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CPEC: Opportunity for Iran and Pakistan

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Historically, Iran and Pakistan enjoyed friendly relations and this relationship has noticeably improved in the recent years. The two countries have been successful in harmonizing their differences over Afghanistan where they have no more to enter into contestation, given Iran’s reconciliation with the Taliban and the two countries’ common threat perceptions over the rise of the Islamic State in the ‘AfPak’ region.Pakistan’s regional posture is India-centric, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also enunciated on several occasions a policy of encircling and isolating Pakistan regionally and internationally. Along those lines, India has substantially increased its influence in Afghanistan, and it has recently, too, started stepping up its engagement with Iran. Meanwhile, Pakistan, instead of countering Indian engagement in Iran, is directing its ire at Iran itself. This has further alienated Tehran, which has its own interests to pursue.

As per 2013 Pew Poll found that 69 per cent of Pakistanis had a favourable view of Iran, the highest percentage of 39 countries polled worldwide on perceptions of the Islamic Republic. According to a survey, conducted by the Pakistan Institute of Peace in 2013, political and religious parties in Pakistan hold on to the notion that Pakistan’s ties with Iran should not be determined by the fears of upsetting the US but need to be based on Pakistan’s own national interest. It will not only improve relations with Iran, but also promote security, economic cooperation and, sectarian harmony. According to a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2013, while Pakistan ranked as the 11th largest trading partner of Iran, trade between the two countries has been well below its true potential despite geography and the infrastructure available under the Economic Organization Cooperation (ECO) framework. There is, however, a high volume of trade between the two countries through third country channels, smuggling and other illegal modes of financial transactions, mainly because of the western imposed sanctions on Iran, and the threats of penalties on the countries doing business with Iran.

Covering a land area of 1,648,195 km2 (636,372 sq mi), Iran is the second-largest country in the Middle East and the 18th-largest in the world. With 78.4 million inhabitants, Iran is the world’s 17th-most-populous country. It is the only country with both a Caspian Sea and an Indian Ocean coastline The country’s central location in Eurasia and Western Asia, and its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, makes it of great geostrategic importance. Iran is heir to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Proto-Elamite and Elamite kingdoms in 3200–2800 BC. The area was first unified by the Iranian Medes in 625 BC, who became the dominant cultural and political power in the region.It is important to note that Tehran is very closely watching the realignments taking place in the region as well as at the international levels to assess its future plan of action. With a new block emerging in the region, Iran is fast shifting its weight towards China. Iran can join this coalition which aspires to keep the region peaceful and economically vibrant.

Iran, situated astride the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Caspian Sea, has Pakistan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Turkey as its neighboring states. Being an energy abundant country, exports petroleum, cement, chemical products, carpets and fruits and imports capital goods, consumer goods, Industrial supplies and technical services. Iran’s trading partners include China, Japan, India, Turkey, South Korea and UAE. Initially opposing Gwadar as a perceived economic threat to Chahbahar, Tehran has recently shown its inclination to participate in CPEC with an intent to enhance land connectivity for trade purposes. With Iran’s positive disposition towards CPEC the erstwhile Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline could be rechristened as Iran-Pakistan-China (IPC) Pipeline. Iran’s participation in the Project is likely to go a long way in bringing stability to the region, particularly Afghanistan. A train link connecting Pakistan, Iran and Turkey78 will not only strengthen Pakistan-Iran-Turkey partnership but would also ensure a safe trade route from South-Asia to Middle East and from Turkey right into Europe.

The willingness shown recently by President Rouhani to join with the world’s economic giant through CPEC is actually not linked to benefit economically but also the strategic significance of this new emerging alliance is also being taken care of.The bottom line is that both Iran and Pakistan regard China as a bulwark against US hegemony. The CPEC also brings in an economic dimension.Moving on, Iran’s inclusion in CPEC will help Pakistan in a number of ways. One, Iran’s re-entry into the active international fold after the recent lifting of sanctions bodes well for Islamabad. For Iran, there’s no looking back. Trade and economic representatives from all over the world are scrambling to Tehran to woo Iran to do business with them. Analysts are predicting a turnaround of fortunes for the Iranians as well as transformation of the oil market mechanistic dynamics.

