October 2, 2022

Epilogue 2021: India Shines in the Strategic Canvas

Here the important point is India’s strategic gains in 2021. This is related to the series of incidents happened in South East Asia, West Asia, East Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The role played by India in different strategic fronts has generated substantial outputs. The credit definitely goes to the strategic and diplomatic genius of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee

“Oṃ Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaḥ
Sarve Santu Nirāmayāḥ
Sarve Bhadrāṇi Paśyantu Mā Kaścidduḥ Khabhāgbhaveta
Oṃ Sāntiḥ Sāntiḥ Sānti”

(May all be in peace, no one suffers from illness, May all see the auspicious, May peace, peace and only peace prevails all around.)

                  This hour is uttering these eternal hymns as time is ticking with enhanced concern and insecurity in these dying days of 2021. Threat of war is looming large on Ukraine. In the gambit of establishing military supremacy for ideological biasness, Ukraine has become scapegoat. But this has been the destiny of international community in every age as the ultimate stakeholders of the world remain silent spectators of deaths, bloodsheds and destructions. Existing system of prioritizing ideological whims more than accountability to fellow citizens often jeopardizes human values and interests. No, this is not emotional hype. The concerning situations do not allow to be romantic about nationality or against war. However, fact is: peace can never be a matter of debate. Peace is unalterable necessity.

                  But one of the biggest takeaways of 2021 is certainly reemergence of Russia against United States and NATO. There are certain points that create advantageous situation for Russia in Ukraine border. Russia’s preparedness in Ukraine shows President Putin has taken calculated risk. Significantly, Moscow has made it clear that Russian military escalation in Ukraine border is not to occupy but to restrict Ukraine becoming part of NATO rather to keep Ukraine as a buffer State between Russia and NATO. Russian aggression in Ukraine border and States that attained sovereignty after the fall of Soviet Union has been going on for a long time. But the aggression has converted into a war-like situation in 2021 and there are obvious reasons behind this. One is certainly Putin attaining the status of new age Lenin who will rule Russia rest of his life. Other one is: Russia-China enhanced partnership. Significantly, Xi Jinping has also got the authority to rule China for the rest of his life. So also, the days of competition between Russia and China for the status of exponent of Communism exist no longer. 2021 replaced the decades-long competition to co-operation between Russia and China. But the most important point is: this year exposed some inherent weaknesses of NATO. This includes structural weakness of NATO nations of Europe, indigenous military capabilities of Europe, US policy of keeping European NATO members militarily and strategically weak, lack of consensus among European NATO  nations, public opinion of European NATO  nations not to engage in unnecessary conflict to extend US agenda and so on. Naturally, all these make Russia’s position stronger in Ukraine and NATO seems facing another humiliation like the one in Afghanistan on the eve of 2022.

                   But here the important point is India’s strategic gains in 2021. This is related to the series of incidents happened in South East Asia, West Asia, East Asia and the Indian Ocean regions. The role played by India in different strategic fronts has generated substantial outputs. The credit definitely goes to the strategic and diplomatic genius of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. In fact, S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval have recalibrated India’s strategic doctrine and the ways to harvest the maximum in recent years. Mr. Jaishankar is definitely the man of the year in 2021 global strategic domain. Let see some of the substantive achievements of India in this field in 2021.   

On Afghanistan Crisis:  

               One of the biggest developments of 2021 was certainly formal US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But just after America formally withdrew from Afghanistan, India enhanced her diplomatic ventures. American military troops began to leave from Bagram Airfield on July, 02, this year resulting surge in volatility and insecurity in the entire region.  External Affairs Minister S.  Jaishankar made an important visit to Russia on July 7 and held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Afghanistan situation on the backdrop of US withdrawal.  During the joint press conference, Mr. Jaishankar said, “In terms of specific regions, Afghanistan occupied our lot of attention because it has a direct implication for regional security. If we have to seek peace within Afghanistan and around, it’s important for India and Russia to work together to ensure that much of the progress in economic, social terms are maintained. We are committed to an independent, sovereign and democratic Afghanistan.” Mr. Jaishankar also stated about the role UN Security Council should play regarding Afghan crisis. Jaishankar stated very categorically, “in terms of regional and global issues, India is poised to hold the Presidency of the Security Council in August. So I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov our plans and ideas for that month.  We obviously value Russian participation and co-operation in that regard. I would say in the UN Security Council, it is not a surprise, it is a natural happening that we have worked very co-operatively and very positively. So the strength of our strategic partnership I think is also today expressed when it comes to deliberation in the UN.”  This definitely proves India batting well in the tricky pitch of international strategic affairs and sent a clear message to all the stakeholders regarding Afghan issue. So also, during the same visit Mr. Jaishankar met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif discussed Afghan situation. Significantly, during the visit of Mr. Jaishankar to Russia and Iran, Taliban diplomatic delegations were present in both the countries.

