BRICS Expansion Geopolitics And India

BRICS Expansion, Geopolitics And India

BRICS concluded its 15th Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa last week. India is a key partner in the original BRICS and has been participant in the key highlight of the summit, the announcement of expansion of the group from January 1, 2024. The newly inducted members are as disparate as the original group. They comprise the United Arab Emirates, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Iran from West Asia, two Nile riparian countries of Egypt and Ethiopia from Africa and Argentina from South America.

If the inclusion of major oil producers from West Asia provides political heft and clout to the group, Egypt and Ethiopia represent African aspirations of representation in the global fora. Argentina, being an economic and financial struggler may be looking for revival through loans with less stringent conditions from BRICS’ New Development Bank.

The location of the BRICS countries and the new members is interesting, in terms of geopolitical reach. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also have been major beneficiaries of their strong linkages with the United States of America during Cold War and after. They facilitated US in West Asia and the Arab World. Now, it seems the tables have turned, perhaps, with the onset of a new Cold War. The second pole, however, this time comprises the formidable Russia-China alliance. Does BRICS expansion signal the return of the proverbial Chessboard vis-à-vis NATO? Or the BRICS is just an economic power bloc enhancing its energy prospects and geographical extent? What are the implications for India of the expanded membership? The article seeks to answer these questions.

BRICS’s fundamental aims since its conception have concentrated upon creating a new financial architecture in the international system. Gradually, however, it is acquiring a political character and has been concerned specifically with security issues in the international system. This is reflected in consecutive Summit Statements of recent years and political and security cooperation forms the most important pillar of collaboration in BRICS.

Owing to Russia-Ukraine war, this year’s summit acquires tremendous significance as none of the BRICS members have been openly critical of Russian actions. Russia intends to overcome the sanctions imposed by the United States and the West and thereby supports the expansion of BRICS. China benefits in its effort to shape a new international order wherein Beijing holds the leadership. With its economic strength and increasing military numbers, it is well placed to work on alternative financial and economic mechanisms which may be acceptable to many countries, visible in the interest in the membership of the BRICS.

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Regionally, inclusion of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran shows that the West Asian ‘Arc of Instability’ now has a range of actors and a different set of stakeholders. Saudi Arabia being the largest exporter of oil and China, the largest importer, the partnership will grow and will have implications for the international energy scenario. Traditionally, the US has been a trusted partner of the Saudis and such change may be considered a blow to US interests in West Asia.

Furthermore, Iran with it’s expanding nuclear programme and resulting sanctions have been at loggerheads with the US and the West. An important regional arena through which the US established its military and geopolitical credentials now seems to be sliding out of its grip. US withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago perhaps was the commencement of this process. The process may be hastened with BRICS membership for Saudi Arabia and Iran, whereas the major beneficiary is China with its ambitions of global geopolitical dominance. Moreover, China, is the leading trading partner of most countries in the region and beyond in Central Asia and South Asia.

For India, inclusion of six new members into the BRICS has several implications. Initially, during the Johannesburg summit, Brazil and India were skeptical of expansion and were keen on the modalities and criteria for inclusion of new members. The inclusion, however, reflects rising Chinese influence in the international system as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are primarily led by Beijing. The membership of both comprises of major regional actors in their respective regions and they cover Eurasian landmass in the case of SCO and BRICS has membership from all the continents except for North America.

China and India have major differences on a range of issues, the foremost being the contentious Line of Actual Control where they blame each other for massive deployment of troops in the Himalayas since 2020. Therefore, rising Chinese influence in any sphere is inherently not a favourable situation for India.

India, on the other hand, in the recent past has drifted towards the US, the other pole of the emerging Cold War. For New Delhi to feature in two major organizations led by China and at this critical juncture in the international scenario may be a balancing act, but it will have long term ramifications.

It may be argued that India with the current dispensation asserts its strategic and national interests but agreeing to a Chinese agenda may not create that impression. Also, the illusion that BRICS and SCO are representatives of the Global South and thereby India agrees to be a part of them, now comes under scrutiny. With the membership of Iran and Saudi Arabia, BRICS is now a geopolitical group aimed at the US and the West. India must find it hard to negotiate with the two antithetical arrays in global geopolitics.

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Ukraine Crisis: A Diplomatic Opportunity for India

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has had to deal with a very difficult foreign policy challenge for India that arose from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. However, his deft handling of the situation has proved his mettle. The diplomatic challenge needed juggling several interests and conflicts at the same time. So far, Indian Foreign Ministry has handled the issue with skill without coming under any pressure from the parties pulling in different directions, including USA, Russia and China as well as other smaller groups.

The 2+2 dialogue between India and the United States of America combined with the video call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden is significant for various reasons. It provided an opportunity for India and the US to better locate concerns of the other party vis-à-vis the Russian invasion.

For India it is important to pacify the world community about its reluctance to vote on numerous occasions on the Russian aggression, at the United Nations. Though India professes a neutral stand, it is part of a group with North Korea, Iran and China. This causes apprehensions among the US and its NATO allies as India has acquired respectability and status due to its economic strength and recently due to its efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID 19 pandemic. However, during the current situation, India has also maintained that any form of armed aggression upon another sovereign nation is unacceptable.

