You are on page 1of 17


1 South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka London, March 13, 2015 Panel: Amjad Saleem,

South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka

London, March 13, 2015


Amjad Saleem, Humanitarian and geopolitics consultant; Global Fellow, PS21 Omar Hamid, Former Pakistani government official; Head of Asia-Pacific Risk, IHS

Rahul Roy Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies


Peter Apps, Executive Director, PS21

Peter Apps: Well, thank you very much for joining us on the inaugural London PS21 discussion on South Asia. We have an excellent panel here to discuss how geopolitics is changing in the

region. We have Amjad Saleem, a veteran aid worker who I met by the side of the road during the Sri Lankan war eight years ago shortly before I broke my neck, who is now a consultant on both humanitarian affairs and geopolitics out of Colombo. We have Rahul Roy Chaudhury, the South Asia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and probably one of the leading experts in London on South Asian Affairs. And sitting next to him, we have Omar

Hamid, probably London’s other leading expert on South Asian Affairs, a former Karachi cop

and thriller writer who is now the head of Asia-Pacific at IHS.

I’m Pete Apps, I am Global Defense Correspondent at Thomson Reuters and I am also Executive Director of the Project for the Study of the 21 st Century, the world’s newest and probably most idiosyncratic think tank. We’ll get back to you with discussion overlooking London in a stunning conference venue which was more or less exactly fifty-five minutes ago still my bedroom. I want to start with Amjad. Sri Lanka, a place that the both of us know and love, we had presidential elections in January removing President Mahinda Rajapaksa after two terms in office. The man in the views of some, if not most, who won the Sri Lanka war for better or worse, and also the man who moved Sri Lanka much closer to China and further from India. And how have things changed in Sri Lanka since that election and what does that mean for the rest of the region where India has been nervous at best?

Amjad Saleem: Thank you Peter, good evening ladies and gentlemen. It’s, to use a South Asian cricketing term, it’s hard to kind of be knocked up onto the opening bats when you have two stars behind you, so I’m going to try my best. I think the best way to talk about how things have changed in Sri Lanka is the fact I can actually sit here and allow this to be recorded, and to talk


about Sri Lanka. I mean I think that is the first element of the change that has taken place, that there now seems to be a space that has opened up for just dialogue on issues of reconciliation and governance whatever that can…so, that space has opened up. There’s a will to move the discussion forward. I think that is the key message. Whether things actually do follow on, whether people, they accept the hundred-day pledge that President Sirisena came to office with saying he was going to change, the reforms, I don’t think that people are still giving him the benefit of the doubt that will happen. But I think the challenge for him now is to kind of live up to the expectations.

Now, what this means in terms of the region, I guess, is that for the last maybe five years in particular, I think the relationship has become skewed where India, for better or for worse over the last 30 years particularly during the conflict, had a very interesting role, a very involved role in Sri Lanka. So from the 80s, it was maybe more support for perhaps the creation and the training of the LTTE troops on the ground, to then taking a very antagonistic relationship with the LTTE Tigers, to then kind of working with the Sri Lankan government and supporting them at the end of the conflict, to being slightly left out of the cold. So what Sri Lanka and the relationship between Sri Lanka and India, it is mainly of a big brother-small brother, each one trying to see how….or the small brother trying to kind of step out of the shadow of the big brother. But over the last five years, you noticed a definite skew towards China in terms of investmentin terms of social investment, cultural investment, economic investment, the amount of money that was pumped in to kind of, for major infrastructure projectshas meant that India was not able to compete at that level. Which meant that what Sri Lanka then did was to kind of move the axis of influence to another level. And then of course all of this is part of sort of the New Silk Route that China has been trying to push through the Indian Ocean.

Apps: And has that changed with the election?

Saleem: Well, in the sense that the election has meant that most of the projects that China has been undertaking in Sri Lanka has now been suspended. So the biggest-talking one was the port city that was supposed to be built off Colombo. So it was a reclaimed land where it was supposed to be a gaming hub of South AsiaFormula One race track, casinos, seven-star hotels, everythingand which the Chinese government had a 99-year lease on 20 percent of the land. All of this has now been suspended. Of course the challenge for the Sri Lankan government is that the Chinese Premier actually came and inaugurated the project last year. So, there’s a huge challenge in how they balance that, and sort of saying that there were no tenders, it was done very shadily. All of these things to kind of then say, okay we need to work with the Chinese government. The other challenge I think that Sri Lanka has is that 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 in terms of what does that mean in

terms of Chinese navy and military…


Apps: I want to come to Rahul now. India’s priorities strategically for most of the last half- century has been facing off against Pakistan. The rise of China obviously changes things in South Asia. I mean, how worried is India about China, and how much has China really upped its clout in the region?

