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South Asia

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

Kartarpur Corridor: Sikh Soft Power

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Ever since the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, three months ago, in November 2019, it has drawn the attention of media and strategic analysts in South Asia, and outside the region, for different reasons. The Corridor, a long standing demand of the Sikh community, connects Dera Baba Nanak (Punjab, India) with Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, (Narowal Kartarpur in Pakistan) (which are barely 5 kilometres apart). Individuals wanting to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib, can cross over through the Corridor, without a visa.

The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Sahib spent a crucial phase of his life — the last 18 years — at the town of Kartarpur, which he founded (in 2019, along with members of the community, many governmental and non-governmental organisations, in different capacities commemorated the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib).

While it is true, that in recent years,  there has been an increase in the number of Sikh pilgrims visiting Pakistan on important religious occasions, and the Pakistan government had taken steps to encourage more Sikh pilgrims, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is significant, given that pilgrims can travel without a visa.

 Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur is especially relevant, not just from a symbolic point of view, because Guru Nanak Sahib spent a significant part of his life –18 years. But because it was at Kartarpur, that Guru Nanak Sahib who came up with an alternative paradigm, and sought to challenge the status quo in South Asia, along with some of his close followers from different faiths, propagated the Sikh philosophy (Meditation and remembrance of God, honest and truthful labour, and sharing one’s earning with the needy are often referred to as the three important pillars of the Sikh philosophy, which were enunciated, by Guru Nanak Sahib)

Kartarpur Corridor: Current context

If one were to look at the current situation, Kartarpur Corridor and the response so far, while it is true, that there are a number of logistical issues, which have resulted in the number of pilgrims crossing over, being far lesser than estimates. According to official estimates, from the Indian side, the number of individuals who have crossed over through the corridor is a little less than 45,000 ever since the opening of the Corridor.

One of the major causes identified for the Corridor, not receiving the sort of response, which was expected, is the requirement of a Passport for travel to Kartarpur. The Sikh community had been demanding an arrangement where by any ID would suffice.

Yet, there have been a number of positive outcomes. It has resulted in interactions between Sikh Community and locals. Pilgrims have returned with positive stories not just with regard to the Darbar Sahib, but the warmth of the local population.

The opening of the Corridor hasalso opened up vistas in the area of religious tourism not just for Sikhs, but for the Hindu community as well. Pakistan has stated, that not only will it renovate Hindu Temples, but will also permit pilgrims from India access to Gurudwaras and Hindu Temples they were not permitted to visit earlier.

Pakistan itself is likely to benefit not just economically, through religious tourism, but in terms of it’s international image.

Impact on South Asia’s geopolitics

One aspect, which can not be ignored is the Corridor’s impact in the context of South Asia’s geopolitics. A number of observers of South Asia, were surprised, that the Religious Corridor actually went ahead in spite of tensions between India and Pakistan (which have consistently deteriorated in 2019) . Similarly, a number of naysayers, in the media as well as strategic community, have been critical of the Corridor, arguing that Pakistan could use it to foment militancy in Punjab (this is a rather simplistic argument, which fails to take into account the sensitivities of Sikh pilgrims, who have no real interest in the politics of deep-states, and looks at the issue from a rather narrow lens)

What is especially interesting is, how the Corridor has drawn global attention. US, China and a number of other countries have welcomed the opening of the corridor, saying that it will pave the way for peace and harmony in South Asia. A number of Sikh activists and commentators have been speaking about the need for ‘Sikh Soft Power’ which can be effective in blunting narratives of bigotry and narrow mindedness which have gained currency globally in the past few years.

The opening of the Corridor, and its potential role in reducing conflict could be an important component of this Sikh Soft Power. In 2019, a number of other important events have helped in enhancing the stature of Sikhs globally. First, Sikhs in different walks of life have taken an unequivocal stance, against hate both in India and outside. Two prominent Sikh politicians – Tanmanjeet Singh a Labour MP in UK and Gurratan Singh, a New Democratic Party (NDP) legislator from Ontario in Canada were hailed for taking a firm stand against Islamophobia. Second, Khalsa Aid (founded by a British Sikh, Ravi Singh) an international charity while following the Sikh principles of compassion and Nishkam (selfless service)has provided humanitarian aid in conflict zones, and regions struck by calamities like floods and earthquakes. The stellar work of Khalsa Aid, is now recognized not just in South Asia, but globally.

It would be pertinent to point out, that The UN head, Antonio Guterres, also visited the Corridor during his recent visit to Pakistan. He had welcomed the opening of the Corridor in November 2019. “paving way for interfaith harmony and understanding by facilitating visa-free cross border visits by pilgrims to holy shrines.”

This visit is important, because it brings to the fore the relevance of the Kartarpur Corridor in a global context. The UN Chief while commenting on his visit to Kartarpur, dubbed it as a symbol of Inter faith harmony. A prominent US based Sikh activist, Harinder Singh in a tweet stated, that the UN Chief’s visit was significant. Said Singh:

‘Guru Nanak Sahib started langar at Kartarpur Sahib, free & open distribution of Wisdom & Food. United Nation’s Secretary-General & Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Dr. Noor Ul Haq Qadri partook rice & lentil. Hope 1-Ness wisdom prevails to realize peace via the Panjab’

Conclusion

In conclusion, Kartarpur Corridor has religious significance for the Sikh community, but it has the potential for reducing tensions in South Asia (by possibly making a beginning, by propelling greater bonhomie and economic integration between both Panjab’s) and could pave the way for greater people to people initiatives as well as trade between India and Pakistan. The Corridor will also help in highlighting the role, which the Sikh faith has, not merely as a ‘bridge-builder’, but an active facilitator of peace in South Asia at a time when the hopes are dim. The Corridor thus is important, as it is an important component of ‘Sikh Soft Power’ and also reiterates the relevance of what has been dubbed as Faith Based Diplomacy.

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South Asia

Islamic Extremists and Christians in Pakistan

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Pakistani Christians played an important role in Pakistan’s independence. When they were in dire need of Sikh, Persian, and Christian minorities’ support, the Supreme Leader and other Muslim leaders promised them equal freedom and rights in the newly established government.

Thus Christians in Punjab and Sindh were fully active after 1945. Christians also supported the idea of a separate Muslim state.

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, until the mid-1970s, the Pakistani government was largely secular. But on 26 March 1971, Eastern Pakistan was declared the independent state of Bangladesh, and most of the Pakistani Hindus (who lived in Bangladesh) separated from Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s transformation into a culturally integrated and increasingly Islamic state has turned Islam to the source of legislation and a cornerstone of national identity. The governments of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia al-Haq therefore took greater Islamic law into account.

Pakistani Christians

Most of Pakistan’s population are Muslims, but Christians are the largest minority after the Hindus. The south of Karachi has a large number of Christian settlements and there are many Christian villages in central Punjab and the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad.

Most Christians’ Ancestors converted to Christianity in order to escape their lower caste during British colonial times. Christians are the poorest part of Pakistani society. But a number of prosperous Christians live in Karachi and their ancestors were of the educated and prosperous class.

Christians and the Islamic Extremists

Prior to separation from India, Pakistan was a diverse religious and cultural community, but later tolerance to other religions and cultures was reduced. Now, Pakistan is a country where Muslim extremist groups and movements do not tolerate religious minorities. As a matter of fact, Christians have repeatedly been subjected to bloody attacks by Islamic extremists. Pakistani Christians, especially Christian Neophytes who have converted from Islam to Christianity, have always been the main target of Islamic hardliners. In this regard, the terrorist attack in Peshawar and the attack on the Christian Center in Lahore were among the most violent terrorist attacks. Along with the bomb blast, suicide attacks, burning Christian homes and churches and increasing ISIL attack on Pakistani Christians at Easter or Easter celebrations are also signs of this.

Reasons behind extremists’ attacks on Christians

While Christians and Muslims previously used to live in peace along with each other and were rarely attacked, the following factors increased attacks on them.

First. Indeed, some consider the Pakistan constitution as the root of The radicalization of space for the benefit of extremists.

Since the 1990s, Anti-Blasphemy laws approval has led to the Christians’ being accused of Blasphemy and insulting the Prophet of Islam, while some of these allegations are false charges with just personal motivation. These accusations sometimes led to the violence against the Christians and they always have security concerns for religious celebrations.

Second. Before the separation, there was a lot of tolerance in Pakistan, but tolerance has been reduced for several decades.

Pakistani society has become increasingly Islamized and homogenized. As some claim that before the separation, minorities made up 15 percent of the country’s population, but it is currently less than 4 percent.

Third. Most of the harassment of Christians in Pakistan by extremist Islamic groups is influenced by political parties. In this regard, some believe that extremist groups that have close relationships with the security and intelligence agencies play an important role in this area. Currently, these radical Islamist groups are managing thousands of Islamic schools and educational centers and provide children and youth with wrong and inappropriate teaching which lead to violence against religious minorities such as Christians. In the meanwhile, churches that engage in social and youth activities experience the worst persecutions.

Fourth. The US-led war in Afghanistan has made Christians more vulnerable to deadly attacks. Indeed, some acts of violence were politically motivated. Attacks on Christian minorities can also be part of a militant message to the West and also a warning to the government to message of Islamic extremists to the government to avoid from being too close to the West.

Fifth. ISIL has supporters in Pakistan, and many extremist militias in the two countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan) follow ISIL’s fanatical views of Shia Muslims and theory of putting Christians under pressure and killing them.

Sixth. What is clear is that previous governments have virtually failed to provide adequate space to prevent the migration of Pakistani Christians abroad. In the meantime, the Pakistani opposition has accused the government of “serious violations” of religious freedom by failing to cooperate against terrorist groups.