This definitely proves India batting well in the tricky pitch of international strategic affairs and sent a clear message to all the stakeholders regarding Afghan issue. So also, during the same visit Mr. Jaishankar met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif discussed Afghan situation. Significantly, during the visit of Mr. Jaishankar to Russia and Iran, Taliban diplomatic delegations were present in both the countries.

                   This is true that in the following months, efforts were made to keep India out of the Afghan affairs. American policy of making Pakistan the most important stakeholder in Afghanistan kept India out of the Afghan affairs for some time. Meanwhile, India adopted wait and watch policy with close looks in Afghan affairs. India rather saw it an opportunity to harness in another field and when time came put it into use. I shall come to that point later in this piece. But with the passing time it became evident that India’s role in Afghan affairs cannot be replaced by Pakistan. So also, India maintained back-channel relations with Taliban leadership. The process began in June, 2021. The Outlook reported on September 1, 2021 that in August, India held its first formal and publicly acknowledged meeting with Taliban in which Indian Ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal took part. The Outlook reported that the MEA said the Taliban representative assured on key issues; return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan, assurance of  Afghan soil not to be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner. So also, Taliban leadership expressed willingness to maintain trade, economic and political relations with India. In the same report Outlook stated, “External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on August 20 held talks with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on the Afghan crisis during a stopover in Doha on his way back home from a four-day visit to the US.”  The report also stated, “In view of the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Modi recently directed that a high-level group comprising of External Affairs Minister, the National Security Adviser and senior officials focus on the immediate priorities of India.– It is seized of issues pertaining to the safe return of stranded Indians, the travel of Afghan nationals (especially minorities) to India, and assuring that the territory of Afghanistan is not used in any manner for terrorism directed against India.”

               As the winter came futility of America-Pakistan collaboration to resolve Afghan crisis came prominently. Miserable condition of the Afghan masses because of extreme shortage of food, cloth and shelter evolved. India raised the issue on international forums and tactically executed her aid diplomacy regarding Afghanistan. India evolved as the only country to provide humanitarian aid to innocent Afghan masses. Although, Imran Khan administration initially denied India accessing Pakistani route to send Indian aids to Afghanistan, but under mounting global pressure Imran administration had to allow this. Now in the given time, India has evolved as the friend in need for Afghanistan which ultimately made India important stakeholder in Afghanistan along with Iran. So also, Russia and China accepted India’s role and appreciated New Delhi’s gestures to stand with the people of Afghanistan. Significantly, this year Mr. Jaishankar chaired the 18th RIC (Russia, India and China) Foreign Ministers meet in which he made a very categorical statement; there should be no politics regarding aids to Afghanistan. Thus, 2021 ends with India becoming most important stakeholder in Afghanistan taking into confidence Iran, Russia, China and Taliban. This subdued United States-Pakistan misadventure in Afghanistan. Hence, this is a major diplomatic success for India in 2021.

             On Kashmir Front :

                            It was apprehended that after Taliban regaining control in Afghanistan, volatility would increase in Kashmir. This proved to be true to certain extent as a series of terror attack happened and some of our soldiers courted martyrdom. But significant point is: India succeeded in minimizing the subversive activities both through strategic and military positioning as well as taking Taliban leadership into confidence. Attacks were executed mainly by Pakistan. India responded strongly that subdued Pakistani agenda. So also, internal situation in Kashmir remained very much under control of New Delhi throughout 2021. Hence, despite losing some of her heroes in Kashmir front, India’s strategic gain is commendable which will certainly impact future discourses related to Kashmir and beyond.

Balancing Ties with US and Russia :

         Balancing relations with US and Russia has been toughest challenge in 2021. But Indian strategy navigated this with perfections. In fact, during the last few years America’s relations with India proved to be Washington’s strategic compulsion both in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Naturally, India-US relations evolved on a solid platform. This is what adversely impacted India’s traditional relations with Russia. But US withdrawal from Afghanistan and US engaging in direct military conflict with Russia in Ukraine provided India the opportunity to engage Russia afresh. I have already mentioned Mr. Jaishankar’s Russia visit and the takeaways. Apart from Afghanistan issue, another important agenda of that visit was to eradicate Russian prejudices regarding QUAD. So also, present Russia knows that in case of expanding its trade relations particularly exporting arms jointly manufactured by India-Russia in India where Moscow has made huge investment, India holds a key position. Naturally, during all engagement defence procurement and logistic deals figured prominently between India and Russia. During President Putin’s recent India visit, both the issues; QUAD and India-Russia defence partnerships emerged prominently. India succeeded in convincing Russia that QUAD can never be used against Russian interests so long India remains there. India’s strategy was convincing Putin that India being an important member of QUAD serves Russian interests against any misadventure by US against Russia in the Indian Ocean. Significantly, after these engagements, Russians did not seem uttering that much concerns about QUAD. So also, US knows that there are many things at stake in the vast part of the Indian Ocean considering Chinese strategy and under no circumstance US can ignore India’s role there. Thus strategy of convincing Russia and utilizing America’s compulsion India successfully balanced her ties with both the nations. This is really a remarkable strategic success of India in 2021.