The 2+2 dialogue may have been an apt platform to clarify to the US, the reasons behind India’s neutral stand on Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that India’s defence sector and its numerous weapons systems are structurally dependent upon Russia’s arms and weapons industry. It is estimated that Russian arms equipment and weapons systems account for close to 70% of India’s defence supplies.

Against this background, it is perhaps easy to comprehend India’s neutrality and its absenteeism on crucial votes against Russia in the UN, which has wrongly been perceived as pro-Russia. The pressure, nevertheless, on India from the US and in general the West, has been unrelenting since the invasion began. India, though, has stuck to its position, bearing in mind the consequences thereof and the options it may possess. During this difficult period, however, the Indian establishment’s deft diplomacy and strategic autonomy has prominently been on display.

At the centre of this tumultuous and testing period for Indian diplomatic establishment, Dr Jaishankar has shown exemplary geopolitical acumen. Under his leadership the MEA anticipated Western response to India’s position and has crafted befitting and optimum rejoinders. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, statements from the MEA have been measured and calibrated to pacify the international community.

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India has maintained that any act of violent aggression against a sovereign state is deplorable and have urged the warring parties to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Such astute stance and demeanour have in turn led the international community to recognize that it is national interest that has driven India’s voting behaviour at the UN, the precise message that India wanted to convey.

In the contemporary world, any event of such magnitude like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a ripple effect on the entire world. India’s recent proclivity toward the United States and the new alliances in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region has also felt the tremors.

The formulation of the term Indo-Pacific and the subsequent implementation of a counter China strategy through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) have been gradually gaining strength in the recent years. Ukraine Crisis and Indian response brought the QUAD and its members to reassess the situation, which is visible in the visits of Heads of states to New Delhi. The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for an Annual Summit meeting under the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, but a large part of meeting was devoted to the Ukraine crisis. India accommodated Japanese concerns on the crisis in the statement issued after the deliberations.

Immediately after the Indo-Japan Summit, the Australian PM Scott Morrison also held a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi. The Aussie PM, while condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, elicited an understanding of the Indian stance. Further, he elaborated that “he and Modi were of the opinion that the conflict could not be a reason for diverting attention from issues of the Indo-Pacific region”. This indicated that the relationship is not affected. A subtext hidden in the outcome and statements of both summit meetings is a clear indication that geographical distance from an international event still matters. The location of the crisis at the western end of the Eurasian landmass and away from the Indo-Pacific space remains instrumental in geopolitical thinking of Japan and Australia.

The aforementioned summits and their timing point to India’s rising significance in the international system and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. It was only befitting that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi visited New Delhi soon after. This holds tremendous weight in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

It was understood that the Chinese FM was here to invite and persuade the Indian PM to join the BRICS summit in China to be held later in the year. Under the circumstances, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Dr. Jaishankar has been steadfast and clear in conveying to the Chinese that normalization of relations between the two Asian giants is possible only after complete disengagement at the LAC in Ladakh. Hopefully, before the BRICS Summit, negotiations on the issue will bear results.

Therefore it can be said that the Ukraine Crisis has been turned into a diplomatic opportunity by the Indian diplomatic establishment. The 2+2 summit, Modi-Biden virtual Summit, Indo-Japan Summit, Modi-Morrison virtual summit and finally the visit by the Chinese FM are a testimony to clarity in India’s diplomacy since the crisis began. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson and the President of the European Union, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen have also visited India in the last week.

Whether it is India’s stand on the crisis or its India’s economic strength or the West’s need, India has become the go-to-destination in the face of deep Russia-China partnership. India has been able to drive home the point that India’s national interests take precedence over international linkages and alliances under the able leadership of Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs. This perhaps is the proverbial feather in the cap for Modi government as the top diplomat was elevated to the post of External Affairs Minister in May 2019.

India-Pakistan Border: A Myriad Mesh Of Ceremonies, Politics & Livelihoods

India’s borders are diverse, and fascinating is an understatement because of the sheer variety of situations and practices they unravel. An impromptu visit to one such border in Fazilka was arranged by one of the biggest farmers of Kinnow (a citrus fruit), Mr Sandeep Kumar Sheoran, who owns orchards in Abohar district of Indian Punjab. After conferring with the concerned officers of the Border Security Force (BSF), friends from a school reunion arrived at the Sadqi border post just in time for the flag lowering ceremony. On the Pakistani side, the border village is Suleimanqi.

Though smaller in scale and less attended, the ceremony is equally impressive as the one at the more popular and famous Attari-Wagah ceremony near Amritsar. The article, however, points towards certain unique aspects of bordering practices at Sadqi border post. Academics, internationally, have now concluded that each border is unique, and this border post is a testimony to the same. Specific stories of border meetings with the Pakistani counterparts and their inaction on agreements are the norm here as one expects at the border between two fierce geopolitical rivals.

One popular theme is that of the Pakistanis reneging on an agreement to destroy two similar watch towers built during the medieval period but were located on the either side of the border after the partition in 1947. Indians being naïve, meticulous and stickler to the established agreement destroyed the tower and Pakistanis did not. If this one is about the promise to destroy border infrastructure, another relates to construction of towers by both the sides.

In another instance, again disrespecting the established conventions and norms of the bordering practices in the area, a group of overzealous Pakistani soldiers built a watch tower overnight close to the International Border or Zero Line as it is called in the technical jargon of the security forces. When confronted by the Indian officers, they challenged the Border Security Force to build one and in response, it was constructed overnight without any government finances and approvals but with the help of the villagers. Several such narratives and anecdotes were shared by the BSF personnel.