For Pakistan, Iran’s resurgence is nothing but good news, especially as far as the long-forgotten Iran-Pakistan pipeline project is concerned. There is now a reason to believe that some progress will be made in the changed set of circumstances.Before Iran was hit by international sanctions, bilateral trade between with Pakistan was around $1.6 billion annually. After the economy-crippling sanctions were imposed, Pak-Iran bilateral trade was reduced to around $300 million. Now that the West lifted its sanctions against Iran due to the nuclear deal reached in 2015, the Iranian economy and, consequently, Pak-Iran bilateral trade, are slowly recovering.

Having said that trade and energy cooperation between Pakistan and Iran can be increased through the revival of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. The gas pipeline could meet 25 per cent of Pakistan’s energy needs. The total cost of the project is estimated at US$7.50 billion with the cost, on the Pakistani side, of about US$1.25 billion. The project would supply 750 mcft daily through its 1700 km length, and it is estimated that at least 5000 MW of electricity could be generated through the use of Iranian gas. The pipeline can also become a part of the larger China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative;.According to South Asia analyst Michael Kugelman, “Iran may have concerns about Gwadar from a geopolitical standpoint, given that Gwadar and the broader pattern of Chinese investment in Pakistan is a competitor to the India-led transport infrastructure project that centers around the port of Chabahar in Iran. Based on scale and amount of investment, the Chinese investments in Pakistan are more formidable than India’s in Iran.” Kugelman continues, “At the same time, Gwadar could have benefits for Iran. China has suggested its broader CPEC project in Pakistan could include financing the Pakistani side of a new gas pipeline from Iran. Also, China’s massive investments in Pakistan could merely be the precursor to broader Chinese regional infrastructure investments, including in Iran. Who knows – we could even see the Chinese making some contributions to Chabahar. Anything is possible.”

Pakistan is especially interested in improving and coordinating its economic relations with Iran. With the lifting of the international sanctions on Iran, all legal hurdles of doing trade with Iran have now been removed. This will give a boost to economic relations between the two countries and both the countries would no longer have to rely on indirect trade. While economic relations will be the major focus of future relations, there will be many foreign policy issues that will impact such relations. Of particular concern would be China’s efforts to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and Iran’s growing relations with India.

The mounting ties between China and Iran is an important factor that needs to be weighed by the leadership in Pakistan to immediately take necessary steps to ensure a trilateral cooperation among Pakistan, Iran and China. There is an added factor to push this kind of cooperation forward. During a visit to Iran by Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2016, both Iran and China signed a US$600 billion trade deal. Both agreed to expand multidimensional ties and increase bilateral trade more than tenfold in the next decade. The two countries signed seventeen accords including agreements on cooperation in nuclear energy to become a part of China’s One Belt, One Road‟ initiative.

For Iran, the corridor would provide the  country with much  required openness to the  east. In  addition, Iran‘s  entrance in  this venture would  lead  to  an  era  of  improved  economic  development  across  the  Sistan-Baluchistan  province  by enhancing trade  between Pakistan,  China, and Iran  and would  offer a  cost-effective gateway to  the Gulf region for states like Russia and India. Presently, the need for Pakistan is to take into account the concerns of Iran especially if  Pakistan  wants to balance India‘s  influence  in the region and  wishes to fulfill the old dream of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. iran must look forward to the removal of non-tariff barriers and Pakistan must set mechanism to purchase oil from Iran instead of going miles away. Strategic importance of Gawadar does haunt neighboring countries but Pakistan has to mainstream this right strategic narrative of cooperation for greater good of both countries. Pakistan as friendly gesture could lay modes of connectivity between Chabahar and Gawadar.

Islamabad based freelance contributor and researcher. His area of research is south Asia special focus on china India relations.

