It was the first day of 2018 and the United States (U.S.) President Donald Trump – who had just welcomed the New Year with a lavish party in his private club – decided to take on the United States of America’s (U.S.A.) “misaligned ally”, Pakistan. Resorting to his symbolic practice of using twitter to express himself, President Trump lashed out at Pakistan accusing the South Asian nation of using “lies” and “deceit” while dealing with the U.S.A. Later in August same year, the U.S.A cancelled Pakistan’s participation in the International Military Education and Training Program (I.M.E.T) followed by the cancellation of military aid in September. These measures were classified as part of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy, which involved pressurizing Pakistan to help combat militant groups in Afghanistan.
Months below the line, bitterness between the U.S.A and Pakistan has reduced significantly. Besides using its military muscle in the battlefield to defeat the battle-hardened Taliban – an objective that seems distant with each passing day – the U.S.A opted for a more sagacious path and sought negotiations with Taliban to end the sanguinary war. Even though Taliban may have been exhausted after such a long war, yet convincing the hardliner group to come to negotiating table for meaningful talks was a daunting task and this was the occasion the U.S.A looked back towards its “misaligned ally” and all of a sudden, expectations from Pakistan changed from curbing its support to the militant outfit to use its influence over Taliban to enter into talks with the U.S.A.
Admittedly, Pakistan played its role in coaxing Taliban to the negotiations and by September 2019, a deal was almost ready to be inked but to the astonishment of Pakistan and Taliban, President Trump’s cancelled the peace talks using twitter citing the killing of an American soldier as the reason. Pakistan again played a crucial role in bringing the two parties together and a landmark deal maybe just days ahead.
Ups and downs in U.S.A.-Pakistan relationship is not a novel phenomenon. For past seven decades, it has been a classic transactional relationship with Pakistan’s geostrategic vitality in the region rendering it inevitable for the U.S.A to seek its help in return for economic, military and diplomatic support. But after each such transaction, there has been years of bitterness and strains due to the absence of common strategic objectives, which only contributed towards deepening of trust-deficit and suspicion between the two countries.
Undoubtedly, during the past one and a half year, there have been a few positive headways in the relations between the U.S.A and Pakistan but these advances are too minuscule a gauge to conjecture about the larger canvas of relationship between the two countries. Hence, the grand geopolitical picture of South Asia ought to be brought into consideration to analyze the contours of the future relationship between the U.S.A and Pakistan.
At present, the U.S.A is stuck in Afghanistan – the graveyard of Empires – where it is fighting the longest war of its history. Before assuming the Oval Office, Trump criticized the U.S. military adventures abroad and wanted a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, less than a year before running for his second term in the oval office, the erstwhile real estate tycoon wants to publicize the superpower’s extrication from Afghanistan as one of his noteworthy achievements. Given Pakistan’s indispensability for the success of the Afghan peace process, burying the hatchet despite trust deficit and suspicion was the most realistic option for the U.S.A and this is exactly what they did. The recent military-related concessions and Pakistan’s probable salvage from the FATF quagmire essentially seem to be yet another transaction from the U.S.A in return for Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process and after the peace deal has been signed, facilitation of U.S. withdrawal from landlocked Afghanistan.
Apart from Afghanistan, the prospects of cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan are extremely thin. The tectonic plates underpinning the South Asian regional order have been shifting since the beginning of 21st century and at the moment, expedited by the trends in the global order, the regional order offers a transformed illustration. As a consequence, a new balance of power arrangement has emerged in South Asia featuring Pakistan as a strategic partner of China in the opposite bloc of U.S.A. Contrariwise, India – the arch-rival of Pakistan and aspirant strategic peer to China – has been branded as the linchpin of the U.S.A’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which is essentially aimed at containing the rise of China to preserve the U.S.A’s “liberal hegemony”.
The U.S.A. and India have joined hands to oppose China’s geo-economic venture of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its flagship, China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) which is hosted by Pakistan. The U.S.A has been particularly vehement and U.S. officials have consistently been labelling the BRI projects as a “debt trap” for the host countries – not out of consideration for the BRI hosts but purely due to the geopolitical angle associated with the trillion-dollar mega-scheme. Indubitably, the B.R.I projects may have some pessimisms attached, yet the committed enticements in the form of infrastructure improvement and industrial development are too much to refuse for some of the world’s most impoverished countries eager to receive investments. On the contrary, despite being the geostrategic superpower, the U.S.A doesn’t have a solid geo-economic alternative to offer to countries like Pakistan, let alone something as grandeur as BRI. This has resulted in the steady decline of the U.S.A’s geopolitical influence in BRI host countries including Pakistan and the endmost victor is proving to be China, both in geo-economic and geopolitical realms.