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To the observer, however, the presence of an electrified fence on the Indian side and tall Saccharum bengalense grass (Sarkanda) on the Pakistani side is indicative of two related phenomena a) the difference in perception of threats from either side and b) the economic disparities that exist between the two neighbouring countries.

On the one hand, politics, economy and security conditions in Pakistan have always been uncertain since Independence. Political history of Pakistan has been rife with instance of military coups, interventions by the military in the governance of life and livelihoods and exile of politicians. Political conditions have been unstable in general. On the other hand, economic condition of the populace, however, has considerably improved in India since the onset of economic liberalization in the early 1990s. Pakistan, a champion of capitalism has not been able to uplift the masses. Pakistani economy has been dependent upon loans and aid from various international agencies (IMF and World Bank) and the economy is now referred to as severely debt-ridden and being dependent on China. Combined with Islamic extremism and the tendency of the Pakistani intelligence services to foment trouble on Indian territory, this cocktail has led to an unstable Pakistani state with numerous issues. For India, this means a heavily fortified western border.

Smuggling, especially of narcotic substances, has plagued the border in Punjab since decades. Flow of drugs from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia (the Golden Triangle) involves crossing into and passage from the territory of Indian Punjab. Impact of this transit is felt in Indian Punjab, as the youth has taken to consumption of drugs and has severe social ramifications and has featured in the elections to state assembly. Political parties have often made it an election issue.

The recent elections brought victory to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which in general rode on its support to the Farmers Movement against the agriculture laws and its reputation as a party which has provided civic amenities, health and education facilities in Delhi. One of the election promises of the AAP was to curtail the use of drugs among the youth and generate employment. The border fence and bordering practices by the BSF personnel play a major role in such promises to materialize.

Punjab is known for its agricultural production and its contribution to the Indian economy. Nonetheless, there are issues which relate to agricultural practices in border villages. As the fence is on the Indian side, a vast tract of cultivable land owned by villagers lies across the fence and along the International Border. Farmers must obtain a few permits from the local administration as well as the BSF and the Army to cross the fence through several gates to cultivate and irrigate their fields. Complications related to the timings for tilling, ploughing, irrigation, harvesting and a host of related activities are resented by the farmers. During military exercises, however, farmers must make way for military vehicles and often standing crops are lost. Furthermore, during military build-ups due to tense geopolitical situations between the neighbours e.g. Operation Parakram in 2001 and the standoff after Mumbai Attacks in 2008, border villages are vacated leading to temporary displacements.

A visit to the Indo-Pakistan border reminds and impresses upon all the problems which prominently play out in the subcontinent and have hindered the prospects of development of regional cooperation when other regions of the world are rapidly integrating.

AUKUS, Indo-Pacific and India

With the AUKUS, Quad and continual usage of the term Indo-Pacific to refer to the strategic environs of Asia, it is beyond doubt that the United States of America is pursuing geographic containment of People’s Republic of China. The strategy in large measure is similar to the containment policy vis-à-vis the USSR during the Cold War. China has reciprocated with increased naval and air activity across the Taiwan Straits, in the South China Sea, in the Indian Ocean region and in Africa. It has direct ramifications for India’s geopolitics.

The ongoing border standoff with India since May 2020 is one of the important tools by China to assert its authority in the South Asian region. Chinese designs of a free-flowing global infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) facilitating its trade networks, however, reached a dead end at India’s borders.

India plays a significant role in South Asian affairs due to its geography and the historical and cultural ties with most of the countries in South Asia. Furthermore, for strategic minds in Washington, India plays a dual role; a) a counterweight to China in the larger Asian calculations and b) the continental containment of China depends on the Indian subcontinent.

The AUKUS, a tripartite alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia based on naval technology transfer and sale of advanced submarines to Australia by the former countries has raised concerns in Beijing.

The French with a significant presence in the Indian Ocean, however, have not taken kindly to the AUKUS. Australia had already signed an agreement with France for advanced submarines, which was scrapped in favour of the UK. Several commentators have suggested that the AUKUS is an alliance of Anglophone states. Reverberations of the AUKUS have been felt in the G7 and led to exchange of harsh words between the leaders of France and the UK.

The AUKUS combined with US allies and friends in South Korea, Japan, and Philippines is a very potent encirclement strategy to deter the Chinese. Secretary Blinken’s visit to Indonesia and Malaysia this week indicates towards a US strategy to influence and create linkages in the ASEAN to regain the lost economic ground in the region.

India, on the other hand, is a collaborator with French in terms of naval exercises in the Indian Ocean region. Delhi has also been a traditional buyer of French weapon systems and arms. The much-publicized recent sale and delivery of the combat aircraft Rafale is a case in point.

The AUKUS deal therefore provides an opportunity for India to adopt a more autonomous stance in the Indian Ocean Region. Such autonomy may be countenanced with the European Union’s announcement of Indo-Pacific strategy.

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For India, its participation in the QUAD allows for its interactions with the United States, Australia and Japan in the region. The advantage of such multilateral groupings is that India avoids direct confrontation with the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region and remains an important player in the US containment designs in the maritime domain.