Significantly, this year Mr. Jaishankar chaired the 18th RIC (Russia, India and China) Foreign Ministers meet in which he made a very categorical statement; there should be no politics regarding aids to Afghanistan. Thus, 2021 ends with India becoming most important stakeholder in Afghanistan taking into confidence Iran, Russia, China and Taliban. This subdued United States-Pakistan misadventure in Afghanistan. Hence, this is a major diplomatic success for India in 2021.

Silencing China and Pakistan:   

                  Last few months of 2021 did not see that much escalation from China against India. One reason is certainly Taiwan and of course Tibet. Taiwan President set the tune against China this year making international community heed present state of Taiwan; its power in three wings of arm forces, capabilities of making military logistics, having indigenous submarine development capability, offensive against Chinese naval force, killing some of the Chinese naval forces in South China Sea and the claim to be important stakeholder in South China Sea. Importantly, both the Chinese loyal North Korea and Myanmar share maritime boundary with Taiwan and in the recent past Taiwan displayed naval strength against North Korea and Myanmar as well. Taiwan’s success has encouraged anti-China elements of Tibet. Second reason is, after Xi Jinping getting autocratic power and attaining the status of new age Mao Zedong, nations of East and Far East Asia became more skeptical about China and enhanced strategic pressure on China. Thirdly, a distinctive change was found among the ASEAN nations regarding China. In the last ASEAN meet, member States openly criticized China. Referring to the actions of three Chinese coast guard vessels blocking and using water cannon on resupply boats headed towards a Philippine-occupied atoll in the sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte struck an angry note at the summit and said,   “We abhor the recent event. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations.” President Xi had to face much embarrassment because of this. In an unusual manner Xi tried to convince the member States and said, “China was, is, and will always be a good neighbour, a good friend, and a good partner of Asean.  We need to pursue dialogue instead of confrontation, build partnerships instead of alliances. China firmly opposes hegemonism and power politics. China will never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries.  China supports Asean’s efforts to build a nuclear weapons-free zone and is prepared to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone as soon as possible.”    So also, situation in South China Sea evolved against Chinese interests because of the escalations of adjourning nations. Things became tougher for China in its strong-hold. In 2021, Beijing remained busy to maintain order of its own house. So also, India extended her mission Taiwan to take democratic countries into confidence to make strategic partnership with Taiwan. All these proved to be shot in the arms for Indian strategy against China in 2021. Beleaguered China remained confined to deal with the situation in its periphery. Situation was by no means convenient for China to show muscle against India compared to earlier years. This is undoubtedly subtle strategic game-plan India played against China through Taiwan, US-Taiwan ties, QUAD and above all deeper engagements with the ASEAN countries.

                                The above mentioned factors restricted China to enhance its ties with Pakistan. But here comes most important point that I have mentioned earlier that in the form of enhanced co-operations between United States and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan, India got a unique opportunity. Closer relation between US-Pakistan is the reason why the gap between China and Pakistan widened. So also, TLP killed some Chinese engineers in Pakistan just after Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan. For the Pakistani Taliban, Chinese agenda against Muslim community, state of Roohingya and others bear special significance. They vehemently oppose China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. These are the reasons China became less interested in Pakistan resulting an unusual silence regarding China’s Pakistan and Afghanistan agenda. Reports like corruption by the Imran administration with the fund for Covid-19 increased embarrassment for Pakistan. Pakistani economy kept staggering. So long, US aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan gave some hope to Imran. But today US is more concerned regarding Ukraine and President Biden or NATO has no time to think about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus, because of the cunning nature, Pakistan lost credibility both before China and United States. What can be more important strategic gain for India? 2021 is ending with the apprehension of Imran either losing power or his compulsion to get aligned with fanatic elements. Pakistan suffered unprecedented setbacks in the strategic front this year which proved to be shot in the arms for India’s strategic agenda to corner Pakistan and break the China-Pakistan nexus. This is perhaps the most important success for India in the strategic front in 2021.

