PS21 Report: South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka


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  • A new “great game” is emerging between China and India, with each competing for the upper-hand in both hard and soft power.
  • Following U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan has been given the opportunity to choose its own course of action.
  • Sri Lanka’s new government is shifting towards a pro-Western Indian stance, and away from earlier tendencies favoring China and Pakistan.
  • India proclaims a leadership role in South Asia, and prioritizes a peaceful neighborhood.
  • Positive relations with China may actually facilitate India’s economic growth, but enduring disputes may compromise a stronger relationship.
  • Progress in India-Pakistan relations may enable the stability needed for India’s domestic transformation.
  • Domestic political strife is of a lesser concern than in many other regions of the globe, perhaps because elections provide a release valve.

On Friday 13th March 2015, The Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) hosted a discussion in London on South Asian Geopolitics.

The panel was as follows:

Chair: Peter Apps, PS21 executive director

Amjad Saleem: humanitarian and geopolitics consultant, now based in Colombo, and PS21 global fellow

Omar Hamid: former Pakistani government official and head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury: senior fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.

Please feel free to quote from this report, referencing PS21. If you wish to get in touch with any of the panelists, email:

A full transcript of the discussion is available here.

From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, South Asia’s geopolitics are in a state of almost unprecedented flux. Almost 15 years after 9/11, the United States is pulling troops from Afghanistan. The rise of China is redrawing the entire neighborhood, not least because of its growing presence in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is taking its own new path, moving closer to Washington and increasingly at odds with Beijing. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, this year’s presidential election pushed out a pro-China government for one much more inclined towards India.

India will remain the regional powerhouse and should be the key driver of local stability. Its relations with smaller countries nearby, however, have always been challenging.

Roy-Chaudhury: India has had difficult neighborhood relations with other countries. There is a concept of “big brother,” and it’s not surprising. I mean, look at the map of South Asia. India really dwarfs other countries. It is also the only country that has links with most of the other South Asian countries. So I can understand the concern by India’s neighbors about India’s “big brother” perspective.

Modi’s government has shifted away from a foreign policy approach of balancing and hedging, instead favoring a global leadership role for India.

Roy-Chaudhury: I think with Modi’s leadership we’re not going to hear much about the term non-alignment. I think that’s really now the past.

Modi hosted a meeting with all the heads of Indian missions around the world a couple of weeks ago, and he was basically telling them, “Listen, this whole question of hedging, India has always been trying to hedge. Forget it now, India needs to take a leadership role.”

The U.S. withdrawal of troops may allow greater opportunity for Afghanistan to take control of its own fate, rather than depending on direction from outside influence.

Hamid: All the major stakeholders realize that regionally, a stable Afghanistan is paramount… As far as Pakistan is concerned, there has been a definite change in thinking in terms of they believe that it’s not perhaps in their interest, as was definitely the thinking in the past, to have, for lack of a better word, a puppet government.

I think the difference is that in the past everyone’s version of stability in Afghanistan was…that they insisted it was only their vision for Afghanistan that would bring in stability. Whereas I think now perhaps we will see a greater give-and-take. So if there is [an Afghan coalition government] in Kabul, it will not be unacceptable to Pakistan if potentially India has commercial interests and they remain there. It will not be a deal breaker.

Through economic and military prowess, China’s activity in South Asia may preclude Indian influence in the region.

Saleem: Over the last five years, you noticed a definite skew towards China in terms of investment—in terms of social investment, cultural investment, economic investment, the amount of money that was pumped into kind of, for major infrastructure projects—has meant that India was not able to compete at that level.

Last year quote-unquote “naval exercises were conducted with Chinese submarines that came to Sri Lanka’s shores.” Which again, I think that is one of the alarm bells that rang for Delhi.

Significant developments in the U.S.-India relationship indicate a clear tactical change in Delhi’s approach towards Beijing. Still, India’s attempts to check an increasingly domineering China are not likely to result in any truly entrenched partnership with the United States.

Roy-Chaudhury: Modi will want to continue to balance the relations between the U.S. and China, but I think in many ways we are going to see a clear difference in India’s policy towards these countries.

When Modi went to New York and Washington last September, there was a joint statement. When President Obama came to Delhi in late January, there was another joint statement. In these joint statements, both countries agreed that they were concerned over the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a clear allusion to China, though China of course wasn’t mentioned.

My sense generally is that I don’t think we’re going to see a strategic shift whereby India is going to become an alliance partner of the United States, or have military alliances.

India may be warming towards Washington, but it remains to be seen whether the United States can make similar strides in its relationships with others in the region.

China presents unprecedented opportunities, but also critical challenges to India.

Roy-Chaudhury: For Modi’s government, the China factor has astute primary issues that it has to deal with. Firstly, China is India’s largest trading partner. Modi wants to have a peaceful relationship with China because that’s the only way that what he wants for India, which is domestic transformation of India, can take place if you have a peaceful neighborhood. He wants investment from China as well coming in.

At the same time, the right-wing factions are very keen that Modi adopt a hardline position towards China, particularly over Tibet because of the presence of Hindu religious sites there… The thing that really stands out in Modi’s statements is when he talks about the Indian Ocean as being part of India’s near or extended neighborhood. That mindset will be critical, not only for how India is able to become a net security provider for the Indian Ocean islands, but more importantly, because we will see a ‘great game’ emerging between India and China in the Indian Ocean.

The Modi government has maneuvered strategically to counter the shifting balance of power by playing to India’s strengths.

