January 15, 2013

India’s new strategic challenge

by Anil Padmanabhan
Freelance terror may become the norm rather than the exception, with attendant consequences


Last week’s face-off with Pakistan on the Line of Control, following the mutilation of the bodies of two soldiers killed on the border, has stoked predictable responses. While those who demand an eye-for-an-eye are right in their own way, the peacenicks, too, make a legitimate point when they claim that this is not the time to abandon the path of reconciliation. For the moment, it does seem, despite belligerent remarks by the defence minister, that India has pulled back from the brink; the situation is yet fragile though.

The bigger worry is whether this was a one-off, or a warning of an emerging challenge for India.

There are several factors that are rapidly converging, which suggest that India, which has evolved as the unchallenged economic centre of South Asia and, hence, a source of major envy, is likely to come up against a strategic threat posed by increased infiltration by state and non-state sponsored terrorists from Pakistan. Freelance terror may become the norm rather than the exception, with attendant consequences.

A lot of this has to do with the emerging contours of the new global energy map that is less reliant on oil and gas, and the growing disengagement of the US in the region.

The US has already announced that it will be drawing down its troops stationed in Afghanistan by 2014 and, more recently, even suggested that they will withdraw completely, even though the job of restoring Afghanistan is far from over and there is a strong likelihood of civil war breaking out in that country.

In a quick recap, it was the US, assisted by a few Western nations, which had first invaded Afghanistan and, later, Iraq to effect regime changes. Since then, it has been engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Iran over the latter’s stealthy move to nuclear arm itself. After the Arab spring, most of West Asia is in a stage of foment or, as in the case of Syria, embroiled in a civil war. The US retreat is a tacit admission that its tactics have run their course.

At the same time, the global energy map is beginning to see the first signs of change. It may not happen immediately, but there are sufficient signals to suggest the emergence of a new energy order over the next two decades.

The pressure to commercialize non-conventional energy sources, such as solar, have gained momentum, but are yet to acquire critical mass to challenge hydrocarbons. There is, however, considerable research being undertaken by the US and China, two of the biggest consumers of fossil fuel, which may offer an alternative sooner than expected.

The two front-running options are to generate energy from thorium and shale gas. According to an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine—The New Power Map, World Politics After the Boom in

Unconventional Energy by Aviezer Tucker—new technologies are emerging that make drilling and extraction of energy from underground shale formations increasingly easy and cheap.
Tucker then goes on to claim, “Hydraulic fracturing has been used widely for only about the past five years. But the result—a staggering glut of natural gas in the United States—is already clear. The price of natural gas in the country has plunged to a quarter of what it was in 2008.”

Tucker argues that China possesses the largest deposits of shale gas of any country in the world (886 trillion cu. ft compared with the US’s 750 trillion, the world’s second largest deposits). “According to Chinese government estimates, the country has enough natural gas to provide for its domestic needs for up to two centuries,” he adds.

Similar initiatives are being undertaken to shift to thorium-based nuclear reactors. Writing in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says that once again there is a race between China and the US to come up with the right technology to tap thorium. “At the least, it could do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas—but on a bigger scale, for much longer, perhaps more cheaply, and with near zero CO2 emissions.”

Connecting the dots, it is clear that both China and the US are slowly, but steadily, developing alternatives to fossil fuel. While this may or may not force a downward pressure on the prices of fossil fuels, it is clear that West Asia, the world’s biggest supplier, will gradually lose its strategic importance to both countries. Already, the US hydrocarbon imports are down to 45%. In other words, the US is less likely to be inclined to expose its military in the region.

To put it bluntly, the region will have to fend for itself. In the current state of chaos, India could be rapidly played up as the next big threat and, consequently, a target. Given the geographical contiguity, it is highly vulnerable to such a threat. If it is any consolation, it will be terminal for Pakistan—already its tryst with sponsoring terror has led to a near annihilation of the fief of government.

It is not that the situation can’t be handled. For that, however, first the problem has to be acknowledged; second, and more importantly, both countries have to give up on their favourite hobby of giving each other a bloody nose and look to cooperation—this, obviously, is more a message for Pakistan, where the military continues to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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