India’s protracted and continuing border standoff resulting from Chinese incursions in Ladakh during May 2020 has caused anxieties in New Delhi as well as in Beijing. The standoff has improved India’s stock in the international community as the Indian armed forces backed by the Indian government have faced the Chinese with a steely resolve.

The hard border with China and India’s decision to not join the BRI and the standoff are perhaps linked, but this has resulted in denial of a strategic route into the Indian Ocean for the Chinese. This leads to perhaps the only blockade for the Chinese BRI and the huge infrastructure projects which it runs on the Eurasian landmass. For the US, therefore, India translates into a partner which can challenge China on land and can restrict its geostrategic reach into the maritime domain.

US faces challenges in the Indian subcontinent as it grapples with the Taliban in Afghanistan and a Pakistan clearly disposed towards the Chinese. In this situation, it is not an exaggeration to call China, Pakistan, and the Taliban as staunch allies.

India, therefore, will play a substantial role in the Indian Ocean region, in the global geopolitical architecture. India’s role will be enhanced in the subcontinent, but only with the multilateral networks it will adapt to. All these efforts have been directed towards to curtail unprecedented Chinese belligerence and diplomatic aggression.  

Conspiracy theorists point to Chinese role in the death of high-ranking army officials in Taiwan (October 2020) and India (December 2021) in helicopter crashes. Whether true or not, the Chinese with their secretive and covert disposition are certainly capable of such sabotage. In the Indian case, an investigation committee has been set up to locate and unearth the causes of the crash which killed Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat on December 8. 

In conclusion, it is only wise to say that the Chinese with their negative intent and actions have caused this string of alignments in the region and now are certainly feeling the pressure through increased US activity in the Indo-Pacific region through QUAD and now the AUKUS. India stands to benefit with increased strategic approach combined with the economic gains it has made over the last two decades.

Taliban In Afghanistan: India’s Options

Now that the Taliban has been declared winner in Afghanistan and its elected President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15, 2021 without putting up a fight, the world, especially those in the region are assessing the implications of Taliban rule. The departure of United States Armed forces has been the catalyst for the series of events and emerging geopolitical shifts that will necessitate new thinking in Indian Foreign policy.

US entered Afghanistan to eliminate the Al Qaeda network and its Taliban supporters who were responsible for the attacks on the United States soil. The leader of Al Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks has been eliminated but the Al Qaeda network survives as obviously do the Taliban. The United States may still have some influence on the new Taliban, but for India the political terrain is tectonically different.

India is invested heavily in Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War. In terms of geopolitics in South Asia, Afghanistan accords a vantage point for India vis-à-vis Pakistan, it’s arch-rival. Matters are complicated further with the realization that China with its financial muscle and intention to expand the Belt and Road Initiative will find a stronghold in Afghanistan. Beijing made overtures to the Taliban leadership and met them in Qatar recently. With strong China-Pakistan relationship, India’s situation in the region becomes precarious as it may not have any leverage on its Western expanse.

India’s western borders have remained a concern historically and it expends a lot of energy and investment to consolidate and remain visible in the region. With its immediate neighbour Pakistan, not an ideal one, New Delhi looks towards Afghanistan and Iran, to both manage the western neighbourhood and to balance Pakistan.

India, therefore, has made significant investments in Iran and Afghanistan which are Pakistan’s neighbours towards west. India, imports crude oil from Iran even at the displeasure of the USA, and has invested in creating infrastructure (Schools, Hospitals and Roads) in Afghanistan. It has remained a cornerstone of India’s western geographical strategy.

The returns New Delhi may have been expecting in the form of connectivity and transport networks in the region now stand jeopardized. Under the New Silk Road Strategy of the USA, India would have gained access to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. The current situation, however, alters the dynamic as the Taliban have expressed their resentment with India in the recent past and have gone to declare it as an adversary. India’s increasing proximity towards the United States may have resulted in the Taliban to dislike India.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has harboured the Taliban in safe havens on its Western tribal provinces during their difficult years and will influence decision-making in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it will work towards negating India and reducing its existing footprint in Afghanistan. As China has already approached the Taliban it is likely to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects into Afghanistan via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. In collaboration with regional power China, Pakistan will work to reduce India’s engagement in Afghanistan. The current geopolitical situation, therefore, is favourable for Pakistan.

India needs to take these developments into its stride and create opportunities to engage with the Taliban afresh. A positive beginning could be acceptance of the Taliban as the current interlocutors for Afghan people.

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Internationally, a host of states have expressed their willingness to talk to Taliban as the ruling dispensation of Afghanistan. It may be because of the swiftness with which Taliban has occupied Afghanistan and it seems there is no challenge to Taliban and a civil war is unlikely. India also needs to engage with the Taliban for multiple reasons ranging from the investments made there to the inclusion in connectivity projects to pure geostrategic concerns. India can take heart from the fact that it evokes a lot of goodwill among the Afghan people.

Significantly enough, questions remain about the capacity of Taliban to govern a complex country. First, it will have to raise an economy from scratch to employ the younger generation of Afghanistan (60% of Afghan population is below 20 years of age). Whether China and Pakistan, two main allies of Taliban will be able to revive Afghanistan, remains to be seen. Second, current dominance of Taliban over the entire country will come under strain when local tribal warlords gather strength, aided by the West. The irony is that Taliban will still be riding the infrastructure built by the United States and its allies and India, whom they despise.