Although Pakistan’s geostrategic significance has increased manifold in the emerging world order, the regional geopolitics and balance of power realignment in South Asia are likely to impede any long-term cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan. The U.S.A has pinned towering hopes in India to be used as an off-shore balancer against China and despite the recent uncertainties about illiberal and unstable India’s ability to assume the grand demanding role, U.S.A is highly unlikely to move closer towards Pakistan to project its influence in South Asia at the cost of losing India’s propinquity. Nonetheless, the characteristic“ transactional relationship” is likely to continue…
From Pulwama to Abhinandan: How India Lost the Narrative War to Pakistan
The Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019 not only led to the deaths of 40 Indian paramilitary personnel but also lobbed Pakistan and India into yet another narrative war – and more ominously, the potential of a real one. Before any investigation was conducted, the Indian military, political leadership, and media began a jingoistic propaganda offensive against their neighbour – stating that Pakistan was behind the attack. Soon after the Pulwama attack, Pakistan and Indian fighter jets were embroiled in a dogfight (details ahead) in which Pakistan destroyed two Indian jets and subsequently captured one pilot, Abhinandan (now released). The article examines the unfolding narrative war brought forth by these events. It primarily deliberates on the role of both countries’ media in said narrative war. The article highlights the distorted and false claims that the Indian media disseminated fervently – their unobjectivity, antagonism, and falsities stemmedfrom the hostility exemplified by their government and military. This aggression was contrasted by the Pakistan media’s focus on objectivity (for the most part), and relatively calmer approach – this stemmed from Imran Khan and the military’s reliance on impartiality, facts, and restraint. As the dust settled, reputable international media outlets who were the de facto adjudicators of this war judged in favour of Pakistan’s official and media narrative to the dismay of New Delhi.
Indian Media & Narrative
The Indian media has a storied propensity for being acrimonious and dispelling exaggerated, distorted, and even false news stories. This is emphatically true in relation to its neighbour, Pakistan. Indian news outlets in their greed to be the first ones to break stores, on many occasions, neglect to fact-check them. For example, in 2017, India Today’s Hindi channel, Aaj Tak, ineffably reported that a fatwa had been issued in Saudi Arabia that men could eat their wives if they were hungry.
The obnoxiously loud anchors and analysts during prime time become even more conspicuous if the news isin relation to Pakistan. Shouting to the audience as if they are hard of hearing, dramatic deliveries of what is supposed to be news, fear mongering, and jingoism are their modus operandi. It is an obsession, which draws massive ratings and revenue for them as it gravitates the Indian masses towards their TV sets. Although, one could label these Bollywood-esque theatrics as innocuous, the hyperbole and outright lying against Pakistan and Muslims is particularly worrisome. Anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiment has erupted since Modi and his RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) affiliated BJP came into power.
Commenting on the Pulwama attack, documentary filmmaker, Sanjay Kak, observes, “Every time an incident like this happens, before the government can respond, before the army can respond, before the military responds, the media immediately jumps the gun, asking for war.” Although, his assertions are valid, but when the government and military did have a chance to respond, they in perennial fashion blamed Pakistan without any investigation. After the Pulwama incident, Al Jazzera conducted a report on the Indian media and noted that especially during prime time, the media “descends into unjournalistic ranting”. For example, after the attack, a popular Indian anchor, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, proudly said to his viewers, “India wants Pakistan punished. Like you I also want Pakistan punished”. Other anchors were miming similar statements causing a surge in anti-Pakistan sentiments across India. Associate professor, Rohit Chopra, states, “With the exception of a few sane voices, what you have is a completely absurd and very dangerous competitive jingoism that’s perennially on display from all these anchors”. Citing how India’s “media is war-crazy”, Mumbai-based journalist, Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, writes that after the Pulwama attack, the media was “trading journalistic responsibility for tabloid hysterics”. The Indian media tried its best to link Pakistan to Pulwama – they wanted something to gain traction. However, their rushed approach embarrassed them on a myriad of occasions. For example, they claimed Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, a Pakistani cleric who died in 2007, was the mastermind of the attack. Furthermore, media outlets such as India Today, ranted that Rasheed was killed by the Indian army after Pulwama attack, which would be quite a feat. The Indian media and anchors beating on their war drums, became louder and more assertive, clamouring for revenge against a crime that Pakistan had not been implicated of.
This call was answered by the ultra-nationalistic BJP when they launched a “surgical strike” by invading Pakistan’s airspace. They claimed that a terror base was destroyed near Balakot – and with it, 300 or so terrorists were killed. Pakistan agreed that its airspace was violated by Indian jets, however, it apprised that no “terror base” was destroyed and barring from four trees and one injured man, there was no casualty (details ahead). Adopting the Indian official narrative, the Indian media outlets went hysterical with pride and made sure to inculcate this sentiment among its viewership. One news anchor, Gaurav Sawant, tweeted that India should “Strike again & again”. The sanctimonious Indian media in an attempt to validate the “surgical strike” narrative propagated a video of a jet flying as evidence of India’s attack –channels like CNN News 18 ran this footage. Their exuberance was misguided again as the footage, ironically, was of a Pakistani jet flying over Islamabad around 3 years back. Rather than publicly apologising for such sub-standard and yellow journalism, the Indian propaganda machine continued to disseminate animosity and unfounded allegations. The Indian media also began passing off a video game’s footage as the alleged strike on the terror camp. Fortunately, there are some reputable Indian media outlets and fact checkers that did their job and reported that this was from a video game.