Rahul Roy Chaudhury: Peter, I think to understand the change that has taken place in India since the last elections, I think it is very important to grasp the fact that for the first time in thirty years India has a prime minister who actually wanted to become prime minister. And I say this seriously, I say this seriously. You know in the last thirty years, India has had prime ministers who’ve been accidental prime ministers or who’ve been the lowest common denominator in terms of coalition politics. But Modi is someone who has wanted to become prime minister at least for the last few years. He is now prime minister, he has a decisive majority in the Lok Sabha, the low house of Parliament. He is…

Apps: And he’s not quite regretting his decision yet?

Chaudhury: No, no, no. In fact I think he is enjoying it, I think he particularly likes foreign travel. But, I think it is important to understand that there’s been a seminal change in the way that India is going to be looking at foreign policy and security issues. For Modi, and make no mistake, this is Modi’s government, this is not a BJP government, 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. I mean, we saw that in the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to India. At the same time, the right-wing factions, including of the RSS, are very keen that Modi adopt a hardline position towards China. Particularly over the Tibet issue because of the presence of Hindu religious sites in Tibet. We had unprecedented, we had an official swearing in of Prime Minister Modi on the 26 th of May. We had, in addition to the eight members and leaders of the SAARC countries, we had in official photograph the Prime Minister exiled of Tibet in the swearing-in ceremony, which is unthinkable in the past. So for Modi today, and Modi’s government, China presents opportunities for a stable neighborhood, but presents severe challenges. And I think in many ways, China is going to be the death for Modi, whether it is in terms of the relationship with the South Asian neighborhood, or it could well be on the bilateral issue on the border dispute.

Apps: Omar, as we move from south to north in South Asia, once we look at Pakistan and Afghanistan, the rise of China is obviously a factor, right? But you also have the other elephant in the room, which is the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. I mean, how does that change the picture in the northern chunk of South Asia?


Omar Hamid: It’s been a very frenetic past three or four months as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned. Of course, the biggest headline item there was the end of the ISAF mission and the replacement of that with this overwhelmingly U.S.-led continuing mission, and the most important aspect of that being that, you know, it had been thought for a long time that the group would fundamentally be a training and support machine but, it was then found very late in the day that knowing it was not in fact doing that. Indeed now the U.S. mission will continue to be a partially combat mission, supporting Iran security forces by air strikes and indeed on the ground as well. And on the other side of that, in Pakistan we had, what many have sort of seen as perhaps potentially a paradigm change, with the attack on the public school in Peshawar that sort of seemed to jog the Pakistan military establishment out of its kind of, you know, position on militancy and the whole issue of good and bad Taliban, and all of a sudden you know we found the military, which is now, again make no bones about it, the military is firmly in control of security policy. You know, there is of course a political government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was elected back in May 2013, remains the titular head of that government, but security policy is coming from general headquarters and everyone else in the sort of political spectrum across the country is following that. So we’ve seen movement across action against groups like the Haqqani network, which was, you know, a long-standing irritant in relations between the U.S. as well as the governments in Pakistan. Of course, I guess, the ultimate litmus test will come when the army of the military establishment moves against, or doesn’t move against, whichever happens, these sort of Kashmiri-based groups like Lashkar-e- Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, and that will really sort of

Apps: Make moves against them within Pakistan?

Hamid: Yeah, the proof of the pulling I suppose will come then. In terms of have they kind of actually done this paradigm shift, or is it sort of still Iran-centric and centric towards the situation in the tribal areas.

Apps: The U.S. has always been a sort of secondary player in South Asia. I mean, from your perspective in Sri Lanka, Amjad, do people think much about what Washington, or for that matter London or Brussels, does or thinks on South Asia or is the region generally running itself?

Saleem: I think definitely the former regime played on this view, and still plays on this view, that basically this regime change that took place was mainly because of two elements. One was the influence from the western world and one was from the Indian intelligence. So, they actually, and the former president has actually come out and said that he believes its wrong, and the CIA


and everyone else kind of supported this regime change and pumped in a lot of money, so I think

that there…

Apps: Although in truth it is a shift from a sort of pro-China to a pro-Western Indian stance, right?