Third, acceptability for Taliban in the international system will also depend on the issue of human rights, most importantly women’s rights as they impose Shari’a law under the Islamic Republic in the territory. It is the fear of reprisals from the Taliban and the Shari’a which is causing the mass exodus of Afghans.

India, has been a favoured destination for common Afghans for generations and the international opinion is against the Taliban. India’s diplomatic efforts and negotiating capabilities to engage with the Taliban government will be crucial in the days and years to come. India must forsake idealistic notions in a realist world and should diplomatically engage with Taliban to protect its interests and to stay relevant in the region.

India’s Response to Covid Diplomacy by Neighbours

As the Second Wave of the COVID 19 pandemic caused unforeseen number of deaths and infections in India during the month of April 2021, geopolitics continued to feed on this tragic time. This phase of tremendous and sudden rise in the number of infections led to all kinds of shortages of medical facilities for the affected. The impact was most severely felt in the number of beds available in the hospitals and supply of medical oxygen. With cases rising in short duration, the already inadequate and poor health infrastructure wilted and soon the situation was visible to the international community.

Countries ranging from United States, Germany, Japan, Australia to China and Brazil responded with medical supplies to help India cope with the crisis. India’s neighbouring countries including Pakistan also extended support. Foreign Ministry of Pakistan offered ventilators, Bi PAP, digital X ray machines, PPEs and related items. The offer followed a message of support by PM Imran Khan. The Edhi Foundation, a non-government humanitarian organization, offered 50 ambulances and accompanying medical staff via a letter to the Indian Prime Minister. These offers of support and help were either ignored or refused by the Indian government.

The offer of help, however, by the Pakistani government through the spokesman of Foreign Ministry, was accompanied with a call to release the imprisoned Kashmiri leaders and for a meaningful dialogue between the two countries. It is notable on February 25, 2021 India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border in Jammu and Kashmir. This sudden announcement of ceasefire still causes curiosity in India.

Speculations are also rife that the ceasefire might have been caused by a behind the scenes United States intervention as it grapples with a rising China in the subcontinent. With Pakistan firmly intertwined with the Chinese economy and aid, the US may weighed upon its former ally in the region, Pakistan, to effect the ceasefire. India’s rapidly increasing proximity and partnership with the US in various fields is a reality and has started to impact South Asian geopolitics.

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In these circumstances, India’s refusal to accept COVID 19 help from Pakistan indicates towards its unwavering stance on terrorist groups based in Pakistan and the linkages with ISI. US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role thereafter can be a factor in the fragile peace on the LoC and hence the ceasefire. India’s stance towards Pakistan may not witness a substantial change despite these gestures of solidarity during the pandemic.

China now influences politics and events in many parts of Asia and Africa and it has a bearing on India’s neighbours. During the April COVID 19 surge in India, China immediately extended help and support to fight the pandemic. India’s initial response to the offer was lukewarm. This was perhaps reflective of its line after the events in Eastern Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since May 2020. India has reiterated several times that it cannot be business as usual if the situation at LAC caused by Chinese incursions is not resolved.

The Chinese, however, responded with a call to the Chinese businessmen to expedite orders of medical equipment to India. And in the first week of May 2021, President Xi Jinping offered help and support through the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. Finally, the Chinese through the International Federation of Red Cross Societies and Red Crescent Societies provided equipment and $ 1 million in cash to the Indian Red Cross Society. Officially, however, India chose not to respond to direct offers of Covid support and help from China.

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This marks a resolute stance by New Delhi as the talks on the remaining areas of contention on the LAC are stalled after eleven rounds of talks at various levels between the two countries. Later, at the BRICS summit meeting on 31st May,2021 Chinese state councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered collective BRICS support in India’s fight against the pandemic which India accepted as a member and host recorded.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh also extended medical assistance to India during the second wave of the pandemic. Initially, 10,000 vials of the injection, Remdesivir were sent to India in the first consignment. Later, towards the end of May, more than 2500 boxes of medicines and protective equipment were sent across the border to India. India accepted both the consignments and expressed thanks through the official channels.

The surprising act, on behalf of Bangladesh, in the context of the sub-continent is the offer of a $200 million currency swap to Sri Lanka to tide over its massive debt crisis affected by the Chinese investments.

The pandemic and its second wave in India, therefore, has not impacted the geopolitics in the Indian sub-continent. Apart from the ceasefire with Pakistan, which, this time has a mysterious quality, and its longevity remains in question, there are no positives in the relationship as the support extended in the second wave of India was refused or not responded to. Similarly, with China, problems at the LAC remain despite protracted negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi. India’s diplomacy with smaller neighbours in the sub-continent has the omnipotent Chinese shadow, though there is gradual realization in the region, of the ways and means of China post the increasing credibility of reports of origins of the COVID 19 from Wuhan.

Biden And India: The Way Forward in Asia

The United States of America (US) will inaugurate Joseph R Biden as the President from January 20, 2021. New Delhi and many governments around the world have begun to speculate the kind of relationships the Biden Administration will establish with them. In the context of India, the relationship has seen upswing since the Indo-US Nuclear Deal under the Bush II Administration. It achieved new heights and rhetoric with public display of bonhomie between President Trump and PM Narendra Modi. It will, however, be a grave mistake to disregard it as only rhetoric and on the other hand consider the same in euphoric terms. That moment also had tremendous difficulties with Trump at the helm.

