South Asia in the midst of change – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 12 Feb 2019 0 Comment

No Neutral Umpire


Despite the emergence of the five-nation BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a regional security organization that includes Russia, China, India and Pakistan, as well as the ‘stan’ nations of Central Asia, except Turkmenistan - it is likely that each country in the region will continue to deal with such major issues as terrorism and security from its own internal political and socioeconomic viewpoint. The vast network of militants in Pakistan serves many purposes: some are associated with the drug-trafficking and militant Pashtun-Taliban factions within Afghanistan; some act as a conduit to sustain violence carried out by individuals operating within the India-controlled part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir; and others use violent means to promote orthodox Islamic views within Pakistani society. While the first two varieties derive their strength from the Pakistani military, the third one influences Pakistan’s political and social scene, undermining the country’s democratic facade.


It is evident that the United States has begun to wash its hands of the dicey security situation that exists within Pakistan. Though Pakistani leaders would like to trumpet that the United States has gone pro-India, such indeed is not the case. What has emerged following India’s steady economic growth and emergence as a power to be reckoned with is that Washington finds it could conduct a lot more trade and business with New Delhi than with Islamabad. At the same time, on issues such as Pakistani involvement in the Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir or the rise of orthodox Islamic forces within Pakistan, the Trump administration, unlike some previous US administrations, would most likely choose to keep its hands off. In other words, the region can expect very little help from the United States in dealing with terrorism originating within, and emanating from, Pakistan, or elsewhere in South Asia.


China, however, is a different matter. The Chinese interest in conducting more trade and gaining access to Afghanistan’s natural mineral reserves; maintaining its all-weather relationship with Pakistan; using the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea as a major trading and surveillance center at the eastern end of the busy Strait of Hormuz and ensuring land access to western China from the Arabian Sea, could have an impact on Pakistan’s policy of harboring some of its terrorists. It is likely that China will exert pressure (it has developed a significant amount of leverage to exert such pressure) on Pakistan to bring about a settlement of the Afghan dispute if Beijing approves the US format in achieving such a settlement.


Over the years, China has used its leverage on Pakistan in various ways. While the Pakistanis had been critical of Beijing’s “suppression” of the Uyghur ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang province, Islamabad nonetheless relented to Beijing’s carrot-and-stick policy and has given up aiding and abetting the terrorist elements within the Uyghur community seeking independence from Beijing.


Also, China dangles carrots to Pakistan in the form of blocking resolutions in the United Nations against Pakistan’s terrorist groups. Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267, adopted in 1999, member states are required to take action against designated organizations and individuals involved in terrorism or face sanctions. Pakistan-based organizations, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its cover group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, are both designated terrorist organizations by the United Nations. Yet efforts in the UN to impose sanctions on Pakistan for its non-action against these terrorist groups have been vetoed by China. China has also repeatedly blocked India’s bids to list the chief of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Azhar Masood, as a global terrorist, arguing that the issue lacks “consensus” among the members of the UN Security Council as well as the “directly concerned” parties - India and Pakistan.


What needs to be noted is that China is fully aware of all the terrorist groups and terrorist leaders operating inside Pakistan. The reason China sticks its neck out to protect Pakistan on this issue is anchored in China’s give-and-take policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. As China’s leverage on Pakistan grows, however, it is likely that China will dictate to Pakistan which terrorist groups it can harbor and which terrorist groups it must forego. In the case of Afghanistan, depending on the kind of solution the United States presents, Beijing may tell Islamabad what to do with the Afghan terrorists and drug traffickers now dwelling inside Pakistani borders.


Further, recent Russian overtures toward its one-time enemy, Pakistan, could turn out to be a positive factor in securing the region. Since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, Russia has had little capability to influence events, or even people, in that country. That situation began to change in recent years, particularly since 2014 when Russia lifted an arms embargo against Pakistan, paving the way for the two countries to sign a defense agreement that included a $153 million deal to sell Islamabad Mi-35M attack helicopters, as well as an agreement by Islamabad to buy the Klimov RD-93 engine for use in its domestically manufactured JF-17 fighter jet.


Subsequently, in April 2018, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Moscow officially to cement strategic military ties. This visit was preceded by two largescale military exercises between the two armies and the sale of Russian military attack helicopters to Pakistan. On Aug. 7, at the end of the two-day inaugural meeting of the Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee, both countries concluded a security training agreement


Earlier, in July 2018, Pakistan hosted an unprecedented meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to discuss counterterrorism cooperation, with particular focus on the buildup of Islamic State in turmoil-hit Afghanistan. Beyond the security and military agreements, Russia-Pakistan bilateral trade has also begun to show signs of life.


A Geopolitical Tug of War? Maybe, But Not Security Threats, Really


Years ago, South Asia was virtually isolated. Unfriendly terrain and political problems created physical separation between south Asian countries. Most of the countries within South Asia were not well interconnected by roads and railways. Two south Asian nations, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are islands, while two others, Bhutan and Nepal, are perched high up in the Himalayas. Added to these obstacles have been the unending hostilities between India and Pakistan, which not only prevented a land-based integration between India and Pakistan, but also cut off Afghanistan, located west of Pakistan.