Saleem: Yes, yes. And of course, you know with that has come, you know, within the first few weeks of the election of President Sirisena, you had the Commonwealth Secretary General there, you had…the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, you had Hugo Swire. So you know, you had a series of people coming in. So, of course it does feed in that effectively there was this stalemate in terms of dealing with Sri Lanka because of the fact that you had the previous government there. So I think the challenge now is how do you move beyond this because the other thing is that the current government, which is a national government which is mainly made up of members of the United National Party of which the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader, is seen as a very elitist pro-Western party, as well. So I think the challenge for them is how do they convey this message to the grassroots who still believe that perhaps that this is a western conspiracy and are still kind of negative about the West mainly because of the UN Human Rights Council report.

Apps: I mean, Rahul how does that play in India? I mean, we have seen a deepening of ties between Washington and New Delhi, particularly in part over worries over China. Is that bringing the two countries closer together or is India still very keen to avoid, to keep itself non- aligned as it has in the past?

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. But clearly Modi will want to continue to balance the relations between the U.S. and China as I mentioned, with China as a potential for peace and security but also a security challenge for India. But what I think in many ways what we are going to see is going to be a tactical change in India’s perspective towards these countries. With the U.S. we have seen two things that we haven’t seen before. The first is that when Modi went to Washington, 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 both these joint statements, both countries agreed that they were concerned over the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a clear illusion to China, though China of course wasn’t mentioned. But the very fact that the South China Sea was mentioned in the joint statement is something that I think signals


Apps: That might antagonize Beijing. Neither country has any presence anywhere near the South China Sea.

Chaudhury: Exactly. But it is significant that it was there in the U.S. joint statement. So that’s the first sort of shift that has taken place. The second shift I think is that in the U.S.-India nuclear deal, which really sort of changed their relationship, that was signed in 2008 I think is now moving towards implementation from the Obama visit last January where the issues about nuclear civil liability laws have been sorted out, and we will have to see how nuclear commercial companies act on this. But this again could provide a second, and I think a second clear tactical shift for India and for Modi in how he is going to deal with the United States. 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…

Apps: Or to become France or Germany, or…

Chaudhury: Exactly, exactly, exactly. But the tactical part of it I think itself is very important because this is not only signaling a clear difference in policy but also in terms of operational aspects on the ground. Just to end on this, Modi hosted a meeting with all the heads of Indian missions around the world a couple of weeks ago, and from what little we know what has come out from that meeting in the public domain, he was basically telling them, “Listen, you know, this whole question of hedging, India has always been trying to hedge. You know, forget it now. India needs to take a leadership role.” Now, I have talked to several high commissioners who attended that meeting, and it is still not quite clear what the leadership role means. But what is very clear is that there is a very clear signal now that Modi has given that whole question of balance and hedging and all, may not necessarily be in the same manner that we’ve seen it in the past.

Apps: I mean, when we talk about hedging, Pakistan is the country at the devil gate, if you talk to officials in Washington and elsewhere. The priority for Pakistan has always been to protect against India, and Washington has always wanted to do other things whether it’s been defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the fight against the Taliban. In this changing region, particularly as China weighs in and India changes where it stands, how worried is Pakistan about India and how much is that driving what it is doing in Afghanistan?

Hamid: I think there was a great amount of concern because there’s always been, you know, a deep-rooted perception within the Pakistani military establishment that at least one factionthe sort of non-Pashtun faction, political faction within Afghanistan, you know these sort of, whether it was Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, or people like that, were always too India-centric for


the sort of taste of the Pakistani military establishment. And indeed, although President Ashraf Ghani, when the elections were going on last year, it wasn’t as if President Ashraf Ghani in the past had had a fantastic relationship with Pakistan, but for them it mattered that A) he was a Pashtun, and B) sort of, you know, he was better than Abdullah Abdullah and company. So you actually had the phenomenon where, of course behind the scenes, Pakistan backed his candidacy in not only that, but in a lot of areas, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where you had also some allegations of vote-rigging. A lot of that rigging was actually done by the Taliban who said, Well you know, he’s a fellow Pashtun, so we’ll stuff the ballot boxes for him if that’s what it takes.But that, in this new kind, in the situation we find I think the couple of interesting things is again, China is taking or seems to be taking a much more interested role. It is sort of offering itself as…

Apps: In Afghanistan?

Hamid: 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 kind of go across, diagonally across Pakistan into Afghanistan. So that, sort of, I think in many ways that is a reassuring thing for the Pakistanis. They have their big friend actively throwing its weight in the game. And of course, you know the other side of it remains that they remain the fundamental bugbear in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been Indian influence. And…

Apps: Is that moderated by greater Chinese influence?

Hamid: I think there is a hope that that would be the case, especially in Afghanistan because Indian influence in Afghanistan has come oftentimes in shape of economic activity, so you know mining, or infrastructure development, and all that. I think there is certainly probably a wish, whether or not China decides to take it up and to what extent it decides to take it up is a separate issue, but there’s a wish that if that could be sort of replaced by Chinese influence in these projects, that would be preferable.