During the Biden Presidency, the scepticism around Trump’s commissions and omissions will no longer be there as Biden is a politician with an outstanding track record and experience at both domestic and international levels. As a Vice-President in the two Obama Administrations (2009-2016) he was responsible for some key decisions regarding policy towards South Asia.

China figures prominently in the United States calculus for the region. The Biden administration is very likely to carry forward the “Rebalance to Asia and Pacific” and “Indo-Pacific” idea, with the Quad as its initial operational strategy against the Chinese Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Furthermore, India has resisted China’s attempts to bully countries in the South Asian region.

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In terms of geopolitics, therefore, US will maintain India as its major ally in the region. The signing of Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), COMCASA and BECA during the Trump presidency has strengthened the partnership has been raised to strategic level by Washington. It finally seems that the US has decided that along with its long-standing major allies in East Asia, India is a key actor to balance China.

Joe Biden has been critical of Pakistan’s approach to its neighbourhood in the west in Afghanistan and its support to the insurgent groups operating from Pakistani territory. During the first Obama administration as Vice-President, Joe Biden was part of the decision making which led to the Abbotabad strike for Osama Bin Laden’s execution.

Due to Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, Biden’s efforts led to suggestion of a number of stringent conditions incorporated in the Enhanced partnership with Pakistan Act, 2008. The conditions related Pakistan’s support to Al Qaeda, non-interference of the Army in judicial and political processes and the funds ($ 7.5 Billion) were not to be used by the Army. These caveats ultimately led to a major blowback by the military in Pakistan and created a rift between the two countries.

Trump Presidency’s overt show for India and Indians in the US was closely scrutinized because of its frequent calls for limiting immigration in various categories, especially H1B visas. Indian immigrants and people of Indian descent have been at the forefront of the development of American technology industry and innovation. This contribution was frequently invoked against Trump’s calls for indigenization of major industries and limiting migration and citizenship visas.

Biden on the other hand has promised to expand high-skilled visas positively impacting mobility of Indian tech graduates. It is expected that the new administration may revoke the suspension of work permits of spouses of H1B visa holders imposed by Trump. This also has positive implications for Indians employed in the United States.

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An election promise by Joe Biden about higher taxation for the corporates in the US may be beneficial for India as this can drive out investments to overseas destinations. India with its reduced tax rates can be one such attractive destination for such investors and the growing international partnership between the two countries provides the right environment. India on its part has to create conditions favourable for investors with reduced red tape and bureaucratic impediments.

US Foreign Institution Investors (FII) account for more than 30% of total FIIs in India making them the most important actors in the Indian financial set up since 2000. Similar speculations have been made for the enhancement of trade by a number of economic pundits because the Trumpian ideas of protectionism for the US may be abandoned. Trump Administration removed India from the Generalised List of Preferences in June 2019. India can expect a review of the list under the Democrats administration.

Biden’s larger outlook for South Asia and his experience combined with Antony Bliken’s knowledge of the region may lead to enhanced partnership with India. On the other hand, it must be taken into account that Americans have a penchant for realism and it still is the most important theoretical strand guiding US foreign policy.

New Delhi without being euphoric about the unprecedented engagement with and attention from the mighty US may do well to remember that India has a strategic location vis-à-vis China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific and the US needs a strong ally in the region to counter/contain the Chinese. That this realism is the original and real driver of the United States’ approach towards India since the beginning of the millennium.

LAC Standoff: De-escalation, Disengagement Or Status Quo Ante

The border standoff between India and China in Ladakh continues amidst calls from the international community to tone down the rhetoric and resolve the issue bilaterally. India and China, on their part have continued deliberations at both diplomatic and military levels. The nuances of negotiations, though, not available through the media to the general public indicate that the talks initially, were centred around de-escalation of the situation wherein violence had occurred on the night of 15th June in Galwan Valley and there were number of casualties on both sides. Gradually, the discussion moved towards the process of disengagement as both the parties had amassed a huge number of troops in the region.

The roots of the current standoff, however, go back to the months of April and May this year when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China moved to the many patrolling points on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and built structures (permanent and temporary). The build-up of the Chinese troops along the LAC which is disputed at many places and substitutes for the international border, till one is finalized, was unprecedented and reminded of the Chinese tactics of occupation in the South China Sea. Boundary-making process is a very sophisticated technical exercise which involves primarily four stages of Definition, Delimitation, Demarcation and Administration.

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In the case of the LAC, even the first stage which involves defining the boundary on the map is not clear at many points and locations. The matter becomes more complicated with the Chinese ignoring continual Indian demands to share the maps with the Chinese perception of the LAC. Though the mechanisms to resolve the boundary disputes are in place since the year 2005, the Chinese have refused to share the maps in all the deliberations. This raises a lot of questions and problems and has been one of the major challenges for the Indian side. The Chinese perception which they have often invoked in the media through their spokesperson have never been displayed through maps.

Nevertheless, even during this difficult phase, the discussions between the two sides have continued: at the External Affairs Minister level and at the level of the National Security Advisors of both the countries. This is followed by the talks by Corps Commanders of India and China at the ground situation in Ladakh. Chinese focus, however, remains on the disengagement and de-escalation and they have made it a very protracted process with constant insistence on the perceptions of the LAC. It is noteworthy that progress has been made on the ground over the course of the last month and forces have been gradually moving back to their respective territories and away from the LAC.

