2016 has proven to be a busy year thus far for diplomats of the major world powers as they flew into South Asia’s capitals to cut deals and cooperate in combating terrorism as well as extending areas of cooperation with geopolitical implications. The US, China, France and the de facto dominant power in the region, India, have all been extremely active recently in shaping the future of the region with summit meetings between their leaders, and foreign ministers’ gatherings on the subcontinent. This year, as early as January, France was one of the first major powers to begin big power diplomacy in South Asia, way before the series of unfortunate and cruel terrorist attacks that were unleashed in Western Europe in the summer.
French President Francois Hollande was the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day, the day of independence and pride for India, the largest and most influential player in the South Asian region. France has always been known as an independent power, often autonomous in its approach to world affairs, with its Gaullist geopolitical distance from other non-European large powers. France has invested its resources substantially into building a united Europe with its German counterpart and other Western European states to prevent world wars from happening on the continent again (ironically, this dream faced the challenge of Brexit this year). When the leaders of the two countries met, France and India quickly agreed on a common worldview for the future security of the Indian Ocean, a maritime region that some Indian nationalists consider as the country’s own backyard. Against the backdrop of a grand military parade, the two countries appeared to have agreed on engaging in more naval manoeuvres.
They also agreed to cooperate on counterterrorism measures. Hollande declared he would strike the Islamic State (IS) harder to defeat extremism (the IS extremists later struck the French a few months later on Bastille Day). India faced its own extremist challenge when one of its air-force bases was attacked by terrorists a little while before Hollande’s visit. Both countries have faced blitzkrieg simultaneous attacks at a number of locations (in India’s case Mumbai and the air force facility) in an IS-preferred pattern that alternated with lone wolf attacks in other countries recently. The two countries called on Pakistan (a staunch Chinese ally) to contribute more combat troops to fight terrorism and extremism in the region.
In a pattern that would repeat throughout the summer of 2016, France cut business deals (involving the advanced jet fighter Rafale in this case) in India while discussing geopolitics and antiterrorism measures. Other major powers like the US and China followed suit in a similar pattern with geopolitical and counterterrorism concerns mixed with economic business when they dealt with South Asian states a few months later. France’s deal is significant as India has of late become one of the world’s largest arms importers and an Indian deal could create a large number of jobs for French workers and European industries. The French faced stiff competition from American military subcontractors that offered highly-competitive deals that apparently included an offer to relocate F-16 manufacturing facilities from the US to India. This was a move that could change the balance of power since India’s rival Pakistan uses F-16s as one of its main jet fighters.
In June 2016, another major power, Japan, held a joint naval exercise with its Indian and US counterparts. Previously, in the first administration of Japanese PM Abe Shinzo, there was an intention to establish closer relations with India in an envisioned “arc of democracy” that would link up all the democratic countries in the Asian region. The annual exercise was originally a bilateral one between the US and India that started in 1992 and, in 2016, Japan joined for the first time. The combined Indian, American and Japanese fleet sailed out of a Japanese naval base together. Guided missile destroyers, aircraft carriers, submarine hunters, and submarines were involved in this naval exercise that visited the ports of a number of traditional US allies including the Philippines and South Korea, and also called on ports of traditional Indian friends including Russia. The other countries that the participants called on were Vietnam and Malaysia.
If China succeeds in gearing Yunnan for a southern approach, then it effectively has pincer-like economic corridors moving into South Asia when paired off with Pakistan in the north.
In July 2016, another European power made its move on India, offering a deal that could change the face of maritime geopolitics in the region. A group of military-industrial complex officials from Russia visited India in July 2016. Russia offered India joint developmental opportunities through the Storm aircraft carrier project. India has aspirations to develop its own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, given its ambitions to achieve supremacy or at least some form of dominance in the Indian Ocean. Russia had previously helped the Indians refurbish an old Soviet carrier into a usable vessel and they therefore could build on their previous experiences (both positive exchanges and setbacks) for the next Indian carrier project.
However, the South Asian giant appears to have an alternative option which is the possibility of developing this carrier with the US instead of Russia. The Indians are apparently attracted to US cooperation due to the American’s aircraft catapult system technology. This is perceived to be a superior form of aircraft launch technology compared to the ski-jump type which Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and British through-deck cruisers use. Aircraft carriers appear to be a power projection tool of choice for large powers in Asia. Besides Russian and Indian carrier projects, Japan has three new helicopter carriers including the Hyuga while China is practising manoeuvres on its refurbished Ukrainian carrier Liaoning with ambitions of setting up its own carrier fleet or task force. China is reportedly building its second carrier.
The summer month of August 2016 ushered in the de facto hyperpower and another large Asian player to the sub-continent in a burst of activities. The US is probably the most important player flying into the region to talk with regional leaders about the challenges of terrorism. US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Bangladesh with an eye on cooperation over anti-terrorist measures. Terrorists in that country had recently killed foreigners in a café. The US was also concerned with regional affairs related to the interest of the largest power in that region — India. Kerry was interested in talking about peace deals in the Kashmiri region, a location in dispute between India and Pakistan. Currently Kashmir acts as a buffer zone between the two rival regional powers in South Asia. Recent clashes had taken place in this buffer zone and the Americans were concerned about human rights issues related to such tensions. Like the French and the Russians, the US also had an economic agenda. Kerry hoped to secure more economic cooperation with his Indian counterparts as he led a group of government officials and Commerce Secretary to New Delhi.
At about the same time, China renewed its push into South Asia. Beijing reached out to Nepal based on the One Belt One Road (OBOR) policy. Some media sources highlighted Nepal’s (governed by Maoist elements in power) supposed desire to play a new balancing role between China and India. Besides Nepal, the Foreign Ministers of China and Bhutan met with each other to talk about future ties and cooperation. Further southeast of the region, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister also recently visited Beijing to talk about the stalled dam project and China’s possible mediating role in negotiations between Myanmar’s government and rebel forces, some of whom are ethnic Chinese or, at times, have had access to Chinese authorities.
Besides this flurry of activities, there was also talk about Beijing revitalizing its approach to South Asia through provinces like Yunnan that share common boundaries. Yunnan is a component of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative. If China succeeds in gearing Yunnan for a southern approach to South Asia, then it effectively has pincer-like economic corridors moving into South Asia when paired off with its established cooperation with Pakistan (a loyal Chinese ally known as “ironclad brother”) in the north. India, the regional hegemonic power, appears to favor a highway that can link Kolkata with Yunnan through the BCIM platform. A number of think tank platforms and trade fairs have emerged to strengthen BCIM potentialities.
In conclusion, South Asia has emerged as an area of big power rivalry as well as cooperation. It appears counterterrorism measures are ranking as high as geopolitical agendas in large power diplomacy in that region. But large powers and their enterprises are pragmatic in mixing business deals with political talk, with an eye on the lucrative commercial potential of South Asian states, particularly in the areas of military weapons sales (directly linked to the geopolitical and counterterrorism aspects), trade augmentation, and large infrastructure projects.