South Asia in the midst of change – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 11 Feb 2019 0 Comment

In the midst of a rapidly changing world, South Asia has not remained static. The rise of two large Asian powers, China and India, and increased transport connectivity within the South Asian region lead one to expect a significant improvement in the living conditions of the people of the region, in turn ensuring better security in the coming years. It is fair to assume that what has been achieved in recent years promises a more secure future for the region. While the impact of China and India’s growth in the region is there for all to see, other developments, such as the entry in 2018 of India and Pakistan as full members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where Russia and China are major players, are also of great importance.


Still, there are question marks. Both ends of South Asia - Myanmar in the east and Afghanistan in the west - are still very much in turmoil, and the neighboring countries have been affected by the spillover. In addition, smaller nations such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, for instance, remain unstable, undergoing fractious internal political upheavals. Unless these nations - Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives - find their feet quickly by resolving the issues that cause violence and instability, security within the South Asian region could be jeopardized.


Finally, the role played by the largest regional powers - India within South Asia, and Russia and China in the immediate neighborhood - will be decisive in the prosperity and security of the region. The promise of security in South Asia is not a certainty. Here is a closer look at some of the issues.


Further East and Further West


Beyond Myanmar in the east, both Southeast Asia and East Asia seem to be focused on further integration and have succeeded in reducing tensions that have continued to simmer since the Cold War. However, some new problems have emerged in this area that could pose future problems. For instance, China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea - and the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - have baffled competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China’s apparent determination to make the South China Sea and the disputed islands within it its own, points to difficulty all around. The situation has become increasingly dicey since China increased its military activity in the South China Sea, conducting a series of naval maneuvers and exercises last year.


Furthermore, China is constructing military and industrial outposts on artificial islands it has built in the disputed waters. Such an inflexible attitude has created a high level of uneasiness among some Southeast Asian countries and has even evoked concerns among such distant powers as the United States and the European Union member-states. Although hypothetical, any incident that pitches China against any of the Southeast Asian nations who have claims to the disputed islands will create a ripple effect among South Asian countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and even Myanmar. The reason is not difficult to fathom.


To begin with, China has become a massive economic and military power over the last four decades, and not all small South Asian nations are wholly comfortable about it. In the past, before its economic turnaround, China had been exporting Maoism to undermine some of these smaller nations. The export of Maoism, then a major ingredient of China’s foreign policy, was designed to put its own ideological puppets in power in those nations. Though Beijing has since abandoned that regime-change policy, China has continued to keep in power the Maoist party that promoted regime change in the earlier days.


Today China conveys its intent to become integrated with South Asia physically by helping these countries build their infrastructure. China claims the link-up will help the South Asian nations to avail some of the fruits that China’s miraculous development has borne. In 2013 China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) incorporating those aims, and BRI is now a major ingredient of China’s foreign policy. However, should China veer away from this oft-stated policy and act otherwise in Asia, the latent distrust and fear about China in South Asia would quickly resurge. That would diminish the promise of a stable South Asia, no doubt.


Compared to the unsettling developments in the South China Sea, recent developments north of Afghanistan are more assuring. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the nations of Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - became independent countries possessing complex boundaries laden with leftover hostilities due to decades of insensitive policies of the erstwhile Soviet Union toward that region. Following independence, the region was quickly affected by the militant activity and drug trafficking that originated in Afghanistan. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s quest, with assistance from Pakistan, to spread an orthodox version of Sunni Islam generated an array of nihilist Islamic forces whose prime objective was to capture power.


The Central Asian leaders who had taken control of these “stan” countries were former Soviet apparatchiks. Militant Islam was introduced as the weapon to unseat these secular leaders. Those militants subsequently joined hands with other militant Islamic groups operating inside Russia and began to unleash wide-ranging terrorist activity inside Central Asia and Russia. A vicious civil war within Tajikistan in the early 1990s, in which ethnic forces from Uzbekistan were deeply involved, served the Islamic terrorists well. Meanwhile, the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan flooded the neighboring countries with arms and militants.


But the past 10 years of positive activities by the large regional powers, such as China, Russia and India, have seemingly borne fruit. According to analysts, 2018 has brought about a thaw in regional ties frozen by the Soviet misdeeds of the past. While the domestic challenges in some countries in Central Asia still exist, a sense of regional identity has begun to emerge that could facilitate Central Asia’s ability to navigate its internal struggles independent of external influence.