Shortly after the Indian incursion into Pakistan’s airspace, the international media shot down the Indian rhetoric. According to the New York Times, the Pakistani narrative was substantiated by two Western security officials and military analysts, who noticed that any terror base in Balakot had long dispersed. Washington Post noted that according to reports from local residents and police officers there was a strike but no signs of mass casualties. The Guardian stated, “The attack was celebrated in India, but it was unclear on Tuesday whether anything significant had been struck by the fighter jets, or whether the operation had been carefully calibrated to ease popular anger over the 14 February suicide bombing…”. Reuters interviewed some local residents about casualties; one of them, Abdur Rasheed, said, “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.” Reuters even interviewed a hospital official, Mr Sadique, in the Basic Health Unit, Jaba – he stated, “It is just a lie. It is rubbish. We didn’t receive even a single injured person. Only one person got slightly hurt and he was treated there. Even he wasn’t brought here.” Questions such as “where did the bodies go if there were 300 casualties?” and “where are the destroyed buildings?” proved to negate the Indian state and media’s narrative. The New York Times reported that the Indian side provided no visual evidence of the strikes, while the Pakistani military provided pictures from Balakot showing not much damage. High-resolution satellite images provided by San Francisco-based company, Planet Labs, further revealed to the world that the buildings that were “targeted” were still standing – no scorching or holes or other indicators of an aerial assault were identified. In fact, the satellite images and other evidence provided by Pakistan and the international media has even shown the light to some segments of the Indian media. For example, vis-à-vis the satellite images, The Economic Times (India) reports “The images cast further doubt on statements made over the last eight days by the Indian government of prime minister Narendra Modi…”. Even opposition parties who were supportive of the Indian government initially are now feverishly stating that Modi has provided no proof of any strike.
After the faux surgical strike, Pakistan launched an aerial retaliation, which was previously announced by the Armed Forces, in which fighters locked on to several Indian targets but chose to fire in an empty field to avoid any loss of life. Immediately after this, Pakistani and Indian jets faced each other in a dogfight – the Pakistanis show down two Indian jetsin Pakistani airspace, one of which’s pilot was captured by the country. India conversely acknowledged that they lost a singularMiG-21 Bison and the pilot was in Pakistani hands – but stated that India also downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan claimed this as false and asserted that it lost no jets. The international media again heavily leaned towards the Pakistani assertions as India could not provide any proof of their claims while Pakistan did. Pakistan captured the MiG-21’s pilot, wing commander Abhinandan and showed footage of his downed jet – this was more than enough proof to the world that Pakistan was stating facts and won the dogfight. Vis-a-vis the Indian claims that it downed a Pakistani F-16, they were proven to be bogus. Pakistani and Indian Air Force officers (retired and serving) were sceptical that India shot down an F-16 citing that easily accessible evidence such as Abhinandan’s radio transmissions to flight controller, loss of radar blip, and video recording(s) of air-engagement had not been provided. Furthermore, while analysing the Indian media’s picture and video evidence of the alleged downed F-16, it was revealed that the exhaust shown was consistent with an R-25 engine found on a MiG. During a live TV show, an Indian anchor clamoured to the audience and an Indian analyst that the pictures he was displaying were of the downed Pakistani F-16. This immediately backfired when the Indian analyst stated, “I do not think that it is entirely accurate. That part is actually a MiG-21 part.” Moreover, the service hatch on the wreckage showed a “CU” format serial number written, which is used on Indian upgraded MiG-21’s.Quite recently, American scholar, Christine Fair, who is known to be very vocal against Pakistan, stated at the Indian hosted Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh “I say this clearly with 100% certitude that there was no F-16 struck down.I do not believe you did. I believe that my bonafides as a critic of Pakistan stand for itself”. The reason the Indians “needed” there to be a downed F-16 was to save face or otherwise its military capabilities would be exposed. The latter is exactly what transpired – a Foreign Policy article remarked that the dilapidated state of the Indian Air Force was reinforced when Pakistan came out victorious in the dogfight. The New York Times also spelled tragedy for the Indian government and media as it commented that due to Pakistan’s victory over India, questions arise regarding its “vintage” military.
Vis-à-vis the captured pilot, wing commander Abhinandan, even he took a major jab at the Indian media. Before leaving Pakistan, he regretted that the “Indian media always stretches the truth. The smallest of things are presented in a very incendiary manner and people get misled.” Overall, the Indian media, without conducting any research of its own, only mimicked whatever the government told them and ignored any objective voice.
