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China, Pakistan & Afghanistan: a strategic partnership for regional peace

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Authors: Shahid Ali  &  Wang Li

On August 21 (Monday), U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy in a national address, calling a rapid exit of the US troops from Afghanistan “unacceptable” and pledging a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Evidently, Trump ruled out a quick exit of the US troops, saying that a “nasty withdrawal” would create a vacuum that terrorists including the Islamic State and al-Qaida would instantly fill.

That means that the Untied States have been facing “immense” security threats in Afghanistan and the broader region, which made him stop following his “original instinct” to “pull out” the troops. Ahead of Trump’s speech, he had already agreed on Defense Secretary Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops in Afghanistan. This meant Trump’s strategy for the United States was not nation-building but focusing on “killing terrorists.”

Meanwhile, President Trump in his speech heavily accused Pakistan’s close links with the militant groups involved in launching cross-border attacks on U.S and Afghan forces. He even reasoned that “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” In the wake of Trump’s grim accusation of Pakistan, China’s FM Wang Yi met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and affirmed Beijing’s support to Islamabad, followed by a formal statement as follows: “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counter-terrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism. We believe that the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism.”

Actually, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a shuttle diplomacy during June 24-25 towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he frankly had a vital task on mediation at the two sides’ request to promote the improvement of bilateral relations and support the Afghan reconciliation process. As he stated that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, never imposes China’s will on others and never involves in geopolitical imbroglio. During his visit, he had candid and in-depth talks with the leaders of the two countries ended with a joint communiqué involving the core points: the three countries are to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability. Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to establish a bilateral crisis management mechanism to which China would provide full support. The three countries agreed to resume the coordination group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. and to devote to domestic peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and call on Taliban to join in the peace process at an early stage. Finally, China reaffirmed its support to resume the liaison group between the SCO and Afghanistan in order to play a constructive role in promoting the reconciliation process of the region en block.

Now the question is why China is eager to act a “responsible role” in the Afghanistan issue? And what is China concerned with the current reality in this war-worn land?

Some scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan argued that Afghanistan is a “failed” state, and the Taliban has actually controlled the area of resources and many other parts of China-planed infrastructure projects. Rather, tribal militias, bandits groups and conflict zones dot the whole landscape of today’s Afghanistan. In addition, some held that China’s approach to have dialogue with the Taliban and then to have negotiations with the Kabul regime were perceived as a challenge to the United States. If the American troops withdrew to their barracks and away from active combat, China will be then left in a position of making many promises but having none of capacity of securing projects that traverse territory not under Kabul’s government control. What these people argued are due to, on the one hand, their unawareness of Chinese efforts to cooperate closely with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other SCO members; and on the other hand, China has been involved with the Group of Four, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, seeking peace talks in the country. We can argue that China’s approach to the issue of Afghanistan has since been cautious and cooperative.

President Trump’s new Afghanistan and South Asia Policy assigns a greater role to India to assist the U.S to bring an end to its longest “war without a victory”. He further argued that “We want them (India) to help us more with Afghanistan”. According to many analysts, the U.S. decision to engage India to play a more active role in Afghanistan is a part of U.S strategy to counter the growing China and Russia in terms of vicissitudes in Eurasia. Furthermore, The U.S. emphasis on giving India a larger role in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan would enable New Delhi to snip a strategic advantage over China. Strategically, China has high stakes in Afghanistan in view of a more active and broader Indian role and a greater US-India coordination in Afghanistan which could bring serious consequences for China’s core interests in the region. Given this, it is imperative for China to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan for protection and development of its “Belt & Road Initiative”.

Geopolitically, Afghanistan is not only a neighbor of China, but also is deemed as one of the key exits of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” to the broader areas of the Central Asian and the Middle East. In fact, it is well-known that President Xi Jin-ping has extended China’s “grand century project” to Afghanistan which has met with enthusiastic desire from successive administration in Kabul. As the most reliable ally of China, Pakistan has agreed to work with China involving Afghanistan into the key projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the CASA 1000 electrification which offers the prospect of desperately needed infrastructure and energy development into a country wracked by generations of bloody conflict. Equally, according to US Pentagon report in 2012, the potential supply of lithium was so great in Afghanistan that the country could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” once it is exploited properly. Added to this are vast deposits of gold, iron, copper and cobalt. As a rising economic superpower, China needs both natural resources and regional security in Afghanistan.

Domestically, China and Afghanistan have the shared border of 60 miles, but the latter is adjacent to China’s Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Although Beijing has insisted on having dialogue with the Taliban groups, Uighurs from China has increasingly appeared in ISIS propaganda video, denouncing Chinese approaches to the Muslims that made China becoming more controversial in Islamic circles. There is a dilemma in all this. In Ningxia, another of China’s region of Muslim people, who have lived in harmony with the majority of Chinese and their religious life is much more peaceful than many Muslim polities. But in terrorism, the medium is the message and few outside of China have ever heard of Chinese Muslims citizens. It is also true that well-trained Uighur terrorists were reported to cross the border into Chinese side, but many of them were either arrested by the Afghani authorities or driven back by the Chinese borders guards. In this case, Afghanistan does indeed play the role of what China needs badly.

According to my survey recently, most of the students from Afghanistan who are now in China believed that for China Afghanistan can be strategically valuable due to its geographic pivot at the crossroad of South Asia and the Central Asia. Its vast resources are untapped and present great potential opportunities. No doubt, the notorious security dilemma and corruption challenges have deterred many Foreign Direct Investments. But China has played the key role in supporting peace talks between the government and the Taliban by encouraging the latter to join the nation-building. Obviously, peace and security in Afghanistan not only contribute to the war-wracked country, but also helps China feel secure regarding in its western border region—like Xinjiang. To that end, China has sped up its cooperation with Afghanistan in terms of providing military aid and security training for counter-terrorists efforts. In 2015, Chinese FM Wang Yi addressed at Shanghai forum that China had will and capability to play a constructive role in the Afghani reconciliation and the post-war reconstruction. Thereby, “China can become a better interlocutor for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region than the US.”

There is a cliché existed that the American involvement into Afghanistan led them into disastrous imbroglio while the Soviet misadventure in the same country ended with great humiliation. Whether the Chinese approach to Afghanistan will be any more promising than those of the U.S. or USSR is questionable. Yet, as a rising power, China unquestionably seeks its own glorious moment on the world stage. The prospects for the success of the “BRI” in Afghanistan are currently uncertain. However, people who are pessimistic or suspicious of China’s motive and approach have ignored three key points as such. First, China’s involvement into the land of Muslim population is unlike those of the United States and the Soviet Union, for it is more economic win-win method backed up by its growing strong military. Second, now China has strategic partnership with nearly all the neighbors of Afghanistan that means China is not alone in dealing with the regional security issue. Evidently, Beijing has worked consistently on the prospect of inviting the SCO into Afghanistan. Third, after several generations of both civil wars and foreign wars, the Afghan people are desirous of peace, stability and the decent life.  Yes, God alone knows the outcome, but no one can deny people’s will and wishes.

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South Asia

Into the Sea: Nepal in International Waters

Sisir Devkota

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A visit to the only dry port of Nepal will immediately captivate busy scenes with hundreds of trucks, some railway carriages and huge Maersk containers at play. Trains from the Port of Kolkata in India carry tons of Nepal’s exports every week. Every year, Nepal is fined millions of rupees for overstaying its containers at the designated dock in Haldiya Port of Kolkata. Nepal pays for spaces inside Indian ships to carry out its exports via the sea. This is the closest Nepal has come in exploiting economic opportunities through sea waters. Prime Minister KP Oli went one step further and presented an idea of steering Nepal’s own fleets in the vast international sea space. While his idea of Nepal affording its own ship was mocked; on the contrary, he was right. The idea is practical but herculean.

To start with, Nepal has a landlocked right to use international waters via a third country for economic purposes only. Law of the Sea conferences held during the 80’s, guarantees Nepal’s right to use the exclusive economic zone all around the globe. Article 69 of the Law of the Sea convention states that Nepal could both use sea as a trading route and exploit the exclusive economic zone of its sea facing neighbors. Nepal’s closest neighbor, India has a wide exclusive economic zone which consists of 7500 km long coastline. The article also allows landlocked nations to use docking facilities of the nearest coastal nation to run its fleets. An exclusive economic zone in sea waters is designated after a coastal nation’s eleven mile parallel water boundary ends; which is also a part of the coastal nations territory. Simply put, Nepali fleets can dock at India’s port, sail eleven miles further into international waters-carry out fishing and other activities, sail back to the Indian coast and transfer its catches back to Nepal.

Floating Challenges

Before ships can carry the triangular flag into sea waters, Nepal will need treaties in place to use coastal nation’s water to take off and build shipment facilities. Law of the Sea convention clearly mentions that the right to use another nation’s coast will depend solely on the will of the hosting coastal nation. Does Nepal have the political will to communicate and forge a comprehensive sea transit agreement with its coastal neighbors? Nepal’s chance of securing fleets in and around the Indian Ocean will depend on whether it can convince nations like India of mutual benefits and cancel any apprehension regarding its security that might be compromised via Nepal’s sea activity. The convention itself is one among the most controversial international agreements where deteriorating marine ecosystems, sovereignty issues and maritime crimes are at its core. Majority of global and environmental problems persist in the high seas; ranging from territorial acquisitions to resource drilling offences. Nepal is welcome into the high seas, but does it comprehend the sensitivity that clouts sea horizons? Nepal needs a diplomatic strategy, but lacking experience, Nepal will need to develop institutional capacities to materialize the oceanic dream. Secondly, the cost of operating such a national project will be dreadfully expensive. Does the Nepali treasury boast finances for a leapfrogging adventure?

How is it possible?

The good news is that many landlocked nations operate in international waters. Switzerland, as an example might not assure the Nepali case, but Ethiopia exercising its sea rights via Djibouti’s port could be inspiring. Before Nepal can start ordering its fleets, it will need to design its own political and diplomatic strategy. Nepal’s best rationale would lie in working together with its neighbors. The South Asian network of nations could finally come into use. Along with Nepal, Bhutan is another landlocked nation where possible alliances await. If India’s coasts are unapproachable, Nepal and Bhutan could vie for Bangladeshi coastlines to experience sea trading. Maldivian and Pakistani waters are geographically and economically inaccessible but Sri Lanka lies deep down the South Asian continent. If Nepal and Bhutan can satisfy Sri Lankan interests, the landlocked union could not only skim through thousands of nautical miles around the Bay of Bengal without entering Indian water space; but also neutralize the hegemonic status of India in the region. If such a multinational agreement can be sought; SAARC- the passive regional body will not only gain political prowess but other areas of regional development will also kickstart.

Most importantly, a transit route (such as the Rohanpur-Singhdabad transit route) from Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan will need to be constructed well before ships start running in the Indian Ocean. In doing so, Nepal will not only tranquilize Nepal-Bhutan relations but also exercise leadership role in South Asia. A regional agreement will flourish trade but will also make landlocked Nepal’s agenda of sailing through other regions of international sea strong and plausible. A landlocked union with Bhutan will trim the costs than that of which Nepal will be spending alone. Such regional compliance would also encourage international financial institutions to fund Nepal’s sea project. Apart from political leverages, Nepal’s economy would scale new heights with decreasing price of paramount goods and services. Flourishing exports and increased tourism opportunities would be Nepal’s grandiloquence. Nepal’s main challenge lies in assuring its neighbors on how its idea would be mutually beneficial. Nepal’s work starts here. Nepal needs to put together a cunning diplomatic show.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hug Diplomacy Fails

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s enthusiasm is only to capture power; the same, however, cannot be said of foreign policy administration, especially in dealing with our immediate neighbors, and China. The best examples of his policy paralysis are the way in which demonetization and GSTs are implemented, or his sudden visit to Pakistan in December 2015. He is always in election mode. During the first two years, he was in the humor of a general election victory. Thereafter, he has spent much of his energy in establishing himself as the sole savior of the BJP in state elections, and this year he will turn his attention to the 2019 general elections.

Two years ago, without doing any homework or planning, Modi travelled to Pakistan from Afghanistan to greet his counterpart, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to wish him well on his birthday. He hugged Sharif and spent only two hours with him to try to sort out the 70 year outstanding divergence between India and Pakistan.

Modi strategically hugs fellow world leaders. He has no strategic perception. He believes only in the power of his personal charisma in dealing with foreign policy matters. This strategy has failed considerably with China and with our other immediate neighbors, but he neither intends to accept these mistakes, nor is he interested in learning from them. More importantly, an alternative diplomatic strategy is necessary to maintain our international position; through prudent policy articulations. Let us examine the impact of his hug diplomacy.

During the 2013/14 general elections campaign he attacked the Congress-led UPA government on multiple fronts, including towards former Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh’s policy on Pakistan. He proposed that the BJP government would have more guts to better deal with Pakistan. Under his administration, we lost numerous soldiers in fighting with Pakistan terrorists, experienced a 100-day shutdown in Kashmir, blindly allowed a Pakistan team to inspect our Pathankot Air Force Station, and generally continued down a visionless path in foreign policy. These indicate that Modi’s defensive and offensive strokes against Pakistan have failed completely, including the most politicized ‘surgical strike’ that did not contain the terrorists from Pakistan. Today, the Modi government is searching for policy directions in handling Pakistan, but sat in a corner like a lame duck.

In the beginning, when he took office, Modi perhaps believed that ‘everything is possible’ in international affairs simply by virtue of occupying the prime minister seat. Further, he thought that all his visits abroad would bring a breakthrough. His hugs with counterparts, various costume changes, and the serving of tea, indicate that our prime minister is using soft power approaches. These approaches were used by our first Prime Minister Nehru whilst India did not have a strong military or economy. However, India is not today what it was in the 1950/60s. Presently, hugging and changing costumes will not necessarily keep India influential in international relations, especially at a time when the world is undergoing multi-polar disorder. However, he is in continuous denial that his paths are wrong, especially in dealing with our neighbors.

What is the BJP led-NDA government policy on Pakistan? Does this government have any policy for Pakistan? Since 2014,Modi has not permitted the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, to contribute to any foreign policy articulations. As long as Sushma fulfills the duty of Ministry of Indian Overseas Affairs she will receive praise from the prime minister’s office.

During 2015 he met Sharif at his residence in Islamabad to give him a hug. This happened exactly two years ago. Further, this is a very serious question that the Media and Modi-supporting TV channels forgot to raise. Instead, without hesitation, they praised him for touching the sky, and described the moment as a diplomatic initiative for a breakthrough with our neighbor Pakistan. The Media will realize this mistake when their traditional viewers switch over to other channels to get centrist news.

What are the outcomes of Modi hugging Sharif at his residence? The results are terrible. India’s relation with Pakistan touches the lowest ever level in a history of 70 years. The Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed was released from house arrest and has started a political party to contest the general elections in Pakistan next year. This government does not have the guts to put pressure on Pakistan to provide the evidence – as requested by the Pakistan’s Court – essential to keeping the trial alive against Saeed. Modi has often preached that his government succeeded in isolating Pakistan in the international domain. The reality would be as much India diplomatically isolating Pakistan from the international community as the vacuum has been comfortably filled by China without any difficulty. These are the achievements that Modi’s hugs have brought to India.

The stability of Afghanistan is in India’s long-term strategic interest. India’s ‘aid diplomacy’ to Afghanistan in various fields has been increasing day after day, including infrastructure development and the training of Afghan security forces. Yet, India’s influence in Afghanistan is in disarray. Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said, “India should have its own policy on Afghanistan”. However, Modi’s policy makers in New Delhi are expecting the US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to maintain India’s active and significant role in Afghanistan.

India showed its displeasure during the constitutional crisis in Nepal, in halting energy supply to Kathmandu. This forced the land-locked country to obtain easy support from Beijing. Nepal was once the buffer state between India and China; it is now sitting on China’s lap and steering India. Modi’s mute approach to the Rohingya crisis speculates India’s major power ambition. This is a serious setback to India’s diplomacy: it is now pushing Myanmar to get support from China, along with our neighbor Bangladesh, in resolving the crisis with Rohingya refugees.

The first democratically elected government under Mohamed Nasheed was toppled unconstitutionally in Maldives. Since India has failed to raise any substantial voice against this atrocity, China has jumped onto the scene. New Delhi ought to have designed a policy to resolve the political crisis, but India, the world’s largest democracy, has watched this incident as a movie in the Indian Ocean Theatre. The highlight was the decision of our Prime Minister to skip a visit to the Maldives whilst on his tour of the Indian Ocean islands.

In Sri Lanka, China is designing its future battlefield against India. As the war against LTTE was over, Colombo started travelling in a two-way track, with India and China. Beijing’s love affair, apparently with Colombo, but with an eye on New Delhi, is no secret. Since Modi has allowed these developments without exercising any diplomatic resistance, he has given China a comfortable seat inside Sri Lanka. China has now realised that her weaved network against India can be strengthened easily in the Indian Ocean, because New Delhi only displays silent concern. After Modi took office, India – China relations have remained static. The border talks are on stand still. Beijing holds on to extend a technical hold on Masood Azhar, a UN designated terrorist. The dragon pulls our immediate neighbors to her side. These developments indicate that our foreign policy articulations are not supported by any clear strategic trajectory.

Modi’s diplomacy is like an air balloon which, once torn, cannot be refilled; a new balloon is needed. Hugging a leader does not lead to any commitment in foreign affairs. Personal charisma does not work as a foreign policy tool in dealing with a world power. For this reason, Modi cannot understand the setback he is facing with China, Pakistan, and our other neighbors. In comparison, Vajpayee’s or Dr. Manmohan Singh’s combined simple charisma as leaders or economists with appropriate home-work in the past; has caused tremendous results in foreign policy, including expected results in Indo-US nuclear negotiations. This is completely missing in Modi’s administration.

