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“South Asia: Evolving Regional Dynamics”

  • Category
    India & world
  • Published
    18th Mar, 2020

Context

Regional dynamics in South Asia have been rapidly evolving. The manifestations of these shifts in the geopolitical environment can be analysed through four prominent regional developments.

Background

  • The worsening tensions between the US and Iran following the American drone attack killing Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General.
  • Rapidly deepening Chinese footprint in South Asia, fueled by the desire to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is another regional development with global implications.
  • The emergence of the US Exit Strategy is another significant development impacting the geopolitical situations in South Asia.
  • The changing dynamic of Indo-Pak Relations is another significant issue impacting the region as a whole.

Analysis

US-Iran Tensions

  • The worsening tensions between the US and Iran following the American drone attack killing Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commander of its Quds Force, has very strong regional reverberations for South Asia, particularly Afghanistan, which could be made a target for reprisals. 
  • More than 10,000 US troops are currently stationed across the eastern Iranian border in Afghanistan. 
  • Possibilities of Iran’s potential proxy partners (Fatemiyoun Division, for instance, a militia mainly comprising Afghan Shias deployed by Tehran in Syria to fight the ISIS between 2013-17) carrying out reprisals on the US troops cannot be ruled out. 
  • It is noticeable that Iran has provided an episodic level of support to the Afghan Taliban, owing to the shared enmity of the Afghan Taliban and Iran against the US. 
  • There have been documented instances of the Iranian support to the Afghan Taliban in terms of small arms and training. 
  • Further complicating situations, the successor of Soleimani, General Esmail Ghaani, who overlooked the Quds Force operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a man who holds significant experience in the region. 
  • A resultant emergence of a proxy war in the region could lead to destabilisation, thus impacting all of South Asia.
  • Moreover, the deep diasporic and economic ties between the Middle East and South Asia, India and Pakistan in particular, increase the regional relevance of the issue. 
  • The Arab Gulf region is home to nearly 9 million Indian workers; 2/3rds of India’s oil imports and almost half of its LNG imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz – a choke point near Iran. 
  • There is a high possibility that Iran could attack ships near this chokepoint, all of it collectively impacting India’s energy security, diaspora and trade.

Deepening Chinese Footprint in South Asia

  • Rapidly deepening Chinese footprint in South Asia, fuelled by the desire to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is another regional development with global implications. 
  • China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance, the most operational elements of BRI, had its second phase launched in Pakistan last year, incidentally following the strident criticism by the United States. 
  • In the last visit of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to China, 9 new agreements focusing on increasing cooperation in the domains of energy and technologies were signed. 
  • Chinese presence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar too is a secret no more. 
  • Over 33 new agreements were signed on the recent visit of the Chinese Premier to Myanmar to speed up infrastructure and BRI projects – China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) being central to this development.
  • Interestingly, China has been recently increasing its influence in areas beyond its traditional presence. In Nepal, for example, China is currently the top investor. 
  • The current project of a 16-km road project to encourage trade between China and Nepal is one such instance. 
  • China is also funding the construction of Nepal’s second international airport – the Nijgadh International Airport.
  • Besides this, Doklam can be considered as a significant event in the geopolitics of South Asia. It can be seen as a rare instance of a third country involvement in military engagement between India and China – Bhutan.

Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan

  • The emergence of the US Exit Strategy is another significant development impacting the geopolitical situations in South Asia. 
  • However, a plan is now in place for an eventual phased withdrawal of the US troops. 
  • There have been direct talks between the US and the Taliban for over a year for the troop withdrawal deal. 
  • It is expected that a deal may be concluded soon. Another more likely possibility, if the talks between the US and Taliban stumble, is that the USA might initiate a unilateral withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. 
  • This would allow the US to maintain a minimum presence of troops for training and counterinsurgency purposes a move that the Taliban might not agree to. 
  • The US would see it significant to maintain some presence on Afghan soil, but the Taliban’s clear stand of absolute withdrawal could threaten the peace process. 
  • In either case, we are heading closer to a post-America Afghanistan, or one towards a much lighter American presence.

Changing Indo-Pak Dynamics

  • The changing dynamic of Indo-Pak Relations is another significant issue impacting the region as a whole. 
  • The repeal of Article 370 has worsened the already tensed Indo-Pak Relations, following the Pulwama and Balakot Strikes last year. 
  • Possibilities of Pakistani provocation have consequentially increased. 
  • Pakistan has been so far raising a diplomatic offensive, trying to garner sympathy around Kashmir and generate global pressure against India, although in vain. 
  • Much to Pakistan’s displeasure, what is left for potential discussion is the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This has left Pakistan with limited options of destabilising India through its proxy non-state military actors. 
  • Although, it must be noted that it has been slightly under pressure following its grey-listing post-FATF proceedings.
  • Additionally, it could try to target Indian interests in Afghanistan, owing to its leverage in the region concerning its relations with the Afghan Taliban.

Conclusion

The regional developments underscore the geopolitical significance of the region, thus highlighting the reason why the region is so deeply embedded in global affairs. South Asia comprises more than 1/5th of the world’s population and 15 per cent of global economic growth. The growing Chinese presence is prominent. The Indo-Pacific strategy gaining increasing significance in American foreign policy considerations only testify this fact. Inclusion of all of South Asia in Indo-Pacific translates of the emerging significance of South Asia for the US, as well as in the global context.

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