Pakistani Media &Narrative
The Pakistani media is certainly not renowned in the world as the most objective or professional. It feels that their immaturity is on display perennially. Like their Indian counterparts, they too have elements of cheap Bollywood theatrics, overly loud newscasters, and journalists biased towards a specific political party. Their theatrics and unprofessional behaviour include confronting families of victims who died in fresh terror attacks, as well as playing funny background music as a politician slips or forgets what to say. Regrettably and astonishingly, Pakistan has more news channels than entertainment ones. In fact, the news and political discussions have become a form of entertainment for the public and since competition is fierce, this leads to copious amounts of sensationalism and yellow journalism. However, compared to the Indian media, they are not as malevolent, are much calmer, and the jingoism is much more reserved. In Pakistan, none of the media houses promote anti-Indian sentiments as policy, however, conversely, all Indian ones target Pakistan maliciously.
When Indian channels called for violence against Pakistan due to the Pulwama attackand later celebrated the fake “surgical strike 2.0”, the Pakistani media became unhinged. Not to be outdone by its neighbour, the Pakistani media began shouting back and regrettably started to resemble what the Indian media is mostly criticized of. This by no way means that the Pakistani media was as bellicose as India’s but concurrently it was nowhere near an internationally accepted standard of journalism. As one commentator put it, “Don’t get me wrong, the Pakistani talking heads on TV haven’t been showing some sort of graceful etiquette; they just look better in comparison [to India].” Pakistani and Indian media, unlike reputable international media houses, are inherently sentimental and let their feelings of patriotism seep into their reporting – especially in high-tension scenarios. However, unlike the Indians, the Pakistani media generally does not rant on why it should “punish” or “invade” India, even when the BJP-run government has followed a policy of isolating Pakistan and has turned Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into a battlefield. BJP and Modi have become globally condemned due to their human rights abuses of thousands of Kashmiris, as well as more recently their abrogation of J&K’s special autonomous status which has led to an ongoing curfew and media blackout in the region that has lasted over 100 days. Due to these crimes and the abhorrent conditions faced by other Muslims and minorities in India, the Pakistani media can be considered anti-BJP, but not anti-India (as most call for dialogue).
When faced against the onslaught by the Indian media vis-à-vis the Pulwama incident, the Indian incursion, and the dogfight, the Pakistani media became more hostile than its default setting and attacked India’s narrative. As tensions rose, Pakistani news was laden with “patriotism” and talk show hosts donned military uniforms to ensure there was no doubt who they were supporting. Backgrounds of jets flying and tanks firing were displayed virtually in some TV studios with anchors in the foreground talking brashly about the Pakistani Armed Forces. Indian journalist Salil Tripathi condemned both nations’ media stating “Not one of the fulminating television-news anchors exhibited the criticality demanded of their profession”. During this time, the Pakistani media became rather belligerent even if it was not turned up to full volume like India. Arguing the same, BBC correspondent, Secunder Kermani, stated that where the Indian anchors were demanding military action, Pakistani journalists “were more restrained, with many mocking what they called the ‘war mongering and hysteria’ across the border.” The preceding is true as many Pakistani anchors did try to tone down tensions and called for calm (albeit while supporting their country). A media analyst stated that in comparison, the Pakistani media played “peace monger as opposed to a war monger” role. A media outlet reported, “As opposed to the rabble-rousing, baying-for-blood Indian media, their Pakistani counterparts have been, barring certain exceptions, relatively more muted.”
When the Pulwama event unfolded, the Indian state and media (as mentioned) attacked Pakistan without any evidence. Pakistani media began by fact checking Indian claims and disproving Indian falsities around the Pulwama attack. The media scoffed and invalidated the Indian media’s claims that the already deceased Ghazi Abdul Rasheed was involved in the Pulwama attack. The Pakistani state and media narrative emphasized that the Pulwama attack was an Indian security lapse. During this time, the Pakistani media remained relatively composed. They did, however, become gaudier when India entered Pakistani airspace and claimed that 200-300 terrorists were killed, but still things remained in control. During this incident, the Pakistani media refuted that 200-300 people died by providing pictures of the bombed site that were made public by the Armed Forces’ media wing, ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations). The ISPR was in fact the raison d’être why Pakistan’s narrative was victorious with even retired Indian generals, Syed Ata and Rajesh Pant, stating that the ISPR played a masterstroke. In their ambitious endeavours to disprove Indian propaganda, some Pakistani journalists went to investigate the actual site that was bombed (Jaba, near Balakot) – a sagacious move on their part. Well-known Pakistani journalist, Arshad Sharif of ARY News, trekked at night with his media team and showed, live on a program, the craters where Indian bombs fell. Out of breath, he went inside one of the craters and stated, “This crater’s depth is around 4 feet and the width is around 6 feet when the Indians claim they dropped a 1,000 kilogram bomb.” As mentioned before, the Pakistani narrative was later substantiated by the international press (especially when the ISPR and the military escorted them to the bombed site). The Independent stated “The ‘300-400 terrorists’ supposedly eliminated by the Israeli-manufactured and Israeli-supplied GPS-guided bombs may turn out to be little more than rocks and trees” while villagers pointed to Reuters that besides four bomb craters and some broken pine trees, there was “little other impact from the series of explosions”.
