National Security has a wide span and needs to cover much wider period for any meaningful analysis, but to be realistic about current security dynamics of the country, speculating the immediate trends under the existing realities may be useful, especially in a high voltage political scenario in the country. While the year 2019 has seen a lot of activities with regard to national security from Balakot strike, abrogation of Article 370, administrative reorganisation of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two Union territories (UTs) and appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), extrapolating the trends can help in anticipating some strategic and security challenges which might need the attention of decision makers beyond politics.
China Factor: The US-China trade war, which touched a new height in 2019, is showing some indicators of respite with the announcement of finalising part one of the agreements by January 15, 2020. Leaving optics aside, the strategic competition (including economic competition) is expected to continue in 2020, because it has become an essential part of US strategy against China, having recognised it as a competitor and vice versa. China, despite internal pressures like protests in Hong Kong and some jolts in economic and infrastructure ventures, has been maintaining a brave front. It has been able to gravitate Russia and Iran towards it and is in the process of colonising Pakistan.
This leaves India in a state of doing strategic balancing to get the best out of such strategic scenario, as it continues to have an unsettled border with China. The positivity brought in during reset of China-India relations during ‘Informal Summit’, at Wuhan in 2018, nosedived with China dragging India to the UN Security Council on internal reorganisation of J&K into two UTs. The Indian claim on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir further dampened the “Wuhan spirit’ which could not be revived in Malappuram in 2019, as China again made a second effort to go back to UNSC, which got scuttled. In this context I do not visualise that the mutual mistrust between India and China will improve in 2020, unless China faces a major setback in economy and finds it useful to lure India away from US strategic partnership.
With global economic slowdown impacting China as well as India, I do not visualise any deliberate offensive action on India-China borders; hence peace and tranquility is likely to prevail. The chances occasional stand off cannot be ruled out due to Chinese encroachment through infrastructural overdrive into areas where perceptions about LAC overlap due to lack of demarcation or China feels the need to needle India by offensive messaging reacting to any other issue of divergence. The border resolution will only see some cosmetic talks, but no recognisable action, as China has no political compulsion to resolve it; hence will like to postpone it for more opportune moment. China will continue to concentrate more on South China Sea and Eastern seaboard. PLA will continue to improve its maritime and other capabilities for expeditionary roles in Indo-Pacific and beyond, to support its BRI and protect its SLOC.
In the light of the fact that there has been no major breakthrough in the 22nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation for demarcation of LAC, which otherwise is necessary to prevent a repeat of Doklam-like incidents. This is doable, if there is political will, but it is not a priority with China as yet. We can expect a relative quiet period on Chinese borders, with some positive steps for better border management, so long the US-China competition continues, and Chinese remain under pressure of economic slowdown. India, in conjunction with other navies, is unlikely to face any confrontation in the Indian Ocean, except few occasional visits of Chinese submarines to their potential bases/surveillance missions and some more build-up on bases acquired by them through ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’.
In the South China Sea, India will stand for freedom of navigation and flights, rule-based order, use of global commons in international waters, but any showdown with China is unlikely because Quad, despite its upgradation to Foreign Ministers level, is still not a military alliance to threaten China. South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will continue to witness military posturing just short of a confrontation, with a heated Cold War scenario. Any big bang decision from US or Quad is unlikely, because it is election year in US.
Pakistan Factor: With Chinese compulsion of pushing BRI/CPEC through, the strategic relevance of Pakistan for China has further increased. A major side effect of abrogation of Article 370 and internal re-organisation of J&K into two UTs, has been the strengthening of the Sino-Pak nexus. China was relatively quiet after the Balakot strike, but openly backed Pakistan after abrogation of Article 370. China will like to ignore state sponsored terror by Pakistan, as it indirectly contains India’s growth to reduce Indian impact in South Asia. The terror industry and proxy war by Pakistan will continue in 2020, notwithstanding their economic difficulties, which have been in the news in 2019.
Whenever they are on the verge of sinking, some country will bail them out to foster its own interest through them, because of their strategic location/terror potential. As the security situation unfolds in Afghanistan-Pakistan Region, I will not be surprised if Taliban, which was decimated by multi-national forces once, (but nurtured by Pakistan) may be in the driver’s seat in the power struggle in Afghanistan, much against Indian interest and US may choose to end their pursuit against them, acknowledging Pakistan as one of the main brokers.
It may be interesting to note that Pakistan’s terror industry is mainly sustained by parallel economy involving drug trade, extortion and assistance from ISI, with material and operational support from Pakistan Army. The efforts of FATF and IMF may show some check on the formal economy, but not on the terror economy, as the linkage between the two is not as tight as it is made out to be. Pakistan is unlikely to get blacklisted by FATF even in 2020, because it will be able to find three countries to oppose such a move, which is adequate to avoid blacklisting. However, it will continue to be in the grey list. Pakistan seems to have done well for themselves in initiating false propaganda against India, which has mitigated their criticism amongst domestic as well as global audience. UN declared terrorists will continue to operate and plan terror operations against India in 2020, as in the past, with greater effort to destabilise Kashmir to undo Indian effort for inclusive growth of J&K.
Sino-Pak nexus: The progress on CPEC is likely to continue despite Indian opposition and some domestic opposition inside Pakistan, although, BRI will continue to face many roadblocks globally. CPEC will make Pakistan a colony of China, which is already into a client-patron relationship, where strategic choices of Pakistan are hostage to China. This brings out a long-term threat to India in terms of a ‘two-front war’ which India has to be prepared for. India’s intention to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) will need shaping of the international environment, affected population and seeing through at least one peaceful summer in Kashmir after reorganisation, as a precursor to any such action plan.
