With growing terror threats, instability stares most of Asia

The gruesome terrorist strike on hapless school children in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, once again underlined the dark reality that the Af-Pak region is the terror centre of Southern Asia. In fact, the region is the second most unstable region in the world and is competing closely with West Asia for the number one spot.

Both China and Pakistan have become militarily more assertive on India’s borders. Chinese transgressions into Demchok and Chumar in Ladakh cast a shadow on President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. Chinese intransigence on demarcating the Line of Actual Control continues. Quite inexplicably, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts at reaching out to the SAARC leaders, the Pakistan army under General Raheel Sharif repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement and once again stepped up the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC.

The single greatest cause of an unstable regional security environment is the conflict in Afghanistan and the areas along the Hindukush Range astride the Durand Line. The present security situation can be characterised as a stalemate. With the drawdown of NATO-ISAF forces by year end, the situation is likely to deteriorate further.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) has assumed responsibility for security, but does not yet possess the professional standards necessary to prevail over the increasingly resurgent Taliban. The remaining US forces will ‘train, advise and assist’ the ANA. However, they are likely to continue to launch air and drone strikes in Pakistan against extremists sheltering in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA areas against Al Qaeda terrorists. A gradual drift into civil war appears to be the most likely outcome.

Pakistan’s half-hearted struggle against the remnants of the al Qaeda and the home grown Taliban like the TTP and the TNSM, fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan, continuing radical extremism and creeping Talibanisation in the heartland, tentative efforts towards counter-terrorism, the floundering economy and, consequently, the nation’s gradual slide towards becoming a ‘failed state’, pose a major security challenge for the region.

The Pakistan army’s campaign against the TTP in North Waziristan is floundering. The army refuses to give up its idiosyncratic notions of ‘strategic depth’ and ‘good Taliban’ and continues to sponsor terrorism in India and Afghanistan. Unless it concentrates on eliminating the scourge of terrorism, Pakistan will continue to slide deeper into chaos.

Sri Lanka’s inability to find a lasting solution to its ethnic problems despite the comprehensive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has serious repercussions for long-term stability in the island nation. The unchecked rise of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism in Bangladesh, even as it struggles for economic upliftment to subsistence levels, could trigger new forces of destruction. Much will depend on how well the government of Sheikh Hasina cooperates with the new government in India to neutralise organisations like HuJI and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) that operate on both sides of the border.

Nepal’s fledgling democracy is continuing to struggle. The government’s inclination to seek neutrality between India and China is a blow to the historically stable India-Nepal relationship. Simmering discontentment that is gathering momentum in Tibet and Xinjiang against China’s repressive regime has the potential to snowball into a full-blown revolt.

The people’s nascent movement for democracy in Myanmar and several long festering insurgencies may destabilise the military Junta despite its post-election confidence. Australia and most South-east Asian nations are apprehensive of the increasing Chinese presence even as US influence appears to be gradually declining. The US pivot to the Indo-Pacific is not yet seen as becoming potentially capable of balancing China.

With the newly proclaimed Caliphate astride the Iraq-Syria border that calls itself the Islamic State, turmoil in West Asia is likely to continue. Despite the efforts of the Iraqi forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the air strikes being launched by the US and its allies, the IS militia has been gaining ground. The Israel-Palestinian stand-off shows no sign of abating. Israel refuses to halt the construction of new settlements in the West Bank and the Hamas militia is getting increasingly restive.

Iran’s refusal to unambiguously renounce its nuclear ambitions and the vaguely stated threats of several of its neighbours to follow suit are a cause for concern in the region. Saudi Arabia is suspected to be funding Pakistan’s nuclear expansion programme as a hedging strategy against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. The collusive nuclear weapons-cum-missile development programme of China, North Korea and Pakistan also causes apprehension.

The Korean military stand-off along the 38th Parallel is a destabilising factor in the precarious security environment in East Asia. This sub-region will remain volatile unless the Chinese use their influence with North Korea to persuade it to back off from the path of confrontation. Increasing Chinese assertiveness over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and in the South China Sea is completely out of character with China’s stated objective of a peaceful rise. Other negative factors impacting regional stability include the unchecked proliferation of small arms being sustained by large-scale narcotics trafficking. India lies between the golden triangle and the golden crescent.

With a history of four conflicts in 60 years and three nuclear-armed adversaries with unresolved territorial disputes continuing to face off, Southern Asia has been described as a nuclear flashpoint. India’s standing as a regional power that has global power ambitions and aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has been seriously compromised by its inability to successfully manage the external conflicts in its neighbourhood, singly or in concert with its strategic partners.

Together, the ongoing conflicts are undermining Asia’s efforts towards socio-economic development and poverty alleviation by hampering governance and vitiating the investment climate. A cooperative security framework to unitedly meet future threats and challenges is nowhere in sight.