When Pakistan retaliated the next day against the Indian incursion (which led to the dogfight), the Pakistani media began plummeting down akin to the Indian MiG. After the Pakistani military confirmed in a press conference that they downed two Indian jets, journalists present started yelling “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan). Due to the hysteria of winning the dogfight and capturing an Indian pilot, the media trapped itself several times by airing incorrect pictures and videos. India’s fact-checking website Alt News, was a breath of fresh air as they exposed fake news coming from both countries.For example, Alt News debunked a picture of a shot down plane aired by ARY News who claimed it to be the one downed by Pakistan, when it was in reality a MiG-27 that crashed into a building in India in 2016.
After capturing the pilot, the Pakistani media became conceited – craving further Indian embarrassments, they displayed fake news about the Indian Armed Forces. For example, Pakistani channel, AbbTakk, ran the news: “21 Sikh Regiment Refused To Fight For India” – claiming that Indian Sikh soldiers had refused to fight against Pakistan. The picture was photoshopped and made its way from social media to Abb Takk. There should have been an apology for running such bewildering statements but none could be found. Furthermore, a few days after the dogfight, there was huge news in Pakistan that India sacked its air marshal, Hari Kumar, when in reality he retired after a 39-year long career. The lack of investigation by some Pakistani channels in airing stories often mirrored the lack of checks-and-balances present while sharing information on social media. Besides these three examples, however, there was not much fake news circulating around unlike on the Indian side. Vis-à-vis the Indian pilot, Pakistan’s media aired the video of him sipping tea and extolling the professionalism of the Pakistani Armed Forces. This footage was obviously a feel-good moment for the country and the media and was soreplayed continuously. The pilot expressed that he was treated well and that he would not change his statement when released – which he has not still.
Overall, as commentators stated, the Pakistani media was not as egregious as the Indian media. The main reason for this, despite issues with unprofessionalism and some instances of fake news, was the media’s general reliance on reporting the truth regarding events unfolded. The Pakistani media shared real images of the bombed site in Jaba, went there to investigate, debunked various Indian lies, and continually perpetuated Imran Khan’s message of dialogue and peace. They came off relatively more mature due to Pakistan’s government and its armed forces (via ISPR)calling for restraint. Imran Khan even released the captured pilot as a symbol of goodwill while calling for dialogue. Furthermore, since the media relied on the Pakistani government and the ISPR’s version of the events – which were based on impartiality and facts – they came out looking more trustworthy. The reverse was true for the Indian media as their narrative was based on speculation and lies stemming from the bellicose Indian government and in reporting this version, their media was exposed ad nauseam for lying. Media analyst Adnan Rehman stated that the Pakistani officials who continuously warned against escalation inspired the “peace monger role” of the Pakistani media. While both countries’ media need drastic reforms and a professional makeover, in this war Pakistan not only downed two Indian jets, but also downed India’s biased narrative.
The Other Frontline: South Asia in the emerging great power competition
The collapse of the Soviet Union sealed the fate of the realist-bipolar world order and the United States of America (USA) – the leader of the so-called free world – ascended triumphantly. Afterwards, the sole superpower asserted itself as a liberal hegemon and instituted the rules-based liberal world order, which synchronized the globe for more than two decades. Nonetheless, as opposed to the liberal imaginings – which John Mearsheimer brands as “delusions” – the rules-based order proved to be even evanescent. While the liberal hegemon was engaged in costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, China – the onetime sleeping dragon – steadily transformed its latent potential into tangible economic power and by the end of the first decade of 21st century, elevated itself to supplant Japan as world’s second-largest economy only preceded by the USA.
As China’s economy– an element considered central to the overall national power – underwent astonishing growth, it started translating its economic might into military power and by using the trump card of geo-economics, sought to expand its geopolitical influence; thus, aiming to establish its own order by replacing the US-led order. The Chinese aspirations were unveiled after the Xi Jinping’s rise to the power and post 2013,the dragon in effect repudiated the famous dictum of Deng Xiaoping, “hide your strength and bide your time” and embarked upon the mission to project the power beyond its borders and shores. Unsurprisingly, the upsurge of China and its grand ambitions resulted into a security dilemma for the USA and as a classic manifestation of Thucydides Trap, a geostrategic competition is quickly unfolding between the status-quo power USA and the revisionist power China.
Nevertheless, the geostrategic competition between China and the USA is improbable to culminate into a direct military confrontation, albeit, an intense security competition has already started, a reality manifested by a reinvigorated global arms race in nuclear and conventional realm. This competition, however, is not limited to military realm only and its manifestation can be discerned in; economy – where a bitter trade war has just waned after the conclusion of trade deal; diplomacy – where both the giants are vying for influence in various parts of the world; and most importantly, technology – where both the countries are competing for dominance in Artificial Intelligence and 5G technology.