Saleem: I don’t think India can afford the type of investment that China has made in places like Sri Lanka. I mean, you’re not talking just about infrastructure investment, you’re talking about tourism, you’re talking about the cultural exchanges, scholarships, cultural centers, you know all sorts of things. So I don’t think that’s it, but what India has tried to blend, particularly in Sri Lanka, is that it has offered a multi-dimensional aspect. So if you look at the agreements that were signed today in Colombo, you have waivers on visas, student exchanges, things that are more cultural, more soft.

Roy-Chaudhury: On the Indian Ocean, yes, I mean, China has deep pockets… But, I don’t think India is going to compete against this… India is going to leverage its key strengths. What are those strengths? Those strengths are proximity. Firstly, to the Indian Ocean island states compared to China. Very clearly in terms of distance but also its naval capabilities… Today, you have radar stations on the Maldives that are connected to India. You have a tri-lateral agreement between Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India. This is an important cooperative security venture on counter-terrorism and operational issues which very few people know about. But, this is the sort of way India is going to be there. Its leverage is going to be on security issues rather than economic.

Yet, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, greater Chinese influence is perceived positively as an alternative to India’s overbearing role.

Hamid: China is taking, or seems to be taking, a much more interested role in Afghanistan. It’s offering itself as an honest broker. At the same time it’s kind of green-lighted and seems to be going ahead on this sort of massive economic projects in Afghanistan that would link the regions, this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is about $45 billion worth of infrastructure and energy stuff that will go diagonally across Pakistan into Afghanistan. So that, I think, in many ways is a reassuring thing for the Pakistanis. They have their big friend actively throwing its weight in the game.

And of course, the other side of it remains that the fundamental bugbear in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been Indian influence, which has come oftentimes in shape of economic activity. So, I think there is certainly a wish that if that could be replaced by Chinese influence in these projects, that would be preferable.

Sri Lanka, especially in light of the country’s most recent elections, has tried to maintain a non-aligned stance. Regardless, Colombo has still managed to become entangled in regional balance-of-power politics.

Saleem: Sri Lanka at the moment, you have to realize, is still a transitional government.  So until we have parliamentary elections, I don’t think you’ll any definite move on foreign policy. What they have tried to do is focus on the domestic, but the need to ease the international pressure in the wake of the human rights council report has led the [transition regime] to make an extra special effort to reach out to India.

It is symbolic that the first state visit that Sri Lanka’s new president did was to India, where he did sign among everything else a civilian nuclear deal, and people’s eyebrows were raised. Well, what does Sri Lanka have to do with nuclear power? It has nothing to do with it, I mean it’s a small island. I think it’s significant that they’ve tried to redress the balance towards India.

China’s rise has overshadowed, to a certain extent, long-standing antagonism between Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir, but India-Pakistan relations are not at a stalemate.

Hamid: Kashmir hasn’t been as prominent on the agenda, and obviously that has had to do with the fact that over the past ten or eleven years, especially subsequent of 9/11, Pakistan’s relationship with various Kashmiri groups has been brought into question.

Roy-Chaudhury: I think it’s important to realize that actually Pakistan has taken a step forward in this issue by, in effect, agreeing to hold a dialogue with India despite the absence of a Kashmir resolution.

Modi’s focus is really the domestic and economic transformation of India, but the caveat here is that for this transformation to take place, he has to have a peaceful neighborhood. And for that he needs a relationship with Pakistan, and he needs an engagement with Pakistan. A few days ago, in fact, we saw the Indian foreign secretary fly into Islamabad under the aegis of a SAARC role. My sense is that unless India is able to have this engagement with Pakistan, Modi’s key objective of transformation may not happen.

India recognizes that improved relations with Pakistan will be key to stability in Afghanistan, as well.

Roy-Chaudhury: I don’t see a ‘zero-sum’ game between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a neighbor of Afghanistan and India is not. India is a near neighbor. Pakistan has tremendous leverage and a very strong relationship with Afghanistan. India has the ability to provide tremendous soft power.

In many ways, I think for India, a stable Afghanistan is key. If President Ghani is able to get the Pakistani security establishment to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and also clearly end Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, I think that will be advantageous for India as well, as it will help facilitate stability in Afghanistan.

India must also manage its relations with Bangladesh.

It will be very important for India to take a magnanimous view towards Bangladesh; to move forward on the sharing of the Teesta River water, get the parliament approval on the land border enclaves exchange, and actually work with the new government of Sheikh Hasina to combat extremism and terrorism. And that is how we would really see a tremendous improvement in the India-Bangladesh relationship, and hopefully a beacon for a stable South Asian neighborhood.

Discord between South Asian neighbors is forever oscillating, but in the domestic politics of the region, civil unrest and political strife have not been as destabilizing as in other, more volatile parts of the world.

Hamid: From Pakistan’s point of view, many people have often said, “well, Pakistan, by all rights, should be a country ripe for an Arab Spring type of situation.” We haven’t seen that, I think that of course there is civil unrest of various types and forms as there is in India and even Sri Lanka, but you haven’t seen that kind of outpouring on a single issue that overthrows a regime… I think part of that perhaps, in reference to Pakistan, through the fact in 2013 we had a peaceful, democratic transition from one party to another… Elections are good pressure relievers.

Saleem: I think one of the things the former governments tried to do is to manufacture some kind of Arab Spring and protests that would have then justified them trying to stick onto power and keep the security apparatus intact. I think what happened is the reverse, that the Sri Lankan population by whole actually got out and voted and used social media to get the people out and talk about the campaign, to talk about corruption, and that is what at the moment is keeping at least the current government slightly afloat.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Yaseen Lotfi, Rhea Menon and Amanda Blair.

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