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South Asia

India is finally engaging with the Taliban

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Indian news outlets broke a story about an Indian delegation meeting up with the Taliban in Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office. Indian officials made a ‘quiet visit’ to Doha to speak to the Taliban delegation there, said a Qatari official. This development marks a decisive shift in Indian policy towards the Taliban.

The Taliban is a hardline Islamic movement in Afghanistan that is a formidable military force. According to the Long war journal, the Taliban controls more districts than the government in Kabul. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 until the US declared war on Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda militants. Despite decades of effort at defeating the Taliban and rebuilding Afghanistan, the US has failed. After 2006 the Taliban started making a comeback, and now they are more potent than ever.

India is known for putting all its eggs in one basket. When Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, he is said to have a deep personal relationship with Najibullah, the last communist president of Afghanistan who was forced to resign and subsequently assassinated by the rebel groups in a UN compound where he took shelter after the Mujahideen occupied Kabul. Despite signs that Najibullah’s power was waning and was increasingly becoming a liability, there was no concentrated effort from India to engage other groups. Furthermore, failing to evacuate its long-time ally, India got a reputation of being an unreliable partner. 

India witnessed first hand the folly in not having any lines of communication with the Taliban when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked and forced to land in Kandahar airport. India was forced to release three terrorists in exchange for the passengers. The Minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, later said in the Indian parliament that it was the “best possible solution in a basket of worse alternatives.” India’s hands were tied because they had no relations with the Taliban. The incident also convinced India of the Taliban-ISI collusion, forcing it to embrace the anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan further.

The hijacking was nothing short of a complete strategic failure. It was also a flawed reading of the Taliban. The reality was that Pakistan’s undue influence over the Taliban was resented by their leaders, who were looking for ways to diversify away from Pakistan. The Taliban thought of the incident as an opportunity to establish diplomatic contact with India. The Indian leadership, unfortunately, was unwilling to take the risk. Instead, the minister of external affairs, Jaswant Singh, had to fly out to Kandahar to hand over the prisoners embarrassingly.  This Indian approach is in sharp contrast to China, which was willing to work with the Taliban to protect its interests.

India’s chief concern about the Taliban was the various militant training camps operating in Afghanistan, which produced militants fighting in Kashmir. This was again a lack of good judgement. The Taliban was extensively infiltrated by the ISI and hence had little influence to say no to such training camps. The decision to allow such camps were likely to be pragmatic to ensure resources keep flowing from Islamabad. At the same time, they resented the undue Pakistani influence. India did not make the situation any better by not engaging with the Taliban. On the contrary, it played into the Pakistani hands because the Taliban now had one country less to rely on, forcing them to keep coming back to Pakistan for material and diplomatic help.

India failed to realize that there can be different types of Taliban. While some groups like the Haqqani network were firmly in Pakistani hands, other groups would have been willing to engage with New Delhi.

However, India continued putting all its eggs in one basket by ultimately supporting the Karzai regime. The looming threats of a Taliban revival were ignored. This was despite even the US engaging in backroom talks with the Taliban from 2010 onwards. The conflict was lagging on, and the US realized eliminating the Taliban was not a reality. However, again, such pragmatism was absent in the Indian foreign policy as it continued with non-engagement with the Taliban.

With the US troop withdrawal, engaging the Taliban has now become unavoidable.  India has good relations with all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan except Pakistan and can play an important role in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has tried to block India out of the peace process repeatedly. However, all parties seem to be coming to the conclusion that India is a crucial ally in bringing stability to Afghanistan and can help limit Pakistani influence.

In a letter to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed a United Nations-level meeting with the foreign ministers of India, Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States to develop a “unified approach” to peace. Indian external affairs minister S Jaisankar addressed, via video, the inaugural session of the Doha peace process, signalling a newfound urge to get involved in Afghanistan.

The recent meeting between Indian and Taliban, held in Doha, is a step in the right direction. However, India needs to come out of its shell and engage the Taliban more. They are a reality that needs to be dealt with. Being a mute spectator will only aid Islamabad and harm Indian interests.

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What forced India to abandon its world-power ambition?