For decades, South Asia remained an important geographical arena for the great power politics and traversing into the 21st century, the region’s geostrategic significance has just multiplied. It is home to roughly a quarter of world’s population; two generally hostile nuclear powers evoke intermittent great power interventions; the USA still maintains its two-decades-old presence in Afghanistan, which may end soon; resource-rich the Middle East and Central Asia are located next-door; revisionist China is the immediate neighbour and has direct stakes in the region; and above all, South Asian landmass forms the littoral of the warm-waters of Indian Ocean, through which pass some of the world’s most crucial Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs).
Competing Strategies of the USA and China in South Asia
At the dawn of the 21st century, the USA found itself directly involved in the South Asia region. At one hand, the superpower was waging a sanguinary war against terrorism in Afghanistan that necessitated a close partnership with Pakistan, while at the other hand; it entered into a strategic partnership with India after the two countries signed a groundbreaking civil nuclear deal in 2005. In 2011, President Obama announced the “Pivot to Asia” policy, which envisioned shifting the USA’s attentiveness to the Asia-Pacific – the region prophesied to host the most consequential geostrategic competition in the 21st century – after the relative oblivion of more than two decades.
However, it was in all probability too late. China – which emerged as the prime beneficiary of the rules-based international order and relished a “free ride” – had already acquired the wherewithal to challenge the liberal hegemon and redesign, if not remould the international order.
In 2013, newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a multitrillion-dollar economic plan that envisions connecting China with rest of Asia, Europe and Africa by building a network of highways, railway, and ports. Pakistan –China’s all-weather friend and geopolitical pivot on the Eurasian chessboard – became a destination to BRI’s flagship project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which contributed towards the further strengthening of the decades-old relationship between the two countries. Besides, China also reached out to the smaller countries of South Asia such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives, while regional giant India – because of its geostrategic rivalry with China – continued opposing the scheme.
In pursuance of BRI, China acquired a series of ports along the Indian Ocean littoral besides securing direct land access to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan. The projects, operational, are likely to enable China to mitigate its Malacca Dilemma and assuage its strategic vulnerabilities vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean.
Though China has been accentuating the economic outlook of BRI and negates any geopolitical angle associated with the scheme, it is irrefutable that economic influence always wields geopolitical influence and unquestionably, BRI has implications far beyond economics. Arguably, the BRI appears to be a grand geopolitical strategy camouflaged as a benign geo-economics venture, which aims to displace the USA as the dominant power in China’s immediate neighbourhood and defy its global dominance elsewhere necessary; thus, establishing a bounded Chinese order at the cost of the USA’s liberal order.
In response to China’s BRI, the USA intensified its “rebalancing towards Asia” efforts. In 2016, Uncle Sam sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)– which was to cover the 40% of world trade – and sought to strengthen regional alliances, but the election of President Trump led to a reversal in the policy. In 2017, the USA withdrew from TPP, sending shockwaves among its allies in the Asia-Pacific region and casting dicey shadows over the liberal hegemon’s global commitments.
However, Asia-Pacific was not a region to be overlooked such conveniently. In 2018, Trump administration presented the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which came as another formal acknowledgement of the China’s revisionist status – a threat to rules-based international order necessitating containment at the earliest.
From a South Asian perspective, the term “Indo-Pacific” emphasized India’s augmented significance for the USA in the Asia-Pacific, and further reinforced the beliefs that the USA is strategizing to use India as an offshore balancer to counterbalance China. Furthermore, some efforts were made to revive the Quad –a group of maritime democracies belonging to the Indo-Pacific rim– with a perceived common objective to contain China. However,as opposed to BRI – which has already made considerable progress – the USA’s initiatives without any real strategy, policy frameworks and implementation mechanisms, flaunt as aspirational set of goals.
Certainly, China’s BRI has challenged the USA’s long dominance of Eurasia and South Asia is no different. The status-quo power has yet to come up with something as impressive and tangible as BRI, which– despite facing hurdles and setbacks – is flexible enough to adapt to the regional requirements and accommodate the aspirations of host countries; thus, sprouting as more acceptable and omnipresent.
Implications for South Asia
A shift in the alliances and intensification in regional competition
South Asian regional order is undergoing a transformational shift in the alliances as regional powers realign with great powers according to the emerging trends in the global distribution of power. Pakistan – the transactional ally of USA – has become China’s most trusted ally, while India – the Soviet bloc country during the Cold-War – has entered into a strategic partnership with the USA. Afghanistan – the third-largest country in the region – is the arena for the power struggle between the regional and extra-regional countries and as the imminent US withdrawal from the country approaches, the power struggle is only expected to intensify. At the other hand, other smaller countries of South Asia have a little consequential relationship with the USA but are trying to maintain a delicate balance between the USA’s offshore balancer, India and the revisionist power China which by the spectacle of unmatchable economic enticements– enjoys a competitive edge.