Apps: I want to come back down, drag the conversation back down, to Sri Lanka. I nearly got myself blown up in a Claymore mine explosion that was targeting the Pakistani Ambassador in 2006 about the same time Pakistan was supplying a lot of the weaponry to the Tamil Tigers. How does Pakistan play in Sri Lanka over the last few years, particularly the new Sri Lanka where we have a very different government?


Saleem: It’s still too early to kind of figure out where Pakistan plays in because I think, you know, that it is symbolic that the first state visit that the new president did was to India, and where he did sign amongst 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. I mean, Pakistan has had a very interesting relationship with Sri Lanka. To some extent, the dynamics of Pakistan-India have actually played out in Sri Lanka. And the former government did try to reach out to India, especially over the last year, after the election of Prime Minister Modi where they issued for the first time I think in the history of the relationship between Pakistan and Sri Lanka the need for Pakistanis not to get a visa on arrival. Because Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries where Pakistanis could get a visa on arrival. Whereas the fear was, that was expressed from India was, that this was then an easy ground for Pakistani intelligence to come in and start plotting ways of getting into South India, and then from there into India.

Apps: There was talk at the end of the war of Pakistanis setting up jungle training schools in northern Sri Lanka and so forth, which India reacted very negatively to.

Saleem: Yes, I mean, you know, if you look at the way that influence, or who were the main backers for the Sri Lankan government at the end of the war. And part of it, of course you had India, you had Pakistan, you had China, you had Russia. So you know the Sri Lankan government really had turned the axis of influence from sort of the west to the east, and Pakistan I think has been there as part of an ally, but I think over the last year or so, I think even the relationship with Pakistan was slightly on edge because of this newfound or new pressure from the Indian government. But what was interesting was that despite Rajapaksa trying to reach out to the Indian government on issues of terrorism and things like that, you know, the relationship was not as cordial as it is now. I mean, today Prime Minister Modi is in Sri Lanka visiting, the first prime minister in twenty-seven years to actually visit Sri Lanka. He’s going to Jaffna tomorrow.

Apps: Worth pointing out that in the Tamil Tigers’ day, no Indian prime minister would have risked themselves within a country mile of Jaffna.

Saleem: Yes, yes, so you know he’s visiting. He’s opening up a cultural center. And you know, India is investing a lot in the rehabilitation in the north. So I think, you know, this is the new Non-Aligned Movement as the president of Sri Lanka has said that we are now going to be non- aligned. We are not aligned to China. We are not aligned to India. We are not aligned to anyone


else. We’re just going to chart this territory. But interesting, where Pakistan fits in at the moment? We’re not really certain.

Apps: I mean, Rahul, I just want to broaden the discussion slightly. We haven’t touched upon Bangladesh. How does Bangladesh play into the India-China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka paradigm that’s going on in the rest of South Asia?

Chaudhury: For India, Bangladesh is both an opportunity and a concern. The opportunity is that if India is able to get its relationship with Bangladesh right, then actually this could be a beacon for a stable South Asian neighborhood. But if it gets it wrong

Apps: Is this an admission that it’s got it wrong everywhere else?

Chaudhury: Well, you know, I think to be fair, you know, India has had difficult neighborhood relations with other countries, partly from what we’ve heard before. There is a concept of “big brother,and it’s not surprising, I mean look at the map of South Asia. I mean India really dwarfs other countries. It is also the only country that has links with most of the other South Asian countries. So, you know, I can understand there is, you know, this concern by India’s neighbors about India’s “big brother” sort of perspective. But, for Bangladesh I think if India is able to sort of move forward on this relationship, then you will have issues like extremism and terrorism, you know which will be of lesser concern for India emanating from Bangladesh. The problem is that in the past the foreign policy issues relating to Bangladesh, the Chief Minister of the eastern province of West Bengal has a key role in terms of a veto over a critical treaty on the sharing of the river water, the Teesta River. Mamata Banerjee in the past has not agreed to go along with the Indian Prime Minister on this issue. And my own sense is that it is very important for India to take a magnanimous view towards Bangladesh, to move forward on the Teesta, 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 really we would see a tremendous improvement in India-Bangladesh relationship, and as I said, hopefully a beacon for the rest of the neighborhood.