In a December 2018 article in the East Asia Forum, Prof Kirill Nourzhanov of Australian National University points out that Uzbekistan was the region’s key trendsetter this year. Its new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, consolidated his rule and proceeded with a program of reforms designed to liberalize the socioeconomic landscape of Central Asia’s most populous country. What is most promising is that trade and official exchanges among the Central Asian nations have begun to flourish. After decades of inaction, the intractable process of border demarcation between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has begun to gain momentum, and Kazakhstan announced that it had resolved all border issues with its neighbors.


In 2018, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan excelled at international relations, each maintaining a careful balance between Russia, China and the West. Elsewhere, Kazakhstan granted the United States access to its ports to supply troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, it cooperated with Moscow by signing the convention on the Caspian Sea’s legal status, which excludes the possibility of further US military presence in the region.


China’s Belt and Road Initiative made steady progress in Central Asia, with dozens of new transport and infrastructure projects initiated in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Contrary to predictions of increased China-Russia rivalry in the region, relations between Beijing and Moscow actually improved. Through the BRI and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members), the two countries are edging closer to a framework agreement on trade and investment. A considerable convergence of interests among China, Russia and the Central Asian republics was on display at the Tsingtao summit of the SCO in June 2018. (Central Asia’s Regional Thaw: Kirill Nourzhanov: East Asia Forum: Dec 22 2018) But while the nations neighboring the South Asian region show gathering stability, the nations at each end within the region, Myanmar and Afghanistan, remain wholly unstable.


Festering Danger Spots: Myanmar and Afghanistan


Despite installation of a democratic government in 2015, Myanmar’s domestic security situation has not improved. Insurgencies have persisted for much of the past seven decades in the states of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Mon. Various armed insurgent groups have fought government troops, driven by core grievances centering on the political control of territory, rights for ethnic minorities and access to natural resource revenues. Most fighting has occurred in isolated and inaccessible border areas far from the center of state power in Naypyidaw. The uprisings have proven resistant to resolution, having persisted through the 26-year dictatorship of General Ne Win and the successive military regimes that followed. (Myanmar’s Peace Process on Life Support - Analysis: Michael Hart: Geopolitical Monitor: December 28, 2018)


In 2018 insurgents remained active, and fighting has intensified in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, along the border with China. In addition, the crisis surrounding the Rohingya Muslims based in Myanmar’s northeastern state of Rakhine has taken a dangerous turn. Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim minority who practice Sunni Islam and differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically and religiously. At one time almost 3.5 million Rohingyas lived in Myanmar. Because of the Myanmar authorities’ discriminatory policy millions have fled the country and settled abroad, dispersing worldwide. As of 2017 some one million Rohingyas still resided in Myanmar, residing mostly in Rakhine State, where they made up about one-third of the population. But Myanmar authorities have yet to acknowledge their legitimate residence in that country.


In 2017 hardline Buddhists unleashed another wave of anti-Rohingya riots while the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, looked aside. Clashes had broken out in Rakhine in August, after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The Myanmar government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, and the military mounted a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to leave Myanmar, most heading toward Bangladesh. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks, between August 25 and September 24, according to the international medical charity, Doctors without Borders. (Myanmar’s Peace Process on Life Support - Analysis: Michael Hart: Geopolitical Monitor: December 28, 2018)


In September 2018 the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a 440-page account of the findings of its 15-month examination of the situation in three states in Myanmar, detailing atrocities carried out by the Myanmar military against Rohingya Muslims. The unwillingness of the Myanmar authorities to give the Rohingyas civic legitimacy and bring to justice all those who were involved in this genocide resulted in the radicalization of some of the Rohingyas. According to available media reports, the main political and military organization among the Rohingyas, the ARSA (locally known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement), has its roots in Karachi, Pakistan. ARSA’s leader, Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, also known as Hafiz Tohar, was born in Karachi and went to a madrassa in Saudi Arabia for indoctrination. According to recent reports from ARSA camps in Bangladesh, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, an Islamic organization operating in Bangladesh that is listed as a terror group in the United Kingdom, is trying to build links with the Rohingyas.


Last March, addressing the Australian and Association of Southeast Asian Nation leaders’ summit in Sydney, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned that Islamic State militants could use the atrocities against the Rohingya people in Myanmar as a breeding ground for radicalization, and that could explode into a serious security threat for the region.


Stirring Up the Static and Violent Afghan Situation


In Afghanistan, the four-decades-old bloodletting - the erstwhile Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion and subsequent decade of civil war; the rise of the militant Taliban carrying an Islamic flag occupying Kabul and imposing Sharia laws; and the US invasion in the aftermath of 9/11 - continues. When Donald Trump became the US president in 2016 there were expectations that Washington would make fresh efforts to end the strife. After almost two years of virtual neglect of Afghanistan, on Dec. 20, 2018, according to US officials cited by the American media, President Trump directed the Pentagon to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan. Trump’s decision was preceded by his appointment in September 2018 of Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and old Afghan-hand in Washington, as special envoy to Afghanistan to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Taliban.