The alliance shift and the emerging regional power structure imply that South Asia will be an important battlefield for the global geostrategic competition between the USA and China. In fact, in Pakistan, this battle for economic, diplomatic and military influence is already underway. The USA is hypercritical of CPEC and considers the Chinese financial ventures a debt trap for Pakistan, while China has branded CPEC as the flagship of BRI and successful implementation of CPEC projects in Pakistan will be a major confidence booster for the grand plan of BRI. Moreover, China – despite strategic anxieties and border disputes – has expanded its trade relationship with India and is a major economic partner of other smaller South Asian countries. Antithetically, Trump’s isolationist USA – with nothing tangible to offer in economic realm – is only circumscribed to expanding its defence cooperation with India.
Appeasement of Fascist Modi regime by the USA and increased chances of military confrontation in South Asia:
India under the fascist Modi regime is undergoing a massive transformation. Apart from pursuing divisive policies at home, Modi has been very keen to portray itself as a strongman against Pakistan and the tensions between the two arch-rivals have recently soared after India unilaterally abrogated disputed Kashmir’s special status and high ranking Indian officials hurled unveiled threats to militarily take over the part of Kashmir under Pakistani control. Given Modi’s hyper-nationalistic rhetoric, his fixation to engage in dangerous brinkmanship to earn domestic political mileage and threats of an invasion of Pakistan Administered Kashmir, the risk of a major military confrontation in the disputed Himalayan region has increased manifold.
The worrying trends in India, however, fail to constrain the USA to continuously appease the fascist Modi regime, and owing to economic and geopolitical expediencies, the USA has turned a blind eye towards India’s bellicosity. In the absence of any international rebuke and USA and other Western powers providing subtle support, India has emerged as more assertive and domineering than ever and immediately poses a grave threat to the stability of whole South Asia region.
After the launch of CPEC, Pakistan Administered areas of disputed Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan have assumed strategic significance for both Pakistan and China. The region connects the two all-weather allies and is home to various infrastructure projects planned under CPEC. This creates direct Chinese stakes in the disputed region and the recent assurance by Chinese President to safeguard Pakistan’s “core interests” – which admittedly include Kashmir – the dragon has made no secret of its intentions. Therefore, it is safe to argue that in case India embarks upon a military adventure in Pakistan Administered Kashmir, the response may not be from Pakistan only and the situation may drift away to uncontainable limits.
Intensified Arms Race in the region
India is already the world’s second-largest importer of arms and as its geostrategic competition with China intensifies and tensions with Pakistan soar, the country is likely to further intensify its arms procurement and military modernization. Convincingly, it will create a security dilemma for Pakistan and country will be left with no other option except to increase its own arms procurement to deny India any significant advantage and ensure arms race stability in the region, which forms an important component of Strategic Stability. Consequently, the country’s already crippling economy is likely to come under further pressure and less allocation to the Human Development Index related domains means further increase in the impoverishment in the world’s sixth most populous country.
An upsurge in proxy wars and increased instability in the region
Theory of Nuclear Deterrence proposes that two nuclear-armed states avoid engaging in a direct military confrontation. Consequently, Nuclear Weapon states became proficient at obtaining their political objectives using proxies. Although, because of the regular nuclear brinkmanship of the leaders of India and Pakistan, South Asia provides a paradoxical case study for Nuclear Deterrence, yet the countries here have also mastered the art of proxy wars and have been employing irregular warfare to inflict damage upon their adversaries.
In the wake of intensifying regional tensions and global powers getting more involved in South Asian affairs, the fomentation of subversive activities by regional states against each other with the patronage of global powers is expected to further intensify and Pakistan can be the most immediate victim. Given the common interest of the USA and India to disgruntle Chinese designs linked with CPEC, connivance between the two strategic partners to foment destabilization inside Pakistan is the most opportune strategy to counter growing Chinese influence.
The trend of proxy wars is also expected to escalate in war-torn Afghanistan and in addition to USA and China, India and Pakistan – which have long been fighting an undeclared indirect war for influence in the country – are likely to further intensify their exertions once a power vacuum is created after the proposed US withdrawal.
Ironically, if Pakistan and China decided to respond India in the same coin and launched schemes to exploit the internal fault lines within Indian society– which are deepening owing to divisive politics played by Modi regime –it can lead towards an ultimately nightmarish scenario and the whole region may be propelled into the whirlpool of instability.
Ever decreased Chances of Regional connectivity
South Asian countries have tremendous economic potential and if the regional giants Pakistan and India can sort out their differences and become more economically integrated, it can not only reduce the risk of wars but can also usher into anew era of economic progress and advancement. However, given the imminent scenario in which geopolitics is all set to dominate the region, chances of any regional economic interconnectivity are likely to diminish further, even appalling scenario for the region’s impoverished masses.