In the east, Myanmar borders India’s Northeast, which itself is virtually cut off from the Indian mainland by geography, linked to India’s mainland only by a narrow strip of land known as the Siliguri Corridor running north of Bangladesh. The formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Countries (SAARC) in 1985 achieved little by way of alleviating these problems. The rise of China since the 1980s and India’s launching of economic reform in the 1990s began to change this. By the beginning of the second decade of this century, a powerful China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Beijing’s extraordinary success in developing its railway engineering - speedy implementation of railroads, in particular - has begun to have an effect. Many of the South Asian countries that have been under India’s sphere of influence are now wooed by China. Such wooing has met with a great deal of success already.


China still does not have diplomatic relations with Bhutan, which borders China to its north and India to its south. The obstacle to that is a border dispute that more than two dozen rounds of boundary talks could not resolve. Yet despite that China has started working toward improving its ties with Bhutan. Reports indicate that Beijing is keen to open an embassy in Bhutan and normalize relations. This is also apparent from the increase in Chinese exports to Bhutan in the form of cement, toys and technical equipment. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Bhutan has also increased in the last few years. Bhutanese scholars are also arguing that tourism can be an important link in developing ties.


Another Himalayan country, Nepal, bordering both China and India, was long wholly dependent on India for all its external linkages. In recent years, China has made steady progress in building up relations with Nepal. Recently Beijing offered 1 billion yuan (US$ 150 million) to the Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli government, while providing massive funding support to build infrastructure, including railway links and road connections with China. India, for its part, has pledged to speed up most of its pending projects with Nepal, which are expected to provide a massive boost to Nepal’s economy.


Bangladesh, sandwiched between India in the east, north and west and with the Bay Bengal to its south, is seemingly seeking a balance between India and China and using these two large powers’ economic and military capabilities to develop itself rapidly. Chinese ventures into infrastructure building and port development are aimed at Beijing’s vision for a maritime corridor extending from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal. In this context, China is helping to develop the Chittagong port on the Bay of Bengal. Significantly, Chittagong is in proximity to Kyaukphyu, a Myanmar port from where a pipeline has been built to bring in oil to the southern Chinese city, Kunming. Dhaka has sought Chinese assistance in constructing a highway passing through Myanmar to China’s Yunnan province. A rail network passing through the same area has also been proposed.


China has also helped Bangladesh to build up its military capabilities since 2002. Naval defense has been given particular attention. In 2014 Beijing sold two Ming-Class submarines to Dhaka in addition to helping Bangladesh to set up a missile launch pad in 2018 near Chittagong port.


Bangladesh is also actively seeking Indian investment. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has welcomed Delhi to develop the port at Sonadia Island near Cox’s Bazar. This island is an important air force base for Bangladesh. However India remains second to China as Bangladesh’s largest bilateral trading partner. (India-Bangladesh-China Relations: A Complex Triangle: Myanmar Business Today: Asma Masood: mar 30 2015)


In the other two South Asian nations, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, overt Chinese involvement has helped to further existing internal strife. Sri Lanka is presently reeling under a serious constitutional crisis as two major political factions battle to hold on to power. While the conflict is largely domestic, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean might have attributed in some form to it.


In 2005 Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, one of the major figures in the present internal political tussle, brought in Chinese investment to develop the port at Hambantota in southeast Sri Lanka. Despite the fact that failure was written all over the project from the beginning, Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China to build this destined-to-fail port. The outcome has been most unsavory. The weak economic rationale behind building the port resulted in steady operating losses, and that, coupled with payment of loans to China, brought Colombo to its knees. In December 2017 the government of Sri Lanka formally handed over the strategic port to China, which will take control of the facility on a 99-year lease under what is called the Concession Agreement. Hambantota International Port Group and Hambantota International Port Services, two new companies set up by the China Merchants Port Holdings Company, will manage operations in Hambantota port. Reportedly, China Merchants Port Holdings Company agreed to pay $1.12 billion for an 85 percent share in Hambantota.


In the Maldives, the situation is somewhat similar. Presidential elections held last September ousted the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen in favor of a less known political figure, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. During his five-year reign (2013-2018), Yameen, who ruled with an iron fist, developed close ties with Beijing and handed over several major projects to China, much to the dismay of India, which had traditionally maintained strong influence in the Maldivian archipelago.


Engaging in a building spree using borrowed money from China has put Maldives in a serious debt situation. How much Maldives owes to China is disputed. According to Mohamed Nasheed, a former president now serving as adviser to the new president, Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives Zhang Lizhong handed the government an invoice for $3.2 billion - equivalent to about $8,000 for every inhabitant of this thinly populated archipelago. China denies that claim and says the number is closer to $1.5 billion.




Notwithstanding the problems created by the authorities of Sri Lanka and the Maldives by borrowing heavily from China while nurturing a deeply factionalized political process, it is highly unlikely that these mistakes will give rise to a security crisis that could engulf South Asia. The prime reason why such a possibility is distant is that both China and India agree that their role is to further integrate the South Asian nations, not only for the betterment of those nations but also to ensure a more peaceful region where both these large powers can grow.


While Myanmar and Afghanistan remain unstable and continue to pose a threat to the overall security of South Asia, the key ingredient to subdue, if not eliminate, that threat will be the role played by China, India and Russia in the coming years. If these three countries continue working together as they are now doing to develop a stable South Asia, a region where almost 1.8 billion people live, the threat of insecurity will reduce significantly in the coming years.



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