Apps: We’ve got this far into the discussion of South Asia without barely touching on Kashmir at all. Kashmir has been one of the sort of battlefronts that has not been as hot over the last decade, where everything has been going on in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and various other places. Is it somewhere that people can afford to ignore, or is it somewhere that we should still be watching as a flashpoint? I was going to give it to Omar first…


Hamid: I think, yeah, Kashmir hasn’t been as sort of prominent on the agenda, and obviously that has had to do with the fact that over the past ten or eleven years, especially sort of subsequent of 9/11, Pakistan’s sort of relationship with various Kashmiri groups was brought into question. Of course, that further increased with the Mumbai attacks in 2008, after which in fact ISI, the Pakistani premier intelligence service, clamped down itself because it didn’t want to sort of, you know, accidentally trigger an escalation of things with India. It remains, I mean you know, its not as if the situation remains at the status quo. I think what has happened, especially when Prime Minister Sharif was elected, he being a sort of native Kashmiri, it’s always sort of

been his thing to kind of push past the issue of Kashmir to try to improve relations with India. He

did that and took up Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to his swearing in ceremony last May and there was this thing that Sharif would push relations with India himself without necessarily taking dictation from the military. That did not go down very well with the military to say the least. I think subsequently with the sort of the domestic turmoil that he faced and domestic terrorism, we’ve seen Sharif himself now back away from that. From the point of view of the

military there was a sort of perception to the people that I spoke to that they feel, ‘Well, we for

the past two years or so had tried, and almost been rolled backwards, trying to improve relations

with India but we didn’t received any reciprocal intimations on the other side.’ Now, the

argument there, I would say, is that their timing wasn’t great because prior to the elections in

India the last couple of years of the Congress Government was sort of mired in political

paralysis. It was clearly a government on the way out so I wouldn’t have expected there to have

been any great initiatives as far as trying to improve relations where Pakistan was concerned and with the incoming government of Prime Minister Modi, again you know, they had a different agenda and of course Rahul will sort of speak more on this. It certainly seems to be that my impression that the Modi government initially wanted to focus on the domestic and wider relations in South Asia rather than getting stuck with the issue of Pakistan and Kashmir right off

from its first day in. So in terms of timing, Pakistan’s timing in terms of what they said or felt

was not getting the response, it wasn’t great time. Perhaps they should have jigged that a little bit up. But yeah, it’s been quiet. I mean, Rahul…

Apps: Yeah, Rahul and then I want to open things up to the board of questions.

Chaudhury: Sure. I think as Omar said, for India, the Kashmir issue has far lesser order of priority than for Pakistan and we’ve seen this over the last few decades. I think it’s important to realize that actually Pakistan has taken a step forward in this issue by, in effect, agreeing with India that it will hold a dialogue with India despite the absence of a Kashmir resolution. So the dialogue will be moving towards a Kashmir resolution, hopefully. So I think Pakistan has taken a step in that direction which I think is not well understood on the Indian side. On the India- Pakistan relationship, briefly, I think very often we feel that Modi has sort of forged a disfigured relationship with Pakistan. I was in Islamabad a few weeks ago and there was tremendous

concern over Modi’s election and a sense from Pakistan that Modi was hostile towards Pakistan.

I think it is important to point out that Modi has inherited tense relations with Pakistan. I mean, today there is no official dialogue between the two countries but that is because in January 13 th , the then Prime Minister of India said that because of the spurt in violence across the line of


control said that there could not be business as usual and India stopped the dialogue. Modi, as Omar said, invited the heads of government to his inauguration and swearing in ceremony so the idea then was that the India-Pakistan dialogue would resume in August with the foreign secretaries. Unfortunately a few days before that, India abruptly cancelled that meeting because of the meeting that the Pakistan High Commission had with Delhi and the issue with Kashmir grew. The point I want to make is that I would agree with Omar. As I said, Modi’s focus is really the domestic and economic transformation of India, but, and 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. So, a few days ago, in fact, we a saw the Indian foreign secretary fly into Islamabad and there are talk on how best to resume the dialogue between the two. To me, my sense is that unless India is able to have this

engagement with Pakistan, Modi’s key objective of transformation will not happen because there

may not be a peaceful neighbor.

Apps: Does anyone have any pressing questions, otherwise I’m going to throw it at Francis?

Q1: When you look at the world, what, if anything, worries you about South Asia? It’s not one of people’s top five or six worries, right. Is that based on an assumption that it’s fine or that it’s doing its own thing, it’s not too potentially toxic to the rest?

Q2: I have a question for Rahul and Omar. It has to do with the Kashmir state of actions and PJP’s now being part of a coalition with the PDP… What do you think it means for the domestic

politics of India and too, what does it mean for the politics of Pakistan?

