The ‘reopening’ of the Stilwell Road, as it were, has come to occupy news space with renewed vigour in the past few of years. The road finds its inception at Ledo Road in Assam, through Nampong and Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh (the latter is the international border point) through Bhamo and Myitkina in Kachin State of Myanmar, to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. The largest section of this currently dysfunctional route lies in Myanmar (1,033 km), a 61 km stretch traverses India and the remaining 632 km passes through China. It must be noted that this road was operational only during the period of World War II, during which time it was used as a military supply line. It lay redundant after this, as it does to this day.
Asia’s rise as a locus of international financial and economic power only increases the need to better understand how changes in important structural factors impact security dynamics. In that context, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses held its 14th annual Asian Security Conference in New Delhi this month. The goal of the gathering, entitled “Nontraditional Security Challenges – Today and Tomorrow,” is “to capture the complex issues involved in Asia’s emergence as the new locus of international affairs in the 21st century and India’s emergence as a factor in the continent’s evolving economic, political and security dynamics.”
The IDSA, an ISN Partner, is an Indian think tank devoted to the study of global strategic and security issues. The organization is funded by the Indian Ministry of Defense, but functions autonomously. It has brought together academics, policy analysts, and officials from government and multilateral organizations, from various Asian countries as well as other parts of the world every year since 1999 to debate upon issues pertaining to Asian affairs.
Opening remarks at the conference were made by IDSA Director General Dr. Arvind Gupta, with a keynote address by Shri Shivshankar Menon, the national Security Advisor to the Indian prime minister. A special address was given by Roza Otunbayeva, former president of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. This meeting addressed the issues of water security, climate change, natural disasters, energy security, transnational crime, and financial and economic security. Each of these challenges has a related impact on food, water and energy resources, as well as implications for national economies and the movement of people, all of which fall between the short- and long-term and consequently are contributing factors to traditional security threats.
The IDSA is at the forefront of an effort to narrow the perception gap between about the relationship between non-traditional and traditional security issues. The hosting of this conference by an India-based organization is highlighted by the fact that India sits at the cross-roads of several important gateways to global power centers: including for energy, economic and trade hubs, sea lanes of communication, and maritime power. This point was highlighted by Ajit Doval in the closing plenary session of the 2011 ISF here in Zurich. Certainly in the case of Asia, the emergence of new threats and the changing context of regional security issues will increasingly become the centerpiece of policy and research agendas around the world.
There is a conundrum at the heart of the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, at least as it relates to India. The US is eager to extricate itself from military conflicts in the Greater Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) so it can focus on a region where, as President Obama put it, “the action’s going to be.” Shoring up the US strategic posture in East Asia amid China’s ascendance will entail a deepening of geopolitical cooperation between Washington and New Delhi. But the quickening withdrawal from Afghanistan will increase bilateral frictions, pushing relations in the opposite direction.
The Pentagon’s just-released strategic guidance paper calls for “investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” Both Obama during his visit to India in November 2010 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her trip last summer have called on New Delhi to play a more active strategic role in East Asia.
Speaking at a major event in New Delhi earlier this month, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad alleged that India’s problem is its democracy. The country, he advised, would do better with less rather than more democracy. With hordes of protestors on hunger strike over the construction of India’s newest nuclear reactors at Koodankulam, one might not find it hard to second-guess the source of inspiration behind Dr Mahathir’s astute observation. Democracy, one might argue, has led to policy paralysis in modern India; nothing could be more illustrative of this than the now-rusting steel of Koodankulam. For a country which is the world’s fourth largest consumer of energy and heavily dependent on imports to satisfy its energy demands, nuclear energy seems to be the only way out of the perennial and potentially dangerous problem of energy insecurity.
Built at an exorbitant cost to the Indian exchequer (with help from our all-weather Russian friends), the Koodankulam reactors should already be operational. Instead, the reactors are at the center of controversies concerning safety and environmental issues. The population in the surrounding areas is vehemently boycotting the reactors being brought online, fearing drastic environmental degradation and potential loss of habitat if something goes wrong. While reservations were apparent right from the project’s conception fifteen years ago, the Fukushima nuclear accident has undoubtedly led to an intensification of resistance.
The Kashmir conflict is usually considered an interstate problem between Pakistan and India. In my opinion both governments should recognize that the matter is less about New Delhi and Islamabad – but about Kashmir. High-level talks are important but not enough. The key to stability lies in dialogue between the two central governments and Kashmiris themselves.
Many problems in Indian-Administered Kashmir are homegrown and can only be tackled at the domestic level, rather than the international one. At present, the situation is bizarre: in the first place, the Valley remains heavily militarized. The capital, Srinagar, looks as if it were under siege, and its commercial airport doubles as a military airfield. And curfews, arbitrary arrests, and police brutality all contribute to the atmosphere of mistrust, hatred and unrest. So what can be done?
In a recent article in Strategic Analysis, John Wilson — a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi — makes four suggestions for how the Indian central government could improve the overall situation in the Valley: