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The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

Kagusthan Ariaratnam is multi-skilled security, defense, intelligence, and counterterrorism analyst with over 25 years of experience. He currently works as a research analyst at Project O Five. Kagusthan can be reached by email at Kagusthan[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Is Pakistan the next Yemen?

Nageen Ashraf

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The long going Shia-Sunni conflict became more turbulent after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Shia-Sunni divide had never been more severe. And then the Arab spring of 2011 had its own repercussions on this divide. This sectarian divide is a major bone of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia and has affected other states in the Middle-Eastern region too. Syria and Yemen are the states where Arab Spring became an “Arab disaster” and the uprisings failed to remove the authorities. Instead, the mutiny turned into a civil war which is still going on in both the states. What made these civil wars worst was the involvement of various foreign actors in the conflict. In Syria, the two major oppositions are supported by a set of different actors. The Bashar Al Assad regime, which is Shia, is backed by Iran and Russia. And the Sunni rebels are backed by Saudi Arabia and USA. The involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran is to gain sectarian dominance. Iran wants the Shia regime to stay in power; however KSA wants the Sunni rebels to gain control in Syria. Similarly, in case of Yemen, the regime is Sunni and is again backed by Saudi Arabia and USA; and the Houthi rebels who belong to the Shia branch are strongly backed by Iran. Here again, the aim is to get the dominance of the region as well as respective branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni branch and Iran considers itself the leader of Shia branch and both want to increase their influence in other Islamic states.

With increasing tensions between both the Islamic branches in Pakistan, the situation seems much familiar to the states of Middle-East. The current rioting against the Shia community which overlapped with the Holy month of Muharram, where “#ShiaGenocide” trended on Twitter and rallies have been carried out on streets enchanting anti-Shia slogans, made Shia community more fierce and boisterous. A data shows that from 2001 to 2008, more than 4000 Shias have been killed on the basis of their sect. Shias have been continuously harassed, bullied, and even killed just because they belong to a different sect. This is an alarming situation because these actions are only radicalizing the Shia community and doing no good to the state. There have been dozens of cases of discrimination, public hate speeches, and biased killings of Shias which can lead to a proper divide and even uprising of Shias against the government, making it another Yemen. And Iran, being a very neighbour of Pakistan would definitely not hesitate to support the Shia community, which can make the situation worse. Even if Pakistan gets the support from Saudi Arabia (which is also very likely to intervene in the conflict to counter Iran), the risk of getting involved in a conflict with its neighbour seems a really bad idea. Pakistan’s rival, India is already looking for opportunities to make this divide deeper. Indian politician Subramanian Swamy also mentioned in his tweet a few days ago, that India must get ready to protect Shias in India, and mentioned that Pakistani Sunnis have made an agenda to massacre them. No wonders India’s ready to not miss this opportunity. We need to rethink our policies and our attitudes towards this minority; a minority which can make Pakistan the next Yemen if things are not looked upon on time.

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How China Continues To Undermine India’s interests In The Brahmaputra

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Geopolitics in India China relations is not only limited to land disputes or competition in the oceans but also river disputes such as the one associated with the Brahmaputra basin. The water dispute between the two countries traces its origin to many decades, with China intending to start projects in the Tibetan Plateau surrounding the river since 1958 when Chairman Mao giving ideas regarding the Three Gorges Dam project on Yangtse river which after many years of difficulty, was finally constructed in2006.Following the construction of this dam, the Chinese government turned its focus to the Yarlung Tsangpo river projects, likely driven by challenges of water shortage it faced.

In contemporary times, the divergence between India and China over Brahmaputra is primarily driven by construction of hydropower power projects by China as well as the lack of transparency over hydrological data by the country. As a lower riparian state, India is at a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis China, which possesses the capability constructs dams as well as change the course of the river. These possibilities have direct implications for India’s North East region, where economic opportunities are already scarce. An alteration in the course of the river that feeds large swathes of land in the region could severely impact the residents of these states. Moreover, opaque data practices by China pose additional threats to India’s North East region that is home to many flood prone areas along the Brahmaputra basin.

China at many instances, has undermined India’s interests by not sharing the hydrological data regarding its hydropower projects, where the latter has requested for it numerous times since 2002 with water sharing agreements being signed between the Water resources ministries from both sides in 2013[i] and 2018[ii] for the riparian countries to further strengthen mutual understanding regarding natural resources in the rivers, which have not yet been implemented because of geopolitical differences from both sides. The sharing of hydrological data is necessary for India for keeping a close watch on the levels of floods in vulnerable areas.

It has been observed in an IDSA report[iii] that, China basically undermines India’s reservations on various dam projects being initiated by the former in the western route of the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan. Without consulting India, it has planned to construct dams near the river. It has done so with the construction of the Zangmu dam in 2014.China has also remained non-transparent regarding construction of three dam projects- Dagu, Jiaga and Jiexu, also situated on Yarlung Tsangpo basin.

China’s Leverage In The Brahmaputra

In 2017, when the Doklam crisis took place, China didn’t share any hydrological data at that time for its own political leveraging citing reasons such as floods wiping out one of the hydrological sharing areas.

A water sharing agreement[iv] was signed between India and China in Qingdao in 2018 for the latter to share hydrological data during flood season for the Brahmaputra basin between the months of May and October. Dam construction has led to change in colours of the Siang riverwhich turned blackish grey the same year, where this portion of the river became contaminated and unsafe for consumption, therefore impacting water supplies in the region.

Always it seemed that there has been a slight positive developments in sharing hydrological data with the Indian government from the Chinese side which the latter agreed but these agreements never came into full force. A noted Indian newspaper, New Indian Express highlighted that, the three areas have agreed to share hydrological data on May 15th this year from hydrological stations- Nugesha, Yangchun and Nuxia which are located in Tibet.[v]There have been instances when China has agreed to share details about its hydrological details but for its own security and strategic interests, it has chosen to not declare any crucial details of the same.

China’s Geopolitical Strategy With The Water Flow

China through river diplomacy could put pressure on India to focus more on its national security by deterring its role in territorial claims.  It could also be seen as a passive assessing tool of checking India’s strategy which means that China will play its cards when a weaker country is unprepared and the latter losing all any territory or water body. China’s selfish geopolitical ambition to claim South Tibet where the tributary –Siang flows, is another reason behind which it is highly prioritising hydrological river projects.

This policy is being given strategic importance by the Chinese government authorities under the New Foreign Policy initiated by Xi Jinping which lays emphasis on prosperity and security being important for economic development[vi] where the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan[vii] is being used as a way by China to address its water problems giving it a good reason to divert the courses of Yarlung Tsangpo, impacting India, making it difficult to address its concerns. 

Concluding Points

The water resource strategy is a good example of explaining the silent strategy which China could use for coercing India regarding sharing of waters and territories instead of using armed conflicts. China seems to benefit through this river initiative in terms of economic development and also defence. The MoU signing is process where China is trying to buy time to increase its presence and henceforth, being the main beneficiary while putting India under a period of uncertainty.


[i]“Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers””, Ministry Of External Affairs, October 23,2013, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/22368

[ii]“India China sign Bilateral Agreements In Qingdao”, Ministry Of External Affairs , June 09,2018, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/29966/IndiaChina_Bilateral_Agreements_signed_in_Qingdao_China

[iii]Shreya Bhattacharya,” China’s Hydropower Ambitions And The Brahmaputra”, IDSA Backgrounder,, July 23,2018, pp 2-8

[iv] MEA ,2018

[v]PTI,” Amid Border Tensions With India ,China starts sharing Hydrological Data For Brahmaputra River”,New Indian Express, May 16, 2020,https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/16/amid-border-tensions-with-india-china-starts-sharing-hydrological-data-for-brahmaputra-river-2143909.html

[vi] Nilanjan Ghosh ,Jayanta Bandopadhyay and Sayangshu Modak , “China India Data Sharing For Early Flood Warning In The Brahmaputra: A Critique”, ORF Issue Brief,Issue 328, December 2019,p. 2

[vii]Ibid

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Pakistan’s War with COVID-19: A Victory for Now

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From rethinking health care systems to the redefining of global movement and migration, the coronavirus has undoubtedly changed the world – Pakistan being no exception. However, Pakistan, one of the highest populated countries in the world and a developing nation, somehow weathered the storm far better than most countries in the world – leaving many international experts and doctors questioning how.

A state of panic and chaos gripped Pakistan when the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were registered near the Iranian border, back in February of 2020. With flimsy healthcare infrastructure, insufficient public awareness and overcrowded urban spaces succumbing to grisly sanitation system, Pakistan was globally perceived to be a misfit for this kind of war, and also thought to be amongst the brutally hit ones. The notable trust deficit between the government and public, and the ignorance of both could make matters even worse.

The concept of social distancing, not new to the modern world, was alien to a mighty chunk of the masses. Pakistan, one of the only two countries still battling polio, was forecasted by prominent experts to fall deep into a quagmire, if timely actions were not taken. During May the cases began rising and in June, they peaked – hospitals were put on high alert and fear enveloped the populace. Pakistan’s already frail economy also struggled due to the coronavirus – specifically due to the nationwide lockdown that began in March 2020.However, soon after the country hit its peak, the plans finally started to kick off well; active cases began dropping by the end of June. Miraculously, Pakistan has accelerated its recovery rate to 96% in a matter of 6 months, which is surprising, given the current economic and demographic situation of the country.

Out of the 307,000+ active cases registered, more than 6,400 infected have fell victim to this disease so far, according to the Government of Pakistan. Pakistan’s surprising comeback from the pandemic has prompted World Health Organization (WHO) to declare Pakistan as an influential player in the fight against Covid-19.But how was Pakistan able to avert this public health crisis with a handful of resources and poor health infrastructure?

Source: Wikipedia

Graphical Analysis: The trend shows that the country witnessed the peak of the epidemic by mid-June as a result of direct or indirect violations of SOPs by the general public, especially during the Islamic month of Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr. However, the country observed a decline in daily cases by the end of June.

CLOSED CASES*(Recovered/Discharged +Deaths)298,719
Recovered/Discharged292,303 (98%)
Deaths6,416 (2%)

*As of 21st September                         Source: Worldometer

Lockdown Policy

Amidst the national outcry for straining financial capacity, Pakistan’s healthcare infrastructure stood tall like a “Jenga” tower, with the government’s sensitive decision-making on one hand against the public’s negligence. The opposition politically capitalized on the public’s doubt about the government’s capability in dealing with a catastrophe of this scale initially, given the past experiences in dealing with natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes. Under such pressure and insecurity, PM Khan came up with a different solution.

After imposing a complete lockdown in March, a popular containment strategy, Pakistan pursued partial lockdown by closing down vicinities. The ruling party in consensus with other major elements also decided to keep crucial sectors of the economy, the livelihood of millions of wagers, open for economic activity. The government’s take on the countrywide lockdown seemed like a catalyst for an economic, social and political collapse, especially for a developing country like Pakistan.

Despite so many fingers raised at the government’s approach, PM Khan staunchly defended his position by explaining how it could give birth to greater problems like unemployment and eventually push the country into mass starvation. Reports about recession and market crashes from the neighboring India further emboldened the government on its anticipated approach – the smart lockdown.

While many believe that the policy was successful in slowing the spread of the disease in the country, notable health experts believe that the lockdown policy has only saved the country from an economic crisis, and not the disease itself yet. They believe other factors, like demography, have a bigger role to play in the country’s defense so far.

Youthful Demography

The major factor to consider is the demographic structure of Pakistan. Pakistan stands in the list of the countries with the highest number of independent population (youth, adults) against its dependent population (children, old-aged). In other words, Pakistan is home to a large number of youth or working age population; the number of old-aged individuals is significantly less.

Although COVID-19 can fatally affect people of all ages, analysis of the global death figures from the virus in the developed countries in light of the data of median age from the developed countries taken from Global health observatory data (WHO), specifically Italy, UK, France, suggests that the virus has caused more deaths in countries with the average age above 40. According to the above mentioned source, average age in Pakistan is 22; which means that the number of people with stronger physiological immunity is high, and the virus eventually dies down when the transmission occurs between large communities of young people. Thus, it can be said that the youth aspect of Pakistan’s demography might have a key role to play in the apparent success so far.

The Reporting Conspiracy

Pakistan’s testing capacity has also been subject to criticism, with claims that the health system is not sufficiently testing its population on a daily basis. Despite the Prime Minister’s sole credit to the government’s micro-lockdown policy, the data reveals an evident relationship between the decline in testing and reduction in new cases. The statistics released by Our World in Data indicate that Pakistan’s daily tests per thousand people, by July 16, was 0.1. The above source also shows that figure was estimated to be 0.13 back in June, the peak-month; the figures reveal a notable decline in overall testing from June to July.

Misreporting at the district level might have understated the official figures, but the notable thing is that even if we consider the fact that the country’s general testing has declined, it has still managed to show a positive rate less than 5%, according to Al Jazeera. According to the World Health Organization, any country with a positive rate less than 5% is in control of the disease outbreak.

Vulnerability to the Virus

By June, the disease spiraled out of control and started spreading at a very rapid pace. Due to religious gatherings in the month of Ramadan despite the lockdown restrictions, and the lifting of lockdown few weeks after Eid Ul Fitr, the country witnessed a boom in new cases. If we analyze the trend in the aforementioned graph, we can see that the number of cases almost tripled in a month. However, you can also see that after hitting a peak (6,825) in new cases, the rate of new infection steadily begin to decline over the next few days.

In an interview to Al-Jazeera, a health professional in Pakistan suggests that despite the highly contagious nature, the vulnerability to getting infected by the virus varies from individual to individual; a concept known as “population heterogeneity” in epidemiology.

Polio Response Force to the Rescue

With a big question mark on the healthcare’s capacity to accommodate sufficient ventilators for patients nearing respiratory breakdown, Pakistan defied all odds by deploying its polio eradication infrastructure to grapple the virus from spreading. The infrastructure, solely built to combat polio in rural and remote areas, has borne a great deal of innovation and research over the years due to immense pressure from the global health authorities to extirpate it.

Without the presence of a digital integrated health information system on a national level, Pakistan marched forward by integrating its polio eradication system with the COVID-19 monitoring system, an effort highlighted by the World Health Organization in a press conference. Highly trained health workers who were tasked to visit every door around the country for polio vaccination, were now directed to strategize exceptional practices that could effectively monitor, trace and contain the virus.

Even though the healthcare system does not have many epidemiologists in its infantry, Pakistan’s unique strategy has been able to considerably counter the virus than the countries widely accredited for their breakthroughs in the domain of disease control. Pakistan has received much deserved worldwide recognition in its unanticipated yet effective battle against the contagion.

The War Continues…

Pakistan might have pulled a narrow victory in what is considered as the first round of the pandemic, but the threat of the second wave still lurks around the corner. Health officials are continuously ringing bells for a potential disaster and advising the government to brace for it early on. They have also requested the government to pursue a total lockdown, if the country goes through a second wave, in the coming months as historical data suggests that second waves have usually taken a higher toll on the population as compared to the predecessor waves, like that of the Spanish influenza.

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