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The writer is of the view that India regarded itself as a rightful successor to Imperial India. It viewed Pakistan as an unviable entity who seceded from “great” India.  A series of cataclysmic events scuttled India’s ambition. India uncannily annoyed China, then Soviet Union and even the USA. India’s disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War made India realise that it has to concentrate on its immediate surroundings. But, India is still to realise that without burying the hatchet with Pakistan, India can’t realise its dream of even regional hegemony.

India is a multi-racial, multi-religious and a multi-linguistic “union”. The Englishman was able to hold this “loose sally” together by use of force. There were ebbs and flows of centrifugal movements in some states. But, the Englishman was able to quell them in nascent stage.

The desire for self determination or independence from English yoke arose very late in India. In fact, it was the Englishman himself who paved way for arousal of political consciousness in at least the elitist Indian leaders. David Hume, followed by a few other Britons, headed the Indian National Congress, until toddler indigenous leaders grew strong enough to lead it.

India’s perception as an imperial successor

India dreamt ofbeing an undisputed successor to the pre-partition Imperial India. It harboured ambition to emerge not only a South Asian hegemon but also a world power. However, its ambition suffered many setbacks.  Let us review vicissitudes of India’s “greatness” ambition in historic context.

1947- 1962 period

To get recognised as a major world power it was necessary for India to establish its primacy first as a major power in its neighbourhood. The Quaid-e-Azam wished that India and Pakistan to forget acrimony of the partition. He keenly desired that the subcontinent and all of South Asia should remain aloof from rivalry. He proposed a joint defence pact with India.

Had India accepted his idea, the two countries would not have been at daggers drawn after independence. Before his final flight (Aug 7, 1947) from Delhi to Pakistan, he sent a message to the Indian government, “the past must be buried and let us start as two independent sovereign states of Hindustan and Pakistan, I wish Hindustan prosperity and peace.” Vallabhbhai Patel replied from Delhi “the poison [the Quaid] has been removed from the body of India. As for the Muslims, they have their roots, their sacred places and their centres here. I do not know what they can possibly do in Pakistan. It will not be long before they return to us.”

Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan as a blunder. His rancour against Pakistan reached a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” (D. H. Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, page 14).

Ayesha Jalal in a paper Why Jinnah Matters (Maleeha Lodhi (ed.), Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State) recalls: “Just before his own death, Jinnah proposed a joint defence with India as the Cold War started to shape the world and the two power blocs began to form. Jinnah was still thinking as a South Asian nationalist…had Jinnah’s vision prevailed and found an echo in India, we would have seen a very different South Asia…there would have been no crippling defence expenditures.”

“There would have been no reason to join one or other camp of the Cold War. There would have been open borders, free trade and regular visiting between the two countries…a more humane sub-continent might have emerged.

India’s cold shoulder compelled Pakistan to challenger her self-conceited “primacy” at every footstep. Accession of some princely states either to India or to Pakistan became a bone of contention between the two next-door neighbours, toujours at daggers drawn.  The Jammu and Kashmir was, particularly, a hard nut to crack.

Pakistan posed a formidable adversary to India’s hegemony at every international forum. To pacify Pakistan, India’s then home minister, Vallabhai Patel offered Kashmir literally on a platter to Pakistan in exchange for Junagadh. But, Liaquat Khan, then Pakistan’s prime minister spurned the offer. He mused `what shall I make of the Kashmir mountains’.

Faced with the raiders in Kashmir, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru approached the United Nations for “mediating”, not for “declaring Pakistan an aggressor”. The stark, nay brutal reality then was that India realised that at the United nations not only the permanent but also the temporary members supported Pakistan’s position. India did not approach even the International Court of Justice as it perceived that it had a weak case.

India remained nominally non-aligned while Pakistan joined security alliances with the USA. Military and quasi-military confrontations took place between the two neighbours. But the Kashmir dispute remained unresolved despite the fisticuffs. Even today, Kashmir is a nuclear tinderbox.

Setback to India’s world-power ambition (1962 to 1991)

India’s disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War buried India’s dream of world leadership. India was able to dismember Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971. Yet, her dream of becoming a world power or a South Asian hegemon remained unfulfilled.  Political instability coupled with erratic economic policies whittled down Pakistan’s clout in comity of nations. In contrast, India, post-1991, adopted such economic policies that rejuvenated its tottering economy. Still, India could not get recognised as a paramount power in the South Asia as the Imperial successor to the British raj.

India imposes hegemony on some Himalayan states

While Pakistan remained defiant, India managed to coerce Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim to sign such treaties in 1949 and 1950 that made “New Delhi in charge of their foreign policy” (Manjeet S. Pardesi, Is india a South Asian or Asian Power; Knut A. Jacobsen, Routledge Handbook of India, page 136). Sikkim was absorbed into the Indian Union in 1975. About Bhutan, there are strong voices in India demanding India should annex it before China does so. To tame Nepal, a landlocked country, India blockaded it and annexed its Kalapani territory. But, Nepal is steadfastly resisting India’s pressure.

India’s significant post-partition “Asian Great Power” initiatives

Convinced of being heir-apparent to Imperial India, Nehru organised Asian Relations Conference a few months before the country’s independence in March-April 1947 (India became independent on August 15, 1947). In January 1949, India organised a conference on Indonesia to deal specifically with Asian issues, particularly Indonesian independence from the Dutch. At the same time, India forgave debts owed by Burma (Myanmar) to India during its separation from India in 1937.

In 1951, India signed a security treaty with Indonesia. A few months later, it signed a similar treaty with Burma. During the early post-colonial year, Burma behaved as if it was India’s vassal. India dictated Burma even on the latter’s internal security issues. In 1952, India signed a treaty with Philippines that amounted to a non-aggression pact. This “pact” was signed amid an environment in which China in post-War (post-Colonial) context appeared to assume a threatening posture in view of situation emerging in Korea and Indo-China. An Indian chairman happened to head each of the three International Commissions of Supervision and C control for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, created at Geneva in 1951.

Ascending on great-Asian power trajectory, India signed security arrangements with Indonesian Air Force n 1956, with navy in 1958, and army in 1960.

Forays into North East Asia

Engrossed with great-power ambition, India did not confine its foreign-policy endeavours to the Southeast Asia. It dabbled into Northeast Asian affairs also. Even without any direct diplomatic ties, Korean peninsula was de facto divided during 1950-53 (in the wake of the Second World War).  India continued to maintain a facade of non-alignment despite desire and initiatives to forge security alliances with several countries.

India irks China and the then Soviet Union

Diplomacy is like the acrobatics of balancing on a tight rope. Though the USA opposed, India recognised de jure the People’s Republic of China. The USA, under Harry S. Truman (1956) began to suspect India as a Communist-China sympathiser.

Throughout the 1950s, India supported China’s inclusion in the United Nations’ Security Council. Besides, it introduced the Communist China to the Afro-Asian countries at Bandung in 1955.

 India even legitimized China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet by signing the 1954 panchsheel agreement. India under Nehru also acted as a diplomatic interlocutor between China and Tibet after India had granted refuge to Delai Lama in the wake of Lhasa Uprising.

China and the Soviet Union become suspicious of India’s equivocal foreign policy

India continued making goodwill gestures to both China and the Soviet Union.  But, the both countries construed Indian policies as a conundrum.  To their chagrin, India supported the US-sponsored resolution on Korea. This gesture annoyed both the Soviet Union and China. They became skeptical of India’s nonalignment credentials.

India’s role in repatriation of Korean prisoners of war (POW)

India shrugged off China’s and Soviet Union’s annoyance and lobbied hard for repatriation of the Korean POW. Through India’s effort, some 23000 POW happened to be repatriated though it then appeared to be a Herculean job. Under India’s Lieutenant General KS Thimayya, Major General SPP Thorat leading some 6000 Indian troops and administrative personnel in the Custodian force (that landed in Korea) accomplished the POW’s exchange.

India woos Japan (Far East)

At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, all the 25 top Japanese leaders were charged with Class A war-crimes. Indian judge Radhabinod Paul declared all of them “not guilty”.

India regarded USA’s San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan as “unfair”. This treaty bound Japan to pay war-time reparations. India signed a separate treaty, the first ever with Japan, waiving all war-time reparations.

Under Nehru, India invited Japan to the 1955 Bandung Conference even though Japan was not then a member of the United Nations. Japan became a member of the UN later in 1956.  

How Sino Indian bonhomie ended?

China suspected India was bent upon reverting Tibet into its pre-1950-51 status as a buffer state between India and China. India’s disastrous defeat in 1962 Sino-Indian War buried India’s ambition to emerge as a major Asian power for the remainder of the Cold-War period.

India hails Galwan (Ladakh) unarmed clashes as a “victory”. But, in actual fact, the clashes were a storm in a teacup. India’s stand in media contradicted its official stand. India admits China “did not annex an inch of Indian territory” (so said Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the all-party political moot).

End of World-power ambition

The 1962 Sino-Indian War ad Galwan clashes portrayed India as a power that could not stand China without external military support. India was forced to revert conceptually to the subcontinent as her primary area of concern. Despite Pakistan’s vivisection in 1971, India remained a regional power.

Pakistan’s moves to cut India to size

Pakistan facilitated the USA’s tacit alliance with China. It achieved nuclear parity with India. It prevented India from emerging even as an undisputed regional bully.

In 1972, the then Shah of Iran declared “any attack on Pakistan would be tantamount to an attack on Iran and that Teheran was committed to the territorial integrity of Pakistan”.

India’s Indira Doctrine

In the aftermath of India’s “victory over Pakistan”, India embarked upon Indira Doctrine (ID).  This doctrine is akin to Monroe Doctrine. The ID postulated “South Asia was India’s sphere of influence and India would not tolerate the intervention of any extra-regional power here unless it was on India’s terms. At the same time, India would not intervene in the domestic affairs of the regional states unless requested to do so”.

Application

Within framework of this doctrine, India intervened in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-1990), forestalled a coup in Maldives (1988) and blockaded Nepal during 1989-90 to force it to toe India’s diktat in economic and diplomatic relations.

India’s post-1991 (Cold War) major Asian-power policy (Look East Policy)

Subdued by several events, India appears to have now abandoned world-power ambition. It is concentrating on consolidating it position as a major Asian power. .Under Manmohan Singh, India undertook structural economic reforms that banked on Japan, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

India strengthened its naval command in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and began conducting joint naval exercises with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (Lion King annual bilateral submarine warfare exercise). India trained Malaysian pilots to fly MiG-29 aircraft and upgraded defence cooperation with Vietnam.

Concluding remarks

India sees itself as “indispensable to the strategic balance of power in Asia”. It abhors China dominance in the region.

A series of jolts reduced India’s world-power inspiration to major Asian-power ambition. Nehru declared, ` India was bound to play the role of “leading and interpreting Asia and specifically South East Asia to the wider world’ Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s Look East policy, stressed, ‘India’s Look East Policy was not merely an external economic policy, it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in evolving global economy’.

India’s great-power dream will remain unrealized unless it mends its fence with Pakistan. Sandwiched between China and Pakistan, India is unlikely to win a two front war.

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Pakistan, Quo Vadis?

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Pakistan’s place in a new world order is anybody’s guess. Recent policy moves suggest options that run the gamut from a state that emphasizes religion above all else to a country that forges a more balanced relationship with China and the United States.

The options need not be mutually exclusive but a populous, nuclear-armed country whose education system is partially anchored in rote learning and memorization of the Qur’an rather than science is likely to raise eyebrows in Washington and Beijing.

Pakistan has long viewed its ties to China as an unassailable friendship and strategic partnership China but has recently been exploring ways of charting a more independent course.

Relations between Islamabad and Beijing were bolstered by an up to US$60 billion Chinese investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a cornerstone of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure, transportation, and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Deeply indebted to China as a result of the Belt and Road that has significantly contributed to electricity supply and transportation infrastructure, Pakistan will have to tread cautiously as it explores the margins of its manoeuvrability.

Nevertheless, suggesting that CPEC may not live up to its promise to significantly boost the country’s position as a key Belt and Road maritime and land transportation hub, Pakistan recently agreed with Saudi Arabia to shy away from building a US$10 billion refinery and petrochemical complex in the port of Gwadar, long viewed as a Belt and Road crown jewel. The two countries are looking at the port city of Karachi as an alternative.

Gwadar port has been troubled for years. Completion of the port has been repeatedly delayed amid mounting resentment among the ethnic Baloch population of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, one of the country’s least developed regions. Work on a fence around the port halted late last year when local residents protested.

Building the refinery in Karachi would dent Chinese hopes of Gwadar emerging as a competitive hub at the top of the Arabian Sea. Doubts about Gwadar’s future are one reason why landlocked Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, are looking at Iranian ports as alternatives.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan initially agreed on building the refinery in Gwadar in 2019 during a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A Saudi-funded feasibility study has since suggested that Gwadar lacks the pipeline and transportation infrastructure to justify a refinery. The refinery would be cut off from Karachi, Pakistan’s oil supply hub.

In a similar vein, Pakistan has been discussing a possible military base in the country from which US forces could support the government in Kabul once the Americans leave Afghanistan in September under an agreement with the Taliban.

Washington and Islamabad appear to be nowhere close to an agreement on the terms that would govern a US military presence in Pakistan but the fact that Pakistan is willing to entertain the notion will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Pakistan borders on China’s troubled province of Xinjiang, home to Turkic Muslims who face a brutal Chinese attempt to squash their religious and ethnic identity.

China fears that Pakistan, one of the few countries to have witnessed protests against the crackdown in the early days of the repression, could be used by Turkic Muslim militants, including fighters that escaped Syria, as a launching pad for attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian country or in Xinjiang itself.

The notion of Pakistan re-emerging as a breeding ground for militants is likely to gain traction in Beijing as well as Washington as Pakistan implements educational reform that would Islamicize syllabi across the board from primary schools to universities. Critics charge that religion would account for up to 30 per cent of the syllabus.

Islamization of Pakistani education rooted in conservative religious concepts contrasts starkly with moves by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to de-emphasize religious education and ensure that it is more pluralistic. The two Gulf states have positioned themselves as proponents of moderate forms of Islam that highlight religious tolerance while supporting autocratic rule.

“Pakistan is an ideological Islamic state and we need religious education. I feel that even now our syllabus is not completely Islamized, and we need to do more Islamization of the syllabus, teaching more religious content for the moral and ideological training of our citizens,” asserted Muhammad Bashir Khan, a member of parliament for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling party.

By implication, Mr. Khan, the parliamentarian, was suggesting that Pakistan was angling for a conservative leadership role in the Muslim world as various forces, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia compete for religious soft power in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam.

The educational reform boosts Prime Minister Khan’s effort to be the spokesman for Muslim causes. The prime minister has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of peddling Islamophobia and demanded that Facebook ban expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Critics warn that the curriculum will produce anything but a society that is tolerant and pluralistic.

Said education expert Rubina Saigol: “When the state aligns itself with one sect or a singular interpretation of religion, it opens the doors to sectarian conflict, which can turn violent… There is lip service to the ideas of diversity, inclusion and mutuality but, in reality, an SNC that is gender-biased, sectarian and class-based, will sharpen social differences, undermine minority religions and sects, and violate the principles of federalism.” Ms. Saigol was referring to Prime Minister Khan’s Single National Curriculum project by its initials.

Former Senator Farhatullah Babar warned that “The SNC…opens the door for… (religious) seminary teachers to enter mainstream educational institutions… It is well known that a majority of the education of seminary students is grounded in sectarianism. Imagine the consequences of…seminary teachers trained and educated in sectarian education entering the present educational institutions.”

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