Chaudhury: I mean, the Congress Party has turned the PJP/PDP alliance into an unnatural alliance. Clearly these are two opposing political partied with different ideologies but what is interesting is that they have actually come together, in a coalition, to rule over [unknown] and

Kashmir and I think it’s a step in the right direction because it is a very clear message that has

come out. I think that the two important messages firstly, there is a common minimum program that both parties have agreed to and in the common minimum program actually there is a much larger role than in the past given to Kashmir for confidence building ect. Across the border. So that I think is important in terms of engagement. The second aspect are the issues like article

370, it’s very clear that that’s not on the table anymore and the idea of the new coalition

government is to move forward on economic development and raise the standard of living for people. But of course, there will be problems within these two parties. We’ve already seen the first key problem when the chief minister of Kashmir said that the peaceful elections were owed

to Pakistan and the home minister of India and the prime minister said, ‘Hold it, that’s not right.

The peaceful elections in Kashmir were due to the Elections Commission of India and the people

of India and the Army of India.” So, you know, there are contradictions between the two, but I

think the very fact that there is a split verdict in Kashmir will require both the parties to actually work together and I think that is a positive signal.


Apps: I want to come to [audience member], you’re a South Asian person… What are your thoughts after discussion, any questions?

Q3: Yes, I do have a question on Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean region, feel free to jump in. At the parliament today, Modi was making a speech and he emphasized how important it is to have

Sri Lanka and India to cooperate on maritime security. We’ve seen him go around the region

which is also, you would imagine as someone from India would have done that more often but no other head of state has done it before that. So, how do you see that? Do you see Sri Lanka tipping the balance, especially with China in the picture? How do you see that going?

Saleem: I mean I think you have to, you know, have this maritime Silk Road route that China is trying to push from Seychelles all the way to the Maldives so I think if you look at Modi’s visits, apart from the Maldives, he’s visited all the islands and the places where China seems to have been. So I think that there is definitely an interest from India to shift that balance and see where they can move. I mean Sri Lanka at the moment, you have to realize, is still a transitional government. So until we have parliamentary elections whenever they take place, scheduled for

next month and they could be postponed, I don’t think you’ll any definite move on foreign

policy. What they have tried to do is focus on the domestic but because of two things, one is the need to ease the international pressure in the wake of the human rights council report. Of course India, being a keen observer but also a key player in issues having to do with North Sri Lanka in

terms of the rights and grievances of the common people(?) and I think that’s where they

[transition regime] have made an extra special effort to reach out to India and the rest of the

international community. Until now, I don’t think until the next election it will move beyond

that and they are just trying to keep everything in balance.

Apps: Rahul, I’ll come to you quickly and then I’m going to throw another question into the mix.

Chaudhury: I think it’s like to answer this. I’ve been writing my third book on Indian naval

strategy so this is very important to me. I’ve been following [Modi’s] visits very closely to the Seychelles, Mauritius, and now Sri Lanka and there’s one thing that stands out. I mean, it’s the first bilateral visit of any Indian prime minister to Sri Lanka but he’s been there before for multilateral visits. The thing that stands out really is one thing and that is you look at Modi’s statements and he talks about the Indian Ocean being part of India’s neighborhood and that to me is the most significant point of departure between this government and the past. I’ve argued in my first two books that the Indian Ocean is part of India’s neighborhood and it has to be seen

like that and we have today the prime minister saying, whether it is the Seychelles or Mauritius,

that it is part of India’s near or extended neighborhood. That mindset is what is going to be critical, not only for how India is able to become a net security provider for Indian Ocean islands that have a stand policy to become, but more importantly we will see a great game emerging

between India and China in the Indian Ocean. We’ve seen this in Sri Lanka, actually, where the

contract for the Colombo port issue was cancelled and we had it in the Maldives where the


Indian’s contract was cancelled and the Chinese came in. They’re going to see much more of this maneuvering. It’s an exciting time, actually, for this.

Apps: I want to throw in a question that… brought up. If we were able to talk about any other area of the world, we would be talking about the seismic rise in unrest we’ve seen since the 2010-2011 Arab Spring syndrome; it’s important in Russia, it’s important in China, it’s important in UK domestic politics, US domestic politics. Is it not a factor in South Asia, or is it not playing into these discussions, yet?

Hamid: This has been a question especially because 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 you of course there is civil unrest of various type 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 sort of, you know, 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 when the previous government completed its tenure, the first time a political government did that, and the second government came in. Elections are good pressure relievers that let the pressure out and after a couple of years everyone gets angry with the next government…

Apps: These countries are by and large democracies, they have unexpected changes in government, democratically speaking. Any more questions?