                The above mentioned factors restricted China to enhance its ties with Pakistan. But here comes most important point that I have mentioned earlier that in the form of enhanced co-operations between United States and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan, India got a unique opportunity. Closer relation between US-Pakistan is the reason why the gap between China and Pakistan widened. So also, TLP killed some Chinese engineers in Pakistan just after Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan. For the Pakistani Taliban, Chinese agenda against Muslim community, state of Roohingya and others bear special significance. They vehemently oppose China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. These are the reasons China became less interested in Pakistan resulting an unusual silence regarding China’s Pakistan and Afghanistan agenda. Reports like corruption by the Imran administration with the fund for Covid-19 increased embarrassment for Pakistan. Pakistani economy kept staggering. So long, US aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan gave some hope to Imran. But today US is more concerned regarding Ukraine and President Biden or NATO has no time to think about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus, because of the cunning nature, Pakistan lost credibility both before China and United States. What can be more important strategic gain for India? 2021 is ending with the apprehension of Imran either losing power or his compulsion to get aligned with fanatic elements. Pakistan suffered unprecedented setbacks in the strategic front this year which proved to be shot in the arms for India’s strategic agenda to corner Pakistan and break the China-Pakistan nexus. This is perhaps the most important success for India in the strategic front in 2021.

Dealing Myanmar:

                     Situation in Myanmar turned against India’s interests as Myanmar’s military junta overturned democratically elected government and seized power by a military coup on 1 February 2021. Significantly, the military junta of Myanmar removed terrorist designation from the Arakan Army (AA) under Chinese pressure. Myanmar bears great strategic significance for India as country’s North-east based insurgent outfits have strong base in Myanmar. Naturally, Arakan Army getting privilege under the military regime encouraged India’s North-east based terror outfits. However, after this coup in Myanmar, India took a tactical approach. India decided to keep relations with the existing regime of Myanmar keeping aside ideological stand-point; democracy in Myanmar. Mr. Jaishankar spoke to Dato Haji Erywan in February 2021 after Brunei assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN . S. Jaishankar exchanged perspectives on Myanmar situation with Brunei. India supported ASEAN move to normalize situation in Myanmar. So also, S. Jaishankar continued back-channel diplomatic initiatives regarding Myanmar and tried to evolve consensus on the security issue there with American counterpart Tony Blinken, Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres . So also, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla called on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and exchanged views on regional situations, including Myanmar. India was among only eight countries which chose to send a representative to attend the Myanmar Armed Forces Day military parade in Naypyitaw on March 27. But for this, India had to face some criticism. Diplomacy is” when you are in Rome do as Romans do.” Democracy can never be the basis of making strategic partnership.

This discussion can never be complete without paying tribute to Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat. The success story in the strategic field proves that experts like S.  Jaishankar and Ajit Doval should handle such issues. Ordinary politicians should better be silent on such delicate issues. But India will definitely feel absence of Gen Bipin Rawat. Such loss can never be compensated. However, man of the hour and the year is definitely S. Jaishankar. Kudos to him and well wishes to our soft-spoken but extraordinary intelligent External Affairs Minister!

                      The year no doubt ends with lot positives in the strategic canvas for India. But efforts should be harnessing more in 2022. Similarly, there are some factors that do not focus that much success. Security  situation in India’s Northeastern region declined. The policy of making Assam BJP as the exponent of Northeast has backfired. Similarly, this policy initiated fresh turmoil regarding relationship and border-disputes among Northeastern States. Insurgency emerging in new shape certainly matter of grave concern for India. Although, India’s relations with Bangladeshi government remained cordial; some anti-India radical Islamic organizations remained pro-active in Bangladesh that executed subversive acts against minority community in Bangladesh. Some disturbing things happened in Tripura as well. Similarly, India’s land and river border with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan lack logistics till date. Vulnerability of these borders should be addressed through proper policies and it will be better to keep aside political rhetoric in this context. 2022 will definitely see new achievements in the strategic canvas of India. But one thing is evident; governance must not be affected by politics. This discussion can never be complete without paying tribute to Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat. The success story in the strategic field proves that experts like S.  Jaishankar and Ajit Doval should handle such issues. Ordinary politicians should better be silent on such delicate issues. But India will definitely feel absence of Gen Bipin Rawat. Such loss can never be compensated. However, man of the hour and the year is definitely S. Jaishankar. Kudos to him and well wishes to our soft-spoken but extraordinary intelligent External Affairs Minister! India’s strategic success will add new chapter by the upcoming endeavours of Mr. S. Jaishankar. I am looking forward to see Mr. Jaishankar more in action in 2022. What about you? Ending with lot of New Year wishes, may India rise and shine in 2022.    

-Shibdas Bhattacharjee is an Assam-based strategic affairs analyst. He writes his article under a specific category of “Sagacious Beholding.” The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://www.strategicaffairsindia.in          

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