South Asia region is all set to become one of the most important battlefields for the emerging geostrategic competition between the USA and China. The region is already home to ever-hostile nuclear-armed neighbours and the emergence of new great power politics in the region is all set to lead towards further instability. To add to the precariousness is the rising fascism in India and due to India’s strategic efficacy, USA’s continuous policy of appeasing the fascist Modi regime. Absolute impunity for its tyrannical moves and hysteria has rendered India ever more assertive and aggressive, and there are chances that country may instigate a war over the disputed region of Kashmir, which can escalate to cataclysmic levels. Soaring regional tensions are probable to enhance the Modi regime’s romance with arms buildup and an unrestrained arms race in the conventional and nuclear domain is very much on the cards. Furthermore, soaring geopolitical tensions leave no space for the toning-down of the trend of proxy wars and once adversarial countries are bent on exploiting each other’s fault lines, it will just augment to the instability and volatility in the region. Grownup instability and ratcheting-up of hostilities are likely to condense the chances of any economic cooperation between India and Pakistan, and South Asian economic integration would remain a dream unfulfilled.
Assessing the value of the Endorsements Pouring in on Pakistan’s Stance On Kashmir
Despite the tumultuous developments that have taken place since last year, the Kashmir issue has once again intensified considerably over just the last few weeks. The emergent security dynamics of the South Asian region are directly and indirectly linked with this long-standing issue in several ways. Exactly one year ago, the February 2019 Pulwama attack and the resultant military escalation between India and Pakistan are evident of its potential as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between the two countries. Later on, in August 2019therevocation of the special constitutional status of Kashmir by the Indian government, referred to as the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019coupled with a brutal lockdown in the disputed region and worldwide criticism have further internationalized the dispute. The diplomatic significance of the Kashmir issue was also evident during the UN General Assembly’s 74th session last year as many world leaders emphasized its peaceful solution during the session. In the same vein, it seems that Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts in highlighting these have been acknowledged in the year 2020 as well based on its appropriate foreign policy approach.
The Kashmir issue has since remained one of the most crucial agenda items during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Malaysia. According to the joint statement at the end of the summit, the Kashmir issue had been raised during the talks between the two leaders. Prime Minister Imran Khan also thanked the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahatir Muhammad for standing by Pakistan on Kashmir dispute and speaking against the injustices being perpetrated by Indian forces in occupied Kashmir. Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while addressing the joint session of Parliament during his recent visit to Pakistan has once again criticized India’s unilateral moves. He reiterated Turkey’s stance on the resolution of outstanding Kashmir dispute through dialogue and peaceful means and termed recent unilateral steps of India as alarming. From these statements, it is evident that despite not getting support from the Gulf States or the OIC, Pakistan can still count on support from Turkey and Malaysia based on its religious affinity as well as a more principled show of unity solidarity.
As Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts towards addressing the worsening situation in Kashmir continues, it is worth mentioning that, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, during his maiden and highly significant official visit to Pakistan also expressed his concerns over the worsening situation. He emphasized maximum restraint from both countries. He also pointed out the employment of Article 99 of the UN Charter, which authorizes the Secretary-General to bring this matter to the UNSC based on its grave implications for international peace and security. If the ongoing situation continues in Kashmir, the UN Secretary-General might involve the UNSC to once again discuss the issue and provide a road map for its peaceful settlement. Despite India’s unilateral moves to annex Kashmir politically and militarily, Pakistan’s current efforts to internationally raise the Kashmir seems to have borne some success, at least for the time being.Furthermore, such an assertion by the UN Secretary-General is a clear vindication of Pakistan’s principled stance on Kashmir issue based on human rights grounds and its significance for peace and stability in the South Asian region.
Furthermore, as part of US President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India which recently took place from February 24-25, there was widespread speculation that he would blindly support the Indian stance on Kashmir. If that would have been the case, it would have been projected as a massive diplomatic coup for India. However, contrary to such widespread speculation, Mr. Trump once again reiterated his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the bilateral issue of Kashmir by describing it as a big problem for both countries. It is quite notable here that Mr. Trump didn’t indulge in any harsh statements against Pakistan by blaming it for sponsoring terrorism or otherwise. In fact, Mr. Trump openly acknowledged Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir as an international and disputed issue. Thus, still representing a victory of sorts for Pakistan’s recent diplomatic overtures towards the US.
Hence at the present, India’s expectation of a diplomatic win over the Kashmir issue led by Mr. Modi has not entirely met his expectations for the time being. Contrary to his intentions, the issue remains internationalized as Pakistan has still gained considerable support from prominent international leaders such as U.S. President Trump and the UN Secretary-General Mr. Antonio Guterres. This is in addition to the support it has consistently received from China as well as the shift in stance from Russia These leaders have publicly expressed a realization of the sensitivity of the Kashmir issue and seem to be focused on supporting a peaceful settlement. This does not guarantee that the situation would remain the same in the future as well. Pakistan needs to redraw a long term strategy to present its case in front of the international community against the backdrop of the emerging dynamics of the Kashmir issue that still seems to be worsening day by day. There is still a lot more to be done to get support firm support from other forums like the OIC and EU.
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