Indian Analysts, on the other hand have argued that total disengagement will be a long haul, especially at the Pangong Tso and the Depsang Plains. These two spots are extremely critical from India’s military and strategic perspective and that is precisely the reason that the Chinese want to maintain a stranglehold over them. The Depsang Plains lie in close proximity to India’s Air Force Base at Daulat Beg Oldie which is advantageous to India in adverse conditions.

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At the Pangong Tso, the LAC is disputed and according to reports, Chinese have encroached more than 8 kms. inside the Indian version of the LAC which runs at Finger 8 (fingers are mountain features jutting out into the lake from the North Bank) and the Indian Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) used to patrol till this point. The Chinese have occupied area till Finger 4 and have built concrete structures effectively covering more than 60 square kms. of the area and therefore will be difficult to evacuate through negotiations. On the other hand, one of the parties can afford a conflict.

Indian stance, therefore, should be to press the negotiations towards the restoration of the status quo ante, or the situation which existed prior to the month of May 2020. Media reports in India indicate that during the last round of talks between the Corps Commanders on 14th-15th July, demand for status quo ante has been made by the Indian side to Chinese counterparts. Chinese media reports indicate little and only say that progress has been made on the disengagement of forces.

On the other hand, the pattern along this part of the LAC, due to altitude, difficult terrain and inclement weather conditions is that of withdrawal of forces from heights during the winter months and moving back to the permanent bases in the area. Given the situation this year this may not happen at Pangong Tso and Depsang Plains and the Indian side should be ready to face the vagaries of weather, terrain and altitude.

The experience of the Indian Army at the Siachen Glacier can be drawn to withstand the Chinese in the area. One way or the other, the strategic geography of the area of these crucial points will play an important role in the future of this picturesque militarized space.

Will Chinese Attacks Attract International Attention?

Tensions between India and China at the Line of Actual Control have reached a height not seen for 43 years.  Both have been engaged in a military standoff at multiple locations, for over a month now at India’s northern border with a sudden escalation in the Galwan Valley region on 16th June 2020 resulting in death of some 20 Indian soldiers.

The situation has reached this level as a result of Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual (LAC), which is how the border is known pending resolution of boundary and territorial disputes between the two countries. The situation also is a result of a complicated and mistrustful relationship as they have not been able to agree on the definition and delimitation of the boundary over the last 60 years or so.

The demarcation of the boundary on the ground and its administration are subsequent stages in the boundary making process. Chinese incursions into India’s territory or into territory which India deems extremely strategic to control have become more frequent over the last decade or so. The Chinese military activity has been mounted at a time when in India the CoVID19 virus infections are reaching peak numbers.

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Such incursions leading to military constructions and installations are reminiscent of similar Chinese tactics of gradual expansion of the Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial annexation in the South China Sea (SCS). The international community has responded to the Chinese maneuvers in SCS with statements of support for the affected parties. United States (US), the foremost military power in the world and present in the region since WW II has responded with increased reconnaissance and military cooperation to deter the Chinese.

In regard to Chinese attitude and belligerence over land boundaries, however, there have hardly been any voices of concern being raised by the international community. Donald Trump’s offer to PM Modi to mediate between the two sides should only be construed as only an offer of mediation, not anything more. This offer, however, does impact the geopolitical dynamics in the South Asian neighbourhood and larger Southern Asia, where China has important economic stakes and leverage.

At the same time, Trump’s offer will have zero effect on the current negotiations on the LAC between India and China. India has responded to the US President’s call with maturity and poise and signaled with intent to Beijing that the matter should be resolved bilaterally. Perhaps, this is one more of many hints to China that India is willing and able to withstand an aggressive China where its sovereign territoriality is threatened.

Such actions are consistent with India’s refusal to be a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India did not join the BRI because of its apprehensions over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the disputed territory of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Aksai Chin where Indian and Chinese forces face each other in the current standoff has a boundary with PoK.

Further, the revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir and subsequent reorganization of the state into two Union Territories has not gone down well with either Pakistan or China. The LAC forms a boundary between India and China in Ladakh, so the Chinese protested in August 2019, citing that India has unilaterally altered the status quo in an area which is disputed.

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Last week, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan issued a statement indicating that Chinese actions at the LAC are related to both the repeal of Article 370 as well as the creation of transport infrastructure by India and they impact the ground situation at the LAC. New Delhi’s response on revocation of Article 370 has been very categorical, that India can carry out any activity on Indian soil and does not expect its neighbours to meddle in its internal matters.

The international response, or approach to such Chinese ingress remains to be seen as the frequency of incursions into Indian territory increases and China gradually starts to claim thin slivers of territory which are otherwise disputed. Realistically any statements in support of the Indian standpoint, from the international community, however, will be determined by the simple fact of Chinese economic and financial clout in the international system.

But there is another reason on why the international community may be reluctant to throw its weight in the issue. The international community has been vocal about the issues in SCS because the disputing parties have approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and have referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea III. In the case of territorial disputes India has consistently maintained the principle of bilateral negotiations and hence cannot expect overt support and help.