Other neighbours: India does not have any direct threat from other neighbouring countries, but has to remain cautious of developments there to minimize the influence of potential adversaries. Many scribes tend to overplay it by relating it to China most of the time, but being sovereign countries, these nations act as per their own national interests. India will have to continue a ‘neighbours first’ policy to prevent them slipping away into Chinese orbit. In 2020, we can expect closer ties with the Maldives and Bhutan who will continue to get assistance from India. The border issue with Nepal like Kalapani, can be resolved, as it was done in case of enclaves with Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka may have its own compulsions for some policies not very favourable to India; hence diplomatic efforts will be required to let it be neutral despite mounting financial pressure of China. Smart diplomacy will be required to deal with sensitive issues of illegal immigration with Bangladesh, as it is in India’s interest to support Sheikh Hasina and collectively find solutions to problems (including Rohingyas and water dispute) affecting both countries. Similarly in case of Myanmar, the issue of Rohingyas and better connectivity will have to be worked out with proactive diplomacy, in the light of certain internal reforms picking up heat due to undesirable controversies.
Internal Security Challenges
Kashmir: Post abrogation of Article 370 and 35a, the clampdown on mobile and internet facilities will have to be relaxed incrementally from more peaceful districts to potential hot spots. Kashmir has remained relatively peaceful after August 5, but the real test will be peaceful summers in 2020, when Pakistan will redouble its efforts to ignite violence in the Kashmir Valley, which needs to be prevented.
Prolonged restrictions will be counterproductive in terms of alienating the population; hence some calculated risks will have to be taken, even if it amounts to removing and re-clamping restrictions in some vulnerable spots, where remnants of terrorists/separatists may influence the situation. Incidentally Jammu, Ladakh and some parts of Kashmir will continue to be peaceful and only a handful of districts, sympathetic to militants may be prone to terror actions. In 2020 it is expected that terrorists supported by Pakistan will make a few more attempts to derail inclusive growth and development process, before the new UTs are mentally accepted as a reality and as a new normal to progress forward.
Indian security forces need to comb existing terrorists during winters of 2020 and be ready to deal with a fresh lot in the coming summers. Legally, convictions of separatists must happen, because temporary arrests do not matter to them. Unless visible effects of inclusive growth and better governance appear under the reorganised system, the security forces will have to continue fighting infiltrators, terrorists (foreign as well local) because the terror industry will continue to be a lucrative industry. The biggest vulnerability deterring security forces in terror operations supported by stone palters, will be false allegations and some segments of human rights organizations, legal fraternity, politicians using it to their advantage.
North Eastern India: We can hope for a development in the North-East region post some crucial agreements in 2020, with declining insurgency. Except for some parts of Manipur and adjoining areas, the region is showing keenness to grow. With friendly Governments in power in adjoining countries, North-East may not be a major security concern. It may face a temporary law and order problem due to some internal reforms like CAA, NRC in Assam, resulting in aggressive politics but these would be surmountable from the security point of view.
Red Corridor/Naxalites: The problem in these areas relates to poor governance and its intensity will increase/decrease depending upon the quality of governance provided. There have been changes in Government in some affected states. Depending upon the governance provided by them and lessons learnt by security forces operating there, the magnitude of the problem can be expected to vary in either direction in 2020. The police forces dealing with it need to have modern equipment, training including leadership training at the grass-roots level.
What should India do to meet these security challenges?
With China’s discord over internal reorganisation of the erstwhile state of J&K into UTs, need to keep CPEC going and it’s need to increase domestic support by generating spirit of nationalism amidst growing protests, slowing down of economy, the urge to do something different cannot be ruled out. The clouds of ‘Two Front War’ might hang over India, although it may not happen in 2020. The only way to avoid a ‘Two Front War’ for India is to convince the potential adversaries that India is capable of fighting it. This convincing cannot be by announcements or statements, but by building/proving capability to do so. There seems to be some effort in capacity building, but with limited financial size, its magnitude may not deter potential adversaries, more so when our neighbour in the north has hiked up its pace of modernisation appreciably. India needs to realize that defence capabilities take decades of consistent effort, more-so if it does not have strong manufacturing base.
‘Make in India’ and self-reliance are essential, but time consuming; hence it must continue simultaneously with new procurements with transfer of technology. The defence budget allocation made in 2019 will have to substantially increase in 2020 in the interest of national security. Chanakya, Clauswitz, and Sun Tzu, have said one thing in common that no nation can expect to be great and secure, unless it has powerful military, which can deter potential adversaries. Unless Pakistan is deterred, the proxy war will continue; hence India needs to improve capability to exercise its ‘Proactive’ intent. If capability exists, then intentions can change overnight, which makes the adversary jittery.
With CDS in place, there are lot of hopes and expectations, but the birth of a new organisation will have teething problems, especially in terms of bureaucracy being reluctant to share levers of power, but quite keen to pass on responsibility. In my opinion, 2020 will see the organisation of CDS in a developing stage and will
take more time to make any significant difference. We also need to deal with domestic enemies firmly. The recent violent protests over some of the reforms that have grabbed media headlines, are more of law and order issues, but the issue of illegal immigrants/infiltrators who are a security risk will continue to be of grave security concern and need to be checked. The national security demands the effort of entire nation, not only the security forces, like the synergy developed in 1971 war/Kargil Conflict. We need to remodel the Security Strategy to meet these challenges, if we want “Peaceful inclusive Growth” with minimum security related distractions. We can thus hope for a stronger and secure India in 2020.