Q4: Yeah, I had one question. It was about the role of Modi’s leadership role. It seems he is moving towardsif his focus is on domestic challenges and he needs consensus externally to achieve that. It seems anywhere he turns for foreign leadership he is going to get trouble. So it seems his domestic platform is pushing towards continuing the edge. I wonder if there is a natural tension there and how you see that playing out.

Chaudhury: For Modi, in terms of foreign policy, he has two advantages. Firstly, because he has majority in the lower house of parliament, he know he is there for the full five year term. Prime Ministers [of India] have always led on foreign policy but there is a sort of comfort level

in what he does and what he says or how he implements it, he will be there for the next five years. Equally important, the second thing is that he has no coalition partners to worry about.

Unlike in the past where we’ve seen the UPA coalition where foreign policy toward Sri Lanka was dependent on what the DMK alliance in Sri Lanka, policy toward Bangladesh, and whole lot of other issues… For Modi, there is no dependence on any political party so what he decides, in many ways will be what he looks to implement. In a way, the foreign policy part becomes critical because the foreign policy aspect becomes an enabler to the priority he has set himself. Unless he is able to ensure he has stability in the neighborhood, you’re going to have problems on a host of issues. To me, I think Modi has the advantage whether he actually acts on them is something we will have to see. We’ve had nine and a half months of the Modi government and I


mean he has met forty leaders of foreign governments but we’re still waiting to see some of the

implementation aspects.

Saleem: Peter, on the Arab Spring, I think one of the things the former governments tried to do is they tried to manufacture some kind of Arab Spring and protests that would have then justified them trying to stick on to 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 to talk about the campaign, to talk about corruption, and that is what at the moment is keeping at least the current government slightly afloat is that as story of corruption, the immense amount of corruption that has taken place under the regime, Sri Lankan on the whole kind of expect their politicians to be corrupt anyway. I think there was a line that

was crossed in terms of corruption that I think that even the people couldn’t tolerate.

Apps: Even India has had a rise in this like the protests over the New Delhi Rape and so forth. We have seen this but they’re generally been on topics that have been more against the

establishment in general rather than saying that lends itself to a political backlash. I also want to

see if anyone else has any other questions…

Q5: So just a follow up question. I know you were part of the Indian government in an advisory position. Do you see a new BJP or Modi, I imagine there is a lot of talk about it, and also a question on the India-China Great Game you’re talking about. The point still is that in terms of investment and money, India is far, far behind China. China has already put in that money. As you said, Modi’s key foreign policy issue is the economy so on the one hand, you want money to come into the country but then he needs to be also investing in order to have a strategic influence. How do you see that?

Apps: I want to take another question at the back as well because it’s always good to leave people wanting more and I fear that might be the food.

Audience Question: Speaking of the great game, how do you think the great game in Afghanistan will play out? Will Pakistan be as visibly strategic as it was in the past decade or so, although this new relationship with China and the new co-operation with the US and Afghanistan. Will that lend it itself to a more invisible and how do you think India will feel about that?

Apps: Rahul first and then we will come to Omar and then finish with Amjad.

Chaudhury: Sure, I think yes clearly there will be a Modi doctrine that we will talk out. We don't know yet what it’s like. We are seeing the contours of such a doctrine. All I can say is that I

think one part of the Modi, of what will become the Modi doctrine, I think. I believe it is his

focus on the neighbourhood. I think I’ve seen in the last 10 and a half months that this

government, Modi government, has focused much more on the neighbourhood than any other government in the past. We've talked about his visit to Sri Lanka. You know, I was shocked when Modi went to Nepal soon after he became Prime Minister, it was a first visit of an Indian


Prime Minister in 17 years. It was ridiculous! I mean shocking and Sri Lanka bi-lateral visit 28 years, etc. The neighbourhood is, I think the key element of the Modi doctrine will be the focus on the neighbourhood, and I think in terms and I believe the most important country, the two most important countries in the neighbourhood are going to be China and Pakistan-Afghanistan kind of issue as well as the Indian Ocean. On the Indian Ocean, yes I mean China has deep pockets. I mean, I was talking to the Maldives, actually the high commissioner in London, and he was telling me that in the hotels in the Maldives are packed with Chinese tourists. There are about several flights a day from different parts of China coming into the Maldives because high- end tourist market. I mean, obviously for Indians it is very difficult to afford you know $500- $600 a night for a hotel. But, I don't think India is going to compete against this. So it’s not going to be a financial sort of funding versus an economic funding sort of issue. 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 its distance but also its naval capabilities. It will be on issues for example, maritime domainal awareness, electronic surveillance, exclusive economic zone co-operation for these countries, counter terrorism, counter extremism. So you know, there is a whole lot of issues, security relations, and maritime security. You had asked about where actually India will have automatically a far greater role to play. 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. An amazing one on counter terrorism and operational aspects which very few people know about. But, this is the sort of way India is going to be there. So its leverage is going to be on security issues rather than economic.