The future of Pakistani Christians

Many Pakistani Christians believe that they do not have the socio-economic status and equal access to available opportunities, and indeed they are second-class, practically lower-income citizens, and have been denied to become President, Prime Minister, Senate Speaker, or National Assembly Speaker. They also claim that the Christians work in the poorest part of society. In the same vein, some Pakistani think tanks have included Pakistan in the list of a handful of countries that have placed religious minorities under the strongest pressure.

Despite supportive measures adopted by governments in Pakistan (such as allowing guns for Christians) to protect themselves against terrorist attacks, radical Islamists have always viewed Pakistan’s Christians as a threat. However, as three-quarters of Iraqi Christians have left the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and also increasing of the number of migrant Christians in Syria and the region after 2011, This may also happen for Pakistan.

Indeed, there may be numerous reasons such as war, unemployment and convulsions in the region and the increasing attacks by ISIS and other fundamentalists behind the increasing of Pakistani Christians’ migration to abroad in the short and long term. This in turn can have many effects on Pakistan and its relations with Europe and the West.

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South Asia

Will the President Trump’s India-Visit be fruitful?

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Will President Trump’s visit to India on 24-25 February be fruitful? Will the US achieve its goals? Will it be beneficial for India?  Will it be merely a personal visit to please Modi or a pleasure trip? There are so many similar questions in many minds.

I think there might be two objectives of this visit: One may be, President Trump has his own agenda on this trip to India, as he is just at a launching stage of his presidential campaign for presidential elections to be held in November this year. He needed political support from his friend Modi, as the Indian-American has a certain vote-bank in the US. He might be seeking his support in Presidential-Elections. The second may be a long term US policy since President George W. Bush administrations and continuing under Barack Obama’s tenure, that the US needs India as a strategic partner to help “Counter Russia and Contain China”.

Regarding the first objective, Modi is losing his popularity inside India as well as globally. His extremist policies have bounced back already. Kashmir is burning, a civil war in ongoing almost in 20 states against discriminatory Citizenship Act-2019. Law and order situation has drastically deteriorated. Investors are leaving, foreign tourists are advised not to travel to India. The industry is being closed. The routine business has been affected adversely. The economy is almost collapsing, and the country is bleeding. Social unrest and political instability have damaged Modi’s popularity in India. Not only the Minorities but moderate Hindus, Intellectuals and neutrals are opposing Modi’s policies. His policies are also not welcome by the International Community either. Anti-India protests, agitations, rallies around the world have been witnessed. Human Rights Organizations, International Institutions, and all Peace-Loving nations and individuals are criticizing his policies. India is passing through the worst crisis of its 7 decades-history, under Modi’s leadership.

Under this scenario, President Trump’s any association with Modi may become counter-productive and Presidential Elections may bring results contrary to his expectations.

Regarding the second objective, the US was seeking strategic cooperation with India to “Counter Russia and Contain China”. As the US is losing its influence in this region and facing failure one after another. The US is left with no option except withdrawing its troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The US could not face Iran in the Middle-East and may leave Iraq too. Philippine is out of American Influence. Practically, the US cannot face Russia in the Baltic Ocean, Cannot face China in the Pacific Ocean, and cannot face Iran in Middle-East.

With this background, the US-supported India, projected India, up-lifted India, “to Counter Russia and Contain China”. The US has signed with India the “Major Defense Partner” agreement and Indo-Pacific Alliance agreement. The US supplied India with the latest lethal weapons and hi-tech advanced technologies. Extended financial assistance, trade concessions, market access on priority. Extended political and diplomatic support at International platforms like UN, WTO, UNSC, IMF, FATF, EU, World Bank, NSG, etc. 

The US has been helping India out of the way, sometimes directly, and sometimes through Israel or through its allies indirectly. As a result, India has become the biggest beneficiary of US assistance after Israel.

Will India meet the expectation of the US? In case of need, do India have a will or capacity to deliver according to American’s expectations? While India is collapsing and Modi-Initiated civil war leading India toward disintegration, keeping any expectation from India, maybe just a dream only.

It is worth mentioning that for the last 7 decades, Pakistan was a close ally with the US during the cold war era and front line state during the war on terror. Pakistan’s role was vital in achieving the strategic goals for the US in this region and globally. Pakistan’s role was appreciated and acknowledged on several occasions. The US leadership knows the capabilities and potential of Pakistan very well, especially the Military leadership is much more aware. Pakistan is a Peace-Loving Nations and well matured. We are a responsible state and understand the consequences of war, especially when the two countries are nuclear states. Pakistan is always willing to be a partner of any peace process anywhere in the world. We are against any armed-conflict or use of force. We wish, all differences around the world, maybe resolved under UN Charter diplomatically, including long pending Kashmir issues.

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