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16 January 2014, Gateway House

India’s top security risks in 2014

What are the implications for India of the scaling down of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the continuing tension with China at the border, and the political turmoil in Bangladesh? How should India address these and other upheavals in its neighbourhood, which are potential challenges to the country’s security?

Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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As India observes its 65th Republic Day on January 26, it faces various challenges arising from the upheavals in the country’s neighbourhood, challenges that India’s security establishment must plan for and address. The most critical security issues for India in 2014 are the tense situation in Afghanistan, the intrusions by Chinese troops in the northern Himalayas, and the political chaos in Bangladesh.

In Afghanistan, a historic presidential election is scheduled for April. Thereafter, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force will scale back from the country in December. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are progressively taking over the security responsibilities. However, serious doubts persist about their capability and operational preparedness in handling the Taliban insurgency. Politically, efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban are yet to gain traction and the future of the regime in Kabul remains critically dependent on international support.

India must move beyond the economic aid and institutional support it currently provides to the ANSF. In consultation with the U.S. and regional stakeholders in Central Asia, it can take on a collaborative role that includes military training for the ANSF, strengthening border protection, assistance to the Afghan presidential election process, and encouraging Afghanistan’s ethnic groups to participate in intra-Afghanistan peace talks.

Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan as its much-needed “strategic depth” against India. With the U.S. busy with the drawdown, Islamabad will spare no effort to exercise its leverage through groups like the Haqqani network to install a favourable regime in Kabul.

Another worrying factor for India is the rise in the activities of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces – especially in Kunar and Nuristan – in the last few years.  With his warning of an enhanced militant focus on Kashmir and the rest of India, LeT leader Hafiz Saeed has claimed that just as the U.S. must exit Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban, India will have to retreat from Kashmir. A diversion of militants to Jammu and Kashmir from Afghanistan-Pakistan is a distinct possibility in 2014, which India has to anticipate, plan for and counter.

In another geographical direction, India faces the problem of Chinese intrusions. In April 2013, troops of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) intruded into the Indian side of Ladakh’s Depsang area and camped there for three weeks. This incident came soon after a new leadership assumed power in Beijing in March 2013, and was its first signal of China’s reassertion of territorial claims.

The Chinese intrusions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) focus on the Chumar sector, about 300 kilometres southeast of Leh, where the topography has put the PLA at a disadvantage compared to the Indian Army. India is developing  infrastructure like forward bunkers, observation posts and improved road and air connectivity in order to augment its natural advantage. China aims to push India’s troops back, diminish this advantage, and stake territorial claims.

Both countries signed the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement on 23 October 2013 to resolve such issues. However, with the continuing Chinese intrusions, the tensions on the border are not expected to subside. Additionally, India must remain cognisant of China’s growing influence in Nepal and Bhutan.

In 2013, the Chinese Navy also stepped up its presence in the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea.  In response, India has only taken measured steps to indigenise critical weapons platforms and expand naval capabilities. In 2014, Indian policymakers must overcome their indifference to defence planning, support the navy’s vision of achieving full spectrum capability, and expand the role of private players in shipbuilding to better protect India’s maritime interests.

China is also in a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and in counter-claims with Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea. The risk of an accidental conflict between any of these countries and China remains high.

Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership, has reiterated that it will firmly respond to any Chinese aggression over the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo has sought to enlist India as a partner in this endeavour. Japan wants to deepen its security engagement with India by extending the scope of maritime exercises and promoting arms sales.

However, so far, India has considered an ASEAN-specific regional security architecture, instead of focusing on bilateral approaches, such as a security engagement with Japan, to deal with China.  India can rethink this approach in 2014.

To effectively hedge against China’s growing strategic weight, India can also look at the option of reviving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Consisting of U.S., Japan, Australia and India, this initiative was introduced in 2007 to counter China and send the right signals to the rest of the Asia.

In its immediate South Asian neighbourhood, India’s most pressing security risk is likely to emanate from Bangladesh. The country held a tumultuous national election on January 5, in which the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) claimed victory. But the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has contested these claims, citing its boycott of the elections and a low voter turnout.

The increasing political influence of the BNP ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami is a major concern for India. The Jamaat has been carrying out a strident campaign against the International Crimes Tribunal investigating the 1971 war crimes, especially after the the tribunal sentenced to death the Islamist leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was executed in December 2013. If the pre-election strife is any indication, Bangladesh’s neighbours will have to brace for more cycles of violence and political uncertainty.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government had reined in anti-India groups, including the LeT and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which had modules and a support base in Bangladesh. It also handed over to India insurgents like Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia of the United Liberation Front of Asom. However, in the current political chaos, these groups may revive their activities with a focus on recruitment and infiltration. BNP-aligned groups are likely to support these activities, much to the detriment of India’s security interests.

New Delhi must make every effort to strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hand, without appearing to be interfering in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. India can expedite ratifying the bilateral Land Boundary Agreement to address terrorism and cut down smuggling and human trafficking. Steps like these will boost the AL government’s domestic legitimacy as well as address Bangladesh’s potential internal chaos and its spill-over into India.

In 2014, India’s differences with Pakistan will also continue. The killing of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control in January and August 2013, and the increase in cross-border firings, indicate the continuing volatility along the India-Pakistan border. The increased militant infiltration in north Kashmir with the support of the Pakistan Army has deepened the chasm between the two countries. This year, India’s security forces will have to further secure the border and tighten the security grid to foil infiltration and prevent attacks against in Kashmir.

India will close the first month of 2014 with the annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi. In the backdrop of these security challenges, India must decisively move from showcasing its military capabilities during the parade to careful strategic planning on these various fronts.

Sameer Patil is Associate Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.

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