by Syed Ata Hasnain

After the fairly intense years of 2016 and 2017 when Kashmir's internal security and the Doklam standoff, respectively, marked concerns of the Indian security establishment, 2018 by contrast was a year in which India treaded the path of geopolitics, external and internal security with reasonable flair. To appreciate this a couple of areas need examination; among the more significant are the handling of the big powers (US, Russia and China), relations with Pakistan and the neighbours, the Act-East policy, internal security issues, including Jammu and Kashmir and the level of readiness to meet threats at the borders.

India-US relations have been on a high right since the Nuclear Deal and were taken to the level of a developing strategic partnership by the Modi-Obama combine. The coming of President Donald Trump cast apprehensions on how he would look at India but 2018 showed greater traction in US appreciation of India’s role. The postponed 2+2 dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of the two countries upgraded the level of bilateral engagement. Regular forums and summits continued through the year but two issues outlined the US prioritisation of India. First the acceptance of the S-400 deal between India and Russia without applying the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and then the US not going the full way on the sanctions over Iran as India expressed its difficulties in acquiring energy and the strategic importance of the Chabahar port for its Afghanistan policy.

Going by the extreme concerns over how low the India-China relations reached over Doklam in 2017, the energy shown in retrieving the relationship without embarrassment was a major achievement. There may be nothing permanent about the retrieval but the Wuhan summit and follow up diplomacy involving Sochi with Russia and the Qingdao summit of the SCO, meant much in the path of removing some of the trust deficit. However, with the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) under the scanner by various countries in India's neighbourhood this is a factor which will promote antipathy in 2019, as India works further on diluting growing Chinese influence.

Maldives was a success for India and Sri Lanka remains on hold. An opportunity lost by India is related to the Rohingya issue where a little more pro-activeness may have helped in wielding influence in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Caution relating to the sensitivity probably forced India’s reluctance. However, abdicating such responsibility and leaving strategic space to China remains a debatable issue. The Himalayan border was free of any major military standoff with China for the first time since 2011, although walk in operations continued by both sides.

The presence of all ten ASEAN leaders on Republic Day, the visits of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Jordan’s King Abdulla in close proximity of each other and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visits to Palestine, Jordan, UAE and Oman helped straddle relationships proving that multilateralism did not apply to big powers alone but to middle and smaller powers too.

With Russia in particular, the relationship was revived after hiccups from the Russian side. In fact the high mark of diplomacy and geopolitics in 2018 was India’s ability to navigate through contradictions and emerge with respect and interests intact. Yet 2019 is unlikely to be any simpler especially since the indicators are already evident with the US pullout from Syria and likely troop reduction in Afghanistan. It would be premature to read too much into the Afghanistan situation as commitment to troop reduction is yet unconfirmed.

It is with Pakistan that not much was expected and neither delivered. An active LoC in the first half gave way to a more effective ceasefire, although with no letup in infiltration attempts. Pakistan’s active interference in Jammu and Kashmir continued even as it went to the polls and elected Imran Khan as Prime Minister. Imran Khan remains under tutelage of the Pakistan Army which continued pursuing a policy of attempting to keep India under pressure while proposing peace talks.

Although the Kartarpur Corridor was accepted in principle by India the connected events threw up enough contradictions. Pakistan’s attempts to expand the proxy war against India through revival of Punjab terrorism is something India will need to contend with in 2019 as the actual launch date of the Corridor approaches. Re-opening of talks with Pakistan under these circumstances is nearly impossible and this will be independent of the composition of the new Indian government in the general elections in 2019.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir witnessed major military success but the situation in quantum terms remained almost static with equal amount of recruitment negating the gains. Alienation continued but the polls for the local bodies were conducted successfully albeit with reduced turnout in the Valley. With the state under President’s Rule better governance should be expected in 2019 contingent upon when the state finally goes to the polls. A strategy to address alienation and radicalisation of youth, and to counter the virulent social media propaganda needs to be evolved but remains elusive in the absence of coordinated action between the Centre, State, different components and agencies.

India’s military capability remains suspect in the light of some basic facts. The Indian Air Force is in crying need for induction of new aerial platforms to even partially rectify the fall to a status of a 30 squadron force as against the minimum need for 42. The signing of the deal for the S-400 air defence system from Russia will considerably enhance air defence capability but the actual induction will take time. The Navy is weakening in the face of the reduced number of submarines and that too vintage ones whose availability is mostly suspect.

With threats from the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean and much dependence of the US on the management of the ‘Indo’ element of the Indo Pacific the Indian Navy’s capability needs considerable enhancement. The Indian Army hamstrung by collusive dual threats remains in an equipment dilemma with the acquisition process falling far behind in expectation. Even the family of small arms required for its personnel is now archaic. The ammunition situation is improving but as artillery optimisation is done its doubtful whether commensurate ammunition induction will keep pace.

The overall equipment and force structure appears wanting and in the wake of a 1.47 percent defence budget it is unlikely that optimisation to the desired status will be possible in the next few years unless there are substantial budget increases 2019 and beyond is going to be a continuing challenge in the management of defence equipment and force structuring made especially in the face of an ever worsening civil military relationship.

It is good to round up with positives in the field of military diplomacy, riding on joint military training with foreign armed forces, in which the achievements have been of a high order. The end of the year has seen Exercise Hand in Hand with the PLA at Chengdu and with the Maldivian Army. This was topped by the IAF’s high profile Exercise Cope India with the US Air Force and the Indian Navy’s flagship Exercise Malabar were but some of the events. Many more added their weight to the growing footprint of Indian military cooperation on which rides political diplomacy to a great extent.