though not with much success. However, China’s stubborn stand in the South China Sea has seen a flare-up of tensions in the region, making all nations chary of its designs. The reality facing the region is that China will only continue to grow and a relationship with China has to be with a tilt in its favour. The Chinese economic slowdown will continue to be the single greatest source of economic difficulty in South and Southeast Asia, though impacted countries will still be compelled to balance their economic dependence on China with their growing security reliance on the United States. Even as China’s economic growth slows, it will use its muscle power to offer incentives to push the regional nations to cooperate, warning them of both economic and military consequences in the event of any resistance.
The rise of China and India will alter the dynamics of international relations, most significantly with regard to how the US engages with these emerging powers. US military operations are likely to continue in South and SE Asia, especially in the South China Sea; however, these operations, in all probability, would be increasingly contested by China. The growing strategic and economic significance of South Asia is likely to lead to a reorientation of US Government and business interests, with the US becoming more ‘Pacific’ than ‘Atlantic-focussed’.
The emergence of China and India, would also, but naturally, lead to heightened tensions between the two nations, and their neighbours; the tensions, if not carefully and diplomatically managed, could spill over to brief skirmishes. Examples abound in plenty; disputes between China and adjoining nations exist in the East and South China Sea, between China and India on border issues, between India and Pakistan over the sovereignty of Kashmir and the existing tensions between the two Koreas, though strictly not a part of the region under discussion. The risk, hence, of a State-on-State conflict cannot be discounted.
High levels of socio-economic inequality, based upon class, ethnicity, and religion would be the primary sources of tension across the region, affecting overall governance and even stability.
Terrorism and insurgency will remain the tier-one national security threat worldwide, as also within the region, with a variety of terrorist organisations continuing operations in the region. High levels of socio-economic inequality, based upon class, ethnicity, and religion would be the primary sources of tension across the region, affecting overall governance and even stability. The Asia-Pacific region may be the fastest economically growing region in the world, but it also has a long history of dealing with terrorism. The infamous 9/11 attacks on US soil were both a blessing and a blight for some in the area, with US aid pouring in for those nations that had been earlier plagued by this menace, and US-aided attacks on others, which were “against the US”. Heightened violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan has made South Asia the epicentre of international terrorism and ideological extremism; the hydra-headed monster spreads its tentacles from this region to nations far and near. The insurgent and terrorist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to continue, and even grow, in the coming years. Current trends indicate that terrorism, apart from inter-State tensions, would persist to bother South and SE Asia, with South Asia continuing to be a source of terrorist threats.
ASEAN would continue to be active in promoting economic cooperation within the region. The ASEAN Community, which comprises the ASEAN Economic Community, the ASEAN Political-Security Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, is likely to be launched sometime in 2016. This initiative strives to bring more interconnectivity, prosperity, trade, and stability to the ten member states of ASEAN and their residents, and through them to their immediate neighbours. If the ASEAN Community experiment sees early successes, the world may see the emergence of a unified South East Asian economic bloc—a development that should surely transform the thinking of observers about the economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific. India, under the new Government since 2014, has been seeking greater economic and security cooperation with ASEAN nations, through its “Look East” policy, which is now in the process of being transformed to “Act East” policy.
If China is able to maintain defence spending at its current levels, despite its economic slowdown, the level of its defence spending may equal, or even rise beyond that of USA.
South Asia requires a stable security environment for its economic growth. The main goal of India’s foreign policy in 2016 and beyond, will be securing foreign direct investment in support of the “Make in India” campaign and “Act East” policy, seeking to strengthen bilateral ties with the ASEAN, Japan and the Western nations. Closer to home, within the SAARC nations, Indian relations with Nepal and Pakistan would have to be stabilised. The ever-volatile security environment is unlikely to escalate beyond an occasional ‘encounter’ over Kashmir, but India’s security concerns about Afghanistan, and the continuing infiltration of jihadi elements into India, will obviate any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan.
Pakistan, the other major nation in South Asia, supported by a soft loan from the International Monetary Fund and buoyed by existing low oil prices, would try to maintain its current growth rate; however, a weak business environment, lack of reforms in the country’s distressed energy sector, and internal insurgency with sporadic terror attacks, could inhibit further growth. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, both essential projects for the economic growth of Pakistan, are not likely to see much progress in spite of growing political support for them. The same is also true for the China-Pakistan economic corridor, which includes a series of projects designed to link China’s western Xinjiang province with the port city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea; the main reason being the location of Gwadar in strife-torn Baluchistan.
All trends indicate that USA would continue as the sole superpower, though its influence may fade, just that wee bit. However, China and India as ‘great rising powers’ of the region, will continue to equip themselves with modern, capable and robust defence forces over the period, though, of course, not matching the US. If China is able to maintain defence spending at its current levels, despite its economic slowdown, the level of its defence spending may equal, or even rise beyond that of USA. A fundamental question that the Armed Forces of the region will have to ask of themselves, is what would be their shape and structure in the near to medium term future? An examination of current trends yields no definitive answers; nevertheless, they do provide clues to the challenges that the regional armed forces will face, as they seek their answers. Situations where the ‘old’ West and the ‘new’ East meet each other, are likely to increase, especially in the domains where China shows greater interest, namely, cyberspace, space, Middle East resources, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
What with the messy situation that exists in the world today with the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the growth of the ISIS and associated terrorism, the ‘containment’ of Russia all over again, the return of Iran to the mainstream and other such instances, South and SE Asia cannot remain isolated.
In particular, three sets of issues will have to be addressed by the regional armed forces, to find answers to the questions regarding their future shape and structure. As it stands, the levels of technological sophistication in the armed forces of the area, can best be described as mixed. Some have maintained close tabs with the cutting edge of global military technology trends; however, other national armed forces remain mired in long-obsolete technological capabilities and legacy systems. What further complicates the technological issue is the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The RMA is pushing the cutting edge of military technologies towards very exotic directions, which are not simple and are very expensive to acquire, requiring address of other issues such as, social and education policies, national economic conditions, amongst others, which are not within the purview of armed forces.
It has been repeated ad nauseam that the 21st century is the ‘century of Asia’, whether it is divided into segments or considered as a whole. The longstanding perception that South and SE Asia are on the backburner of US strategic agenda does not hold water today. Yes, USA, as the sole power after the end of the Cold War, has engaged nations of this region according to its security concerns; nevertheless, which country does not first address its own concerns? The power dynamics and evolving concepts of security within this region have grown to merit a second look.
The continuing rise of emerging powers such as China and India, as well as the resurgence of Russia, will increase their influence in States and regions surrounding them, as well as beyond. What with the messy situation that exists in the world today with the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the growth of the ISIS and associated terrorism, the ‘containment’ of Russia all over again, the return of Iran to the mainstream and other such instances, South and SE Asia cannot remain isolated. Just as economists have found that markets in the real world are imperfect, diplomats, and security officials have also found that they too would have to adjust to the disorder of a rapidly changing environment. Unlike the certainties of the Cold War, the decade ahead is likely to be marked by shifting coalitions, based on the temporary sharing of interests. Flexibility, innovation, and the ability to adjust rapidly to changing circumstances will be the hallmark of effective policy-making.
Crystal ball gazing into the future has become a trend. Many projections, however, tend to look too far ahead. What will our region – South and SE Asia – look like, a decade or so, ahead?