Hence, the newly elected Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi has said, “Modi’s hug diplomacy fails”. It was a valuable comment that the ruling elite should consider as a meaningful insight. Alternative approaches are vital to regain our neighbors’ trust, as opposed to China’s. However, Prime Minister Modi’s this year of work will be focused on the 2019 general elections, compromising the proper attention due to India’s international diplomacy.

First published in Congress Sandesh

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Potential Consequences of Nuclear Politics in South Asia

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Established in 1948, Indian atomic energy commission turned towards United Kingdom for their first help in the making of Apsara. Subsequently, with a similar vision, the CIRUS reactor was supplied by Canada, where, the heavy water came from the United States.

India, over the years, has built a nuclear program that has led to the making of a number of reactors. India’s 1974 “Peaceful nuclear explosion” implies to their hegemonic ambitions as India has the capacity to produce around 300-400 nuclear weapons. The continuous upgradation of weapons by India could lead her as a hegemon nuclear power that can deeply unsettle Pakistan and China.

Calling into question India’s stated intentions, when it comes to nuclear tests, the plutonium for its 1974 and 1998 tests was diverted from its “civilian” nuclear facilities. After 1974, India continued to claim its explosion was “peaceful” and advocated global nuclear disarmament, even as it rejected proposals by Pakistan to denuclearize South Asia.

From Pokhran-I to Operation Shakti, India has traditionally relied on plutonium and thermonuclear technology. In 1992, the then Chairman of Department of Indian Atomic Energy  acknowledged that India had succeeded in the past for achieving the target of highly enriched uranium, while the centrifuge program was facing critical and technical hindrances. Also, it was admitted by the former Chairman of AEC, Raja Ramanna that India was working to produce more efficient centrifuges which were used for military purposes.  At the peak of all these developments, it is important to note that thermonuclear weapons have far more destructive power than a nuclear bomb.

India may also be considering using its civil power reactors to increase its stock of weapon-grade plutonium. Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s former top nonproliferation official told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in March that the officials in the Bush administration had the ambition to sign a nuclear deal with India, to “work together to counter China- to be a counterweight to an emerging China.” He further expressed his views that the nuclear deal had unfortunate repercussions, because other nations concluded that Washington was playing favorites with India.

India is the only country in the region having uranium reserves that are higher than what other countries in the region hold. India has already received roughly 4,914 tons of uranium from France, Russia, and Kazakhstan, and it has agreements with Canada, Mongolia, Argentina, and Namibia for additional shipments. It also signed a uranium deal with Australia that has sparked considerable controversy at home.

This massive production of uranium annually can support its nuclear submarine program and current weapons grade plutonium production rate indirectly. These uranium reserves are enough for approx. 6-10 bombs per year.

Adding a twist to the existing fissile material build-up process, the Indo-US strategic partnership supplemented it. Under this dangerous bargain, it would continue to not only allow India to increase its fissile material but also the capacity to increase the build-up of nuclear weapon material.

Hence, the strategic stability in South Asia has been negatively impacted since the initial stages due to the hegemonic designs which India pursued with the start of CIRUS reactor. With the passage of time, the Indo-US nuclear deal and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver have already added more repercussions and now the discriminatory move to try to facilitate Indian NSG membership will further erode the strategic stability in South Asia.

Indian NSG membership and its potential exemption has adverse implications on non-proliferation regime. This has allowed India to expand its military program. As a result of 2008 exemption it has signed a number of agreement in nuclear domain with different countries. Interestingly, Mansoor Ahmed states that India has the capacity to utilize the uranium it is importing from these countries to produce more bombs.  The aforementioned reasons sum up India’s keenness to obtain NSG’s membership. This U.S.-backed move to make India a member of the NSG will be good neither for Pakistan nor for China, and it would set off nuclear instability in the region.

While looking at the dynamics of left alone Pakistan since late 1990’s, starting from Indo-US strategic partnership to now this geoploliticising of NSG. Consequently, this shall allow India to use all this a means of making the most optimum use of all its natural uranium stocks for weaponization. To offset the stakes, it might be prudent to have a close check on the international architects of India’s nuclear build-up. The alleged misuse of U.S. and Canadian controlled items by India must be enough to refrain from any cooperation if it is not abiding by group’s guidelines and commodity control list.

Furthermore, the more discriminatory the international nuclear order becomes, the less would be the effectiveness of deterrence and strategic balance in the region. The NSG will have to identify that India’s 1974 nuclear explosive test was the reason that nuclear supplier states established the NSG. It must also emphasize upon its commitment to uphold the principles of the nonproliferation.

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