Just on the Afghanistan issue. You know India has spent 2 billion dollars of aid and blood also, you know, in terms of Indian diplomats being killed and others being killed in Afghanistan over the last 10 years. This has been largely due to the NATO-ISAF presence that provided the ability, the aid to sort of go across. For India, Pakistan and President Ashraf Ghani have, Ashraf Ghani as we've heard from Omar has made the outreach towards Pakistan. In many ways, I think for India a stable Afghanistan is key. If President Ghani is able to get the Pakistani security to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and also clearly threaten the end of safe havens for the

Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, I think that’s a win-win for India as well. For India stability of Afghanistan is key. If you don't have stability, that’s where the concern comes in. I don’t see a

zero sum game between Afghanistan, between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a neighbour of Afghanistan and India is not. India is a near neighbour. Pakistan has tremendous leverages and a very strong relationship with Afghanistan. India has the ability to provide tremendous soft power in that sense, but I think the key will be to see a stable Afghanistan. My own sense is that India would be the first to try to assist in trying to bring about stability, but this becomes one issue between Afghanistan and Pakistan primarily.

Hamid: I want to add to what Rahul is saying. I think the difference has become that all of the major stake holders realise that regionally a stable Afghanistan is paramount. Whether it is china, wanting to sort of expand into Central Asia or looking at it from the Shanghai co-operation organisation. Afghanistan is key, or rather stability in Afghanistan is key. As far as Pakistan is concerned, there has been a definite change in the thinking in terms of they believe that, you know, it’s not. It’s, perhaps, not even in their interest as was definitely the thinking in the past to have sort of you know for lack of a better word a puppet government or a ....


Apps: Just to stop you there you know the idea that Afghanistan should be stable is one that everyone has agreed on for a long time. Looking at poor Tom who had to wander around in circles in the country, not in substantial period of time attempting to make it so. Does that mean that now the West is gone, the actual powers that invaded, and they are now sorting it out among themselves?

Hamid: I think the difference is that in the past everyone's version of stability of Afghanistan was exactly that. They insisted that it was only their vision for Afghanistan would bring in

stability. Whereas I think now perhaps we probably will see is a greater give and take so you if

there is a coalition government that includes people like Abdula Abdula….

Apps: An Afghan coalition government.

Hamid: 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 sort of deal breaker. The same thing on the Chinese side. So I think that is the direction we are going. Even in terms of the Taliban I think they've changed as an organisation. They've become far more pragmatic in their approach, you know, and like everyone else they want to share in the potential bounty that maybe, if there is a stable Afghanistan, whether it is mineral resources or whatever.

Apps: Amjad, I mean as we get to the end, are you a South Asia optimist after everything we've talked about today or where do you think we're going?

Saleem: I mean we have to be an optimist otherwise we won't be able to survive in places like

Sri Lanka. I think that you know Rahul hit the nail on the head when he said that China has very

deep pockets. So 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 casinos, and everything else. 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 that probably need to be, will help Sri Lanka. Of course, the perennial question for Sri Lanka is this issue of the North. How do you engage on a political solution that brings the Tamils into the picture? And I think from that perspective, I think India is the key ally in this and how it deals with the South Indian issue. The challenge I think for Sri Lanka and India, I think is two. One I think is the fisherman. I think that's something we haven't really discussed in terms of the Sri Lankan fisherman and the Indian fisherman and this space between India and Sri Lanka which is contested in terms of who is allowed to fish where and perhaps I think one other challenge is, again we haven't really discussed is, where does the SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) fit and how can that be strengthened as a regional institution that allows the different parties to play. And the challenge for that is unlike other institutes, like ASEAN where ASEAN countries play a very non-interventionist role, I think you know the challenge you have in South Asia is while people, while their very happy to respect the territorial status quo, they're also quite interested in interfering in other countries. So I think that's where I would say the challenge is and that's where we need to be looking at.


Apps: Thank you very much indeed! We are continuing this conversation over alcohol and food without requiring money. But, thank you very much for coming. It’s always good to finish with

Sri Lanka as the favoured result that issued due to a rather nasty war, that I broke my neck in and

still feel largely bitter about. But, thank you very much for coming. Amjad, Rahul, and Omar excellent discussion on South Asia. Thank you very much and join us again soon. Take care. Bye now!

Transcript by Yaseen Lotfi, Rhea Menon and Amanda Blair