Since Khalilzad’s appointment, he has held meetings in Abu Dhabi with the representatives of at least two groups within the Taliban. Going by the media reports, it seems that nothing concrete emerged from those meetings except what Khalilzad said in an exclusive interview with Afghanistan’s Tolo News Agency in Kabul that appeared on Dec 20, 2018. In that interview, Khalilzad said two important things: First, the Taliban had stated at that meeting that they cannot defeat the foreign and Afghan troops; and second, Khalilzad told the Taliban that “our goal is not to have permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The goal is that if Afghanistan becomes peaceful and terrorism from Afghanistan is not a danger to the world, the United States will withdraw and will have a new relationship with the government of Afghanistan based on a bilateral agreement.”


Both statements are unique and significant. The Taliban clearly state that despite all the successes they have enjoyed in recent years, defeating the foreign and Afghan troops is beyond their capability, period - we have not heard this before. And Khalilzad’s statement, probably the first such statement ever issued from Washington, says that US and other foreign troops will vacate Afghanistan if the Taliban, with the help of Kabul, decide to ensure the peace and security of the country. These statements do not outline in any form or manner how the peace in Afghanistan can be established, but they do lay down the basic premises that could be the foundation for working out future details of how Afghanistan needs to be politically organized once the foreign troops leave.


Trump’s proposal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Khalilzad’s meetings with the Taliban in Abu Dhabi, have put the wheels in motion in some of the major countries in the region. China, an all-weather ally of Pakistan, called in Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Beijing for consultations. On the day Qureshi met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, an article by Afghanistan’s Ambassador to China Janan Mosazai appeared in Global Times (described by some as China’s most belligerent tabloid published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s paramount mouthpiece, People’s Daily). In that article, Mosazai, whose earlier stint was as ambassador to Pakistan, stated: “…Mistrust in Kabul-Islamabad relations, which dated back to the establishment of Pakistan, is one of the main factors behind the lack of cooperation in the fight against terrorism and reconciliation in Afghanistan as well.”


Keen to improve its relations with Afghanistan, China has never acknowledged that Afghan-Pakistan relations had been in shambles for decades, nor that Pakistan has anything to do with the militant Taliban groups in Afghanistan. Mosazai, however, nailed the issue: “It’s a common belief in Afghanistan that the Taliban receives support from Pakistani establishments and the leader of the group lives in cities like Quetta and Peshawar. Considering China a good friend and neighbor and strategic partner and taking into account the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan, Afghanistan has been requesting Beijing to bridge relations and help increase trust between Kabul and Islamabad.”


Russia, another interested party when it comes to Afghan affairs, was forthright in welcoming President Trump’s troop withdrawal proposal. At a weekly briefing in Moscow on Dec. 26, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “We have paid attention also to the announcement by the American government on the coming withdrawal of half of the contingent of US forces from Afghanistan. We consider this a step in the right direction with the ability to begin the peace process, so let’s just see how it will be realized in practice because earlier we heard that the Americans didn’t fulfil their promises in that area.”


Unlike Russia, India has remained officially silent on the latest Afghan developments. However, if the views of some of the pundits associated with India’s think-tanks could be identified as voices of India’s Ministry of External Affairs or the prime minister’s office, the response could be summed up as negative. Despite 17 years of US, NATO and non-NATO troops in Afghanistan with no end in sight, analysts associated with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said: “The decision to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan is likely to have far-reaching consequences for India - an increase in Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan could negatively impact the security situation in the restive Kashmir valley.” (India Faces a New Reality in Afghanistan: The Diplomat: Harsh V Pant and Vinay Kaura: Dec 28, 2018)


While there is no clue as yet of the format will be for Washington to withdraw all of its troops and abandon the multiple military bases it now has in Afghanistan, it is almost a certainty that any agreement will be opposed by some factions of the Taliban (particularly those who have adopted terrorism as a profession, a way to sustain their existence) and the extremely powerful opium - heroin cartel that has wide access to powerful people within Afghan security and political circles. How the squaring of the circle will be accomplished is anybody’s guess. At the same time, there is a fear in certain quarters that for domestic political reasons, President Trump might summarily withdraw all American troops and end the United States’ physical presence in Afghanistan altogether prior to the 2020 presidential elections. Such a move would make the security situation inside and around Afghanistan extremely rough.

And this brings me to the issue of Pakistan, and what that nation’s powers - that - be will have to do.


(To be concluded….) 

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