Direct support to Indian stance could have been expected from its smaller South Asian neighbours, but they too seem to have been weighed down by the impact of Chinese investments, trade and the generous lines of credit. Nepal has gone one step further as it has included hitherto disputed territory with India on its western expanse in its official map, through legislation in parliament. It is argued in policy circles, that this has been done with Chinese collusion.

Given all this therefore, it is not for the first time that the much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of PM Modi looks under strain. India, however, should persevere to deepen ties with its immediate neighbours and make most of the recent dip in Chinese reputation on account of the origin of CoVID19 and its aftermath. This can be achieved by astute diplomacy and apprising the international community of the Chinese belligerence in the region.

No doubt the experts at South Block will be engaging all their skills and intellect to  outmanoeuvre China and reclaim its premier status in the South Asian region as well as fend off Chinese adventures.

Weather Reports: The New Frontier Of Indo-Pak war

People listen to weather reports to plan their days or weeks for chores such as when to put out clothes to dry, go out etc. Perhaps the weather man never thought that weather reports can be weaponized. It is India which lobbed the first weather report bomb starting the weather report wars with Pakistan.

The strategy thought out in the secret meeting rooms of the Indian strategic defence cabals is to make a virtual claim on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as called in India, or Azad Kashmir as named by Pakistan. ‘Doordarshan’ is under instruction to pretend that POK is Indian. It is to give the daily weather reports for all of Kashmir including POK but call it simply Kashmir.

Not to be outwitted, Pakistan retaliated with the same. They are now giving weather reports for all of Kashmir, including Jammu and Ladakh, as if they were all part of Pakistan. It is all about visual representation of territory.

Visual representations of territory have played a significant role in the national imagination of people. Nations and states have reinforced such representations through school textbooks, maps, documents, decrees and legal instruments. In the age of mass media, internet and related proliferation of information, any news can become a source of confrontation between states.

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The Indian official television broadcaster, Doordarshan, has adopted a new media offensive now for over a week. Weather bulletins on Doordarshan and All India Radio have started featuring weather forecasts of Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit-Baltistan area of Kashmir over which Pakistan has territorial control and India claims the territory. In a reaction to this, Pakistan has carried weather reports of the Indian side of Kashmir on its official television channels.

Notably, Indian broadcasts follow the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories (Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh) under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019 in August 2019.  In the same month, India had already revoked Article 370 of Indian Constitution which accorded special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and involved special provisions for the residents of J&K. Pakistan at that point had raised the issue at the United Nations without much success. India is now unravelling its grand design and making people imagine POK as if it is part of India.

Geopolitically, this is a well-known strategy of claiming territory with the approach of place-naming and place-making and establishing a norm through repeated usage of suitable nomenclature that the place belongs to us. Examples abound of creation of a sense of belonging by such means by India’s erstwhile colonizers, the British. Historically the British were an important factor in the current territorial dispute at India’s northern expanse as to who the territory belongs to.

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An important task of the state is to invoke a territorial image of the state and familiarize the larger population with it. School textbooks and official maps play this role effectively to make its territory and places legible for the state population. Place-making often involves creation of new activities, economic or otherwise at a particular location. In this case, the weather forecasts is one such activity, with which not only the Indian State but the people can also identify.

As critical geographical as it may sound today to investigate the British colonialist and imperial exercises, it is instructive that such methods of place-naming and place-making have existed even in ancient Indian texts like Puranas, the Epics and related texts. The geographical references to seven dwipas, including Jambu Dwipa cover the whole Eurasian expanse in detail with Mount Meru (The Pamir) as the centre of the Eurasian continent. The description stretches to as far as the Mediterranean and the Eastern coast of Africa.

Furthermore, there is astonishing detail about the orientation of the Himalayas and the adjacent mountain ranges. The river systems originating from the present-day Tibet are explained in detail with the directions of the flow of rivers. The “Puranas” include, the origin of the universe and the earth, the oceans and continents, mountain systems of the world, regions and their people and astronomical geography” (Ali, 1966). However such detailed descriptions were never laden with the ideas of capture or control of territory but only for the sake of geographical knowledge.

Within this literature, the expanse of Bharatvarsa is mentioned in detail on numerous occasions. This fact of geographical unity of the subcontinent remained unchanged and unchallenged until the moment of partition in 1947. The partition in 1947 essentially created a rupture in the regional, human and physical geography of the Indian sub-continent into two separate states of India and Pakistan. Perhaps, it is this longer geo-historical imagination that takes precedence over recent history since partition when the weather reports are broadcast on the national television channels.

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The territorial claims in Kashmir are now becoming more visible and perhaps a beginning of a new geopolitical imagination of post 1947 India is being given shape and root.

Since 2014, the Indian government’s approach under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quite assertive on the issue of Kashmir and related terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The response to acts of terrorism has been more in terms of military action at the Line of Control, But for the first time a nuanced approach to visually construct that represents the whole Kashmir as Indian, has been adopted.

Reports indicate that Mr. Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor who is also an intelligence expert on Pakistan, has been instrumental in developing and implementing this strategy of weather forecasting of the larger territory of Kashmir and thereby indicating that it is Indian. On the other hand, reactions of the international community may only become evident when real world diplomacy resumes after the end of the global shutdown due to the CoVID19 pandemic. Until then, the otherwise innocuous weather report, produced by non-political meteorologists, has become the new political battle ground between India and Pakistan.

Dr Krishnendra Meena is Assistant Professor and teaches at School of International studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi