Lurking dangers


back to issue

NATIONAL security trajectories are difficult to predict even in shorter spans of five to ten years. The exercise becomes even more complex if the period is 20 years. Coming up with a realistic long-term vision can often prove to be hazardous. Nevertheless, one thing appears fairly certain. The political landscape, specially in the Asian region, will be far more competitive in 2034 than it is today. While West, Central and South Asia, and many countries of Southeast Asia, face a great deal of turbulence as of now, the arc of conflict is likely to widen in the next couple of decades. With growing disparities in wealth and economic power; weakening of political structures, possible disempowerment of the less adjusted and likely threats to the legitimacy of existing systems, the situation could well worsen.

In all probability, the globalized security environment would become even more fractious than it is today. As far as Asia is concerned, a regional collective security structure appears unlikely to materialize within the next 20 years. There is little prospect of a reduction in tensions and many more regions of Asia could become susceptible to outbreaks of violence.

The growing numbers of ‘weak states’ viz., countries that are at higher risk of state failure, will be another aggravating factor in the foreseeable future. According to experts, Afghanistan and Pakistan in India’s neighbourhood qualify to be included in this category. Those at the helm of such states will thus take recourse to increased military expenditures that will only introduce an additional factor of instability in the region.

The most pervasive threat as the 21st century progresses will be the massive surge in extremist, radicalist and fundamentalist ideas, thoughts and beliefs. This is already evident to an extent in the context of radical Islam, but clearly it will no longer be limited to Islam. Similar tendencies are likely to emerge among other religions and societies. Extremist-minded religious preachers and demagogues will find readymade platforms to instill radical ideas among their flock. Globalized communications, and the infinite use of the Internet, will significantly enlarge opportunities for radicalization and spread of extremist thoughts.


Instability in India’s immediate neighbourhood is the most likely prospect as far as we can imagine. We see no solution to the problems affecting the region. There is also the possibility of many of the existing, but separate, regional conflicts taking place in West, South and Southeast Asia coalescing into a wider conflagration.

West Asia will continue to remain the most volatile region in the world for the foreseeable future, contributing in large measure to increased instability elsewhere. Endemic rivalry of the kind unleashed lately – as for instance between Sunni and Shia Islam, will embrace many other sects and regions, giving rise to the likelihood of sectarian conflicts. Many regional conflicts could as a result gain wider traction. A key driver would be the increased empowerment of non-state actors.

The portents for India-China and Pakistan-India relations are none too favourable. India and China already have competing and contradictory outlooks on most strategic and civilizational issues. These include Asian security, regional stability, and virtues of a Sino-centric world order replacing current polarities. According to many China watchers, Chinese nationalism and Chinese ‘exceptionalism’ could coalesce. Precepts such as China’s uniqueness and the world’s only amalgam of an ancient civilization and a huge modern state, tend to dictate Chinese attitudes. This could impede peaceful relations between the two countries. As both countries expand their militaries, their patience could be tested in certain eventualities.


In the coming decade China is likely to become even more assertive in protecting its core interests (specially in regard to its national sovereignty and territorial integrity) and in reclaiming all territories claimed by it at one time or the other. Simultaneously, China’s determination to set right ‘historical wrongs’ will come into prominence. Chinese flexibility towards India – as demonstrated during the signing of the Guiding Principles and Political Parameters in 2005 – will hardly be in evidence. Consequently, the Sino-Indian border which has by and large been tranquil, will become more live.

While China may display some restraint vis-à-vis the land border – given that India has an advantage in many sectors – it can be expected to take the battle for control of the seas into India’s backyard, viz., the Indian Ocean. Its determination to expand its blue water navy – comprising an assortment of aircraft carriers, stealth frigates, destroyers, and nuclear submarines – will make China one of the most formidable naval forces in the world. At the 18th Party Congress, China had openly proclaimed the need to protect its overseas interests, and underscored the centrality of maritime security in ensuring its economic progress and national well-being. It had also mentioned the need to set up ‘expeditionary forces’ to conduct military operations in distant lands and seas.

President Xi Jinping’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative cannot be totally separated from the above assertion. Whether India’s ‘Project Mausam’ (which is still on the drawing board) can be an effective foil, remains to be seen. What is almost certain is that China would effectively seek to shut the door to India’s attempts to become an Indo-Pacific power. Any misreading of China’s sense of its own power could prove to be a grievous mistake.

Pakistan’s case is different, and the danger it poses is of a different order. Possibilities exist that the Pakistani state may well become non-functional and slide into chaos over the next two decades, given the highly troubled situation persisting in Afghanistan and several parts of Pakistan itself. In addition, Pakistan could be wracked by a series of violent agitations – including sectarian strife as well as upheavals due to the highly anti-egalitarian attitude and policies of those in power. The dysfunctional nature of Pakistan’s democracy is a complicating factor, aggravated by a perceived ‘state weakness’ which might make it difficult for Pakistan to function as a viable entity.


For India, such an outcome could prove highly detrimental. Pakistan may fall back on its traditional weapon of reviving a conflict over Kashmir, and embarking on many new variants of asymmetric warfare, taking advantage of the presence of myriad terrorist groups on its soil. There is also an additional cause for concern given Pakistan’s penchant for vertical proliferation, its experimentation with tactical nuclear missiles, specially the Hatf-9 short range surface-to-surface missile and the Hatf-III missile (capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads), as also its ‘propensity for perilous risk-taking’ employing the logic of ‘disproportionate force’ when faced with an untenable situation.


Possibly the most conspicuous development over the next two decades would be the way violence is employed to attain prescriptive goals. Nowhere is the impact of this more likely to be felt than in the realm of terrorism and terrorist violence. Any expectation that terrorism has run its course and been weakened, following the elimination of Osama bin Laden and an apparent decline in the central core of Al-Qaeda, will be belied by events likely to occur in the years to come.

The coming together of Salafism and Islamist radicalism at one level, the merger of the atavistic world view of Saudi theologian, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, and Egyptian Syed Qutub’s nihilistic fanaticism at another level, and terrorism metastasizing into a global network, has already transformed the terrorist landscape. Worse is to follow with the kind of violence likely to be perpetrated in the future.

Twentieth century terrorism was identified with lethal violence, and for its ability to employ technology and use of global communications to enlarge the ambit of violence. Mid-21st century terrorism will come to be recognized for the kind of savagery that it practices. The emergence of many more non-state actors on the scene will raise levels of brutality in so far as individual actions are concerned.

In the future, small groups of radical fanatics are likely to engage in variants of ‘leaderless jihad’ of the Abu Musab-al-Suri variety. They would simultaneously engage in ‘demonstration killings’, a la the recent hacking to death of a British soldier Lee Rigby on a London street. These may no longer be random events. Suicide bombers – both male and female – are likely to proliferate, and would no longer be limited to ‘no man’ regions in Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Asia or Sub-Sahara Africa.

Those executing such ‘missions’ will include recruits from countries that are not suspect or are non-Islamic in character. They would be deployed in locales where they are unlikely to attract special attention. Support networks among different Islamist entities will ensure protective cover in many instances. The globalization of terrorism will thus become a reality.

What will provide additional grist to the terrorist threat are the kind of developments taking place in West Asia, mainly Syria and Iraq. In the battle for Islamic space and imagination, newer outfits like the ISIS – born out of regional warfare and Islamic fundamentalism – are gaining the upper hand. Terrorism now possesses a virtual state of its own, holding wide swathes of territory for the first time. It is flush with funds and has an ever increasing number of battle hungry fighters – including many foreigners from regions not directly affected by terrorism.


The sheer symbolism of a new uber-Wahabhi model of Islam that has emerged, will induce many more Muslim youth to join jihadi outfits. ‘New version jihad’ will prove extremely attractive and is likely to gain in influence as its strength lies in ‘spiritual purity’. The electrifying impact of the announcement of a new Caliphate – a near recreation of the 8th century Abbasid Caliphate (the first Islamic Empire), redolent with historical and emotive content – is likely to have an irresistible impact.

This has the potential to completely redraw the world terrorist map, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) standing at the centre of several terrorist franchises. There is the Boko Haram in Nigeria, the AQAP (Yemen and Saudi Arabia), the AQIM (Algeria Mali, Niger and Mauritania), the Al-Shabab and AQEA (Somalia), the AQ Prime (Pakistan and Afghanistan), and the AQ in South Asia (India and Pakistan) and so on. The Talibans in both Afghanistan and Pakistan will in a sense be collaborators.


In the future, the near apocalyptic warnings of the threat posed to nations and national security by cyber warfare could turn out to be real. The existence of complex global scale technical systems will greatly facilitate expansion of the cyber threat, as also the danger to every type of digital information. The threat will be of monumental proportions demanding effective counter measures.

Preventing hacking and checking cyber intrusion could, however, prove near impossible. Efforts to erect a ‘Great Wall’ against cyber assaults may need to be all but given up. Significant advances have already been achieved with regard to ‘software’ which allow users to browse the Internet anonymously, bouncing actions through ‘encrypted relays’ that prevent eavesdropping and determining what sites a particular user is visiting, or from determining who the users of a particular site actually are. Additionally, many new versions of ‘bugs’ and ‘worms’ would have emerged. Ensuring cyber security has already become a virtual nightmare.

A whole new range of cyber weapons including viruses, worms, social ‘malware’, malicious software hidden within a legitimate programme, denial-of-service attacks and ‘phishing’ will pave the way for a variety of cyber warfare scenarios, including coordinated cyber weapon attacks that sabotage multiple infrastructure assets simultaneously. Cyber attacks will, in all probability, be launched to deny opponents use of electronic systems. Terrorists could employ cyber warfare to cause widespread disruption – apart from the ability to explode IEDs using a remote connection in cyber space and their penchant for mass casualties. A potential cyber race is in the offing with conflicting states seeking to defend public and private infrastructure against state and non-state actors.

Few, if any, systems will be completely secure against a determined cyber attack. J.P. Morgan recently reported a cyber attack compromising 76 million households and six million small businesses. In a twenty year time period, such instances will multiply many times and cause even greater disruption. Security agencies have warned of dangers caused by cyber attacks to critical safety equipment.

Anonymity and low cost will mean that even small disaffected groups – apart from hostile states and official agencies – can resort to cyber interventions to create mayhem. Growing interconnectivity of devices and software will further increase vulnerabilities, specially of countries which are better networked. Consequently, the potential level of threat posed by cyber weapons is incalculable.


The prospects for India do not appear to be too bright. The situation is pregnant with possibilities, but overall matters are not likely to be very satisfactory.

* India’s efforts to ensure a secure and stable neighbourhood are unlikely to be successful. A secure periphery and an enabling regional compact will elude India.

* India will not remain insulated from the wave of radical and extremist ideas and beliefs sweeping across large parts of Asia and many other parts of the world. India’s secular fabric could consequently come under considerable strain. India will, hence, need to guard against the possibility of religious conflicts by carefully analyzing existing faultlines across communities and religions.

* Apart from problems posed by Pakistan and China, India will have to contend with a changed situation in both its immediate and extended neighbourhood, and the transformation that is taking place in West Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan due to the increasing influence of extremist and fundamentalist forces. Even Bangladesh and Indonesia to India’s East will be affected, and the situation across the region would be much less favourable than it is today. In Sri Lanka, uncertainty will prevail with peace between Sinhalas and Tamils proving elusive. Newer conflicts in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and parts of Southeast Asia featuring Buddhists and Muslims will only add to India’s problems.

* The ante as far as territorial disputes with China and Pakistan are concerned, are bound to go up. Peace and tranquillity on the Sino-Indian border is likely to be a casualty. The Indo-Pak border will witness increasing tensions and possible clashes directly involving the armed forces of both countries. War is an unlikely option in both cases, but situations will demand a great deal of dexterity and diplomatic skill if tense matters are not to get out of hand.

* India’s problems with China are likely to exacerbate. As China becomes more assertive, it will implicitly insist that its pre-eminence in Asia is accepted by every other country in the region, not excluding India. China’s success in befriending each one of India’s neighbours, even as it seeks to establish its dominance in the Indo-Pacific, will also prove highly irksome for India. Whether this will lead to a conflict between entrenched militaries on land, or between the growing naval fleets of both countries on the seas, remains to be seen.

* Internally, terrorism will be the main threat, involving at one level a new breed of highly indoctrinated jihadis intent on holding territory and not averse to ‘demonstration killings’, and at another level a fresh influx of foreign based terrorists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central and West Asia, including possibly a sprinkling of other foreign fighters. This could lead to many new variants of the Indian Mujahedeen, all inspired by newer extremist and fundamentalist ideas and the goal of a new Caliphate.

* By 2034, India would be a highly networked nation. Cyber threats loom large on the horizon, as cyber warfare becomes an even more significant danger than terrorism. India’s current efforts to deal with cyber warfare are inadequate. Despite a National Cyber Security Policy Framework (2013) and the proposed National Cyber Security and Coordinated Centre, India will fall way short of what is needed. Efforts will have to be ramped up several notches if the country is not to face a ‘Cyber Waterloo’.

* Regions in India’s periphery are unlikely to remain peaceful as 2034 approaches. For example, a resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir problem is unlikely given the state of play between India and Pakistan, and the latter’s determination to ensure that the problem continues to simmer. This is notwithstanding the fact that sentiment among the people of Jammu and Kashmir for a separate identity outside the Indian Union, would have further declined in the coming decades.


In the North East, the conflict between ethnic nationalism and mainstream nationalism is unlikely to have ended. Many long-standing insurgencies like the Naga insurgency will have lost their momentum but many smaller splinter groups would continue to fan the flames of secessionist violence.

* Left-wing extremism would have lost much of its ideological appeal by 2034. This is already evident to an extent in the urban areas, and among the intelligentsia. Areas of Naxalite operation will decline significantly, and they will be reduced to small pockets of resistance in the interior hilly and forest regions of the country.

* A key priority for India would be to avoid miscalculation in one of the most heavily nuclearized regions of the world. While concerns will continue to exist about China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, India’s real concerns will be with regard to Pakistan whose stockpile of nuclear weapons would have reached alarming proportions over time, with every likelihood that the government would have become even more dysfunctional. The Sino-Pakistan nexus in nuclear matters will continue to the detriment of the fragile nuclear balance in the Asian region. India will need to devise a suitable strategy to contend with this situation, including perhaps a more robust discussion on India’s policy of ‘no first use’.

One aspect is unlikely to have changed in the coming decades. In the external realm, it will be in India’s interest to avoid any kind of expansive or aggressive approach, yet be more forthcoming on strategic and security issues in order to sustain its relevance.

India will also need to embark more consciously on its version of ‘rebalancing’ to manage China’s present rise and disposition and Pakistan’s hostility. It will need to expand its current outreach, and far beyond a limited number of countries of West, Central and South Asia, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. It must include Australia and many other countries of the Asia-Pacific region, as also the Indian Ocean littoral and countries of Africa.


* Paper presented at the Delhi Policy Group conclave, ‘Vision 2034’, 16-17 October 2014. Published with permission.