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Sri Lanka: A Key Piece in the Great Game of the Indian Ocean

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“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia… the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters” – Alfred Thayer Mahan

Island republics can advantageously secure global outreach as well as serve as spearheads in international competition. Growing dependence over maritime trade and its efficacy to serve as a trading nerve center renders all maritime transactions as part of a broader Sea Lines of Communications Matrix. In this arrangement, global powers aim to gather support from allies that have enhanced littoral potential. Between the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and America’s established maritime presence in South Asia, Sri Lanka is likely to serve as a major lynchpin in any future competitive engagement. For both China and America, seeking a Sri Lankan alliance has evidently become a viable strategy which can also upset their own adversarial relationship with another. As such, the Indian Ocean and its coastal states are fast becoming centers of immense global focus.

This for instance is evident in how India and China have enhanced their financial outreach to construct maritime ‘outposts’, for securing vital economic markets and interests. For America, this might not pose as a threat currently due to its established presence in these regions. But once it crosses certain thresholds, there is bound to be a reaction. Renewed security commitments and meltdowns in the Middle East divert all pressure on its alternatives and closest in proximity to the vital sea lanes is Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan ports offer its investors access to directly tap into global maritime traffic. Only ten nautical miles south of Sri Lanka lies the busiest East-west shipping route through which 60,000 ships carrying almost half of world’s containerized cargo and two-thirds of global petroleum supply pass annually. Because of Sri Lanka’s position as a nautical corridor between the east and west, a country like China is fully aware that its success in the Indian Ocean depends upon its ties with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka consists of a coastline which can also be used to build deep sea water ports with the ability to handle high density cargo.  It also offers a unique vantage point and an over watch to keep an adversary’s maritime interests in check. For China and its post Malacca Dilemma, investing in Colombo and Hambantota and looking to amalgamate Sri Lankan interests with its own has added a new dimension to Indian Ocean politics. Around 4500 tanks and 36000 ships pass from Sri Lanka annually through the Hambantota port. International maritime trade can be hugely affected even if there is a slight disturbance at the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Security of sea lines of communication (SLOC) is also directly linked to Sri Lanka which is very important for China in order to establish its roots in the Indian Ocean.

America believes that China by connecting Chabahar, Gawadar, Colombo and Hambantota wants to increase its influence and control over global trade. Alternating Diego Garcia to a more robust and comprehensive maritime arrangement would mean incentivizing Sri Lanka to a point where it is able to converge towards a mutually agreeable position. Ideally, that would mean Sri Lanka would have to prioritize Chinese and American incentives towards a more affable design. Realistically, such a choice either is riddled with qualifiable criteria or is undesirable. For Sri Lanka, this poses not only an immense opportunity but also posits a substantive dilemma. Choosing to allow one state would mean unnecessarily intimidating the other; something Sri Lanka cannot afford to do considering its economic and political conditions.

India also has a deep-rooted desire to dominate the Indian Ocean. With the growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean, India’s interests in the region are being challenged. In order to secure SLOCs to the Middle East which is used to supply oil and energy, India is also trying to strengthen its relations with littoral states to reassure and reinforce its maritime sustenance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Sri Lanka and  the Maldives for his first foreign visit since his reelection which shows that the Indian Ocean region is a major priority for India This stands in contrast to the 1980’s when India-Sri Lanka  relations had deteriorated considerably owing to the rise of civil war in Sri Lanka. That period had also allowed China to enhance its economic cooperation with Sri Lanka. Hence, at the present, India is planning various development projects in cooperation with Sri Lanka to counter China’s economic dominance. One such project includes building the Tricomalee port which can be seen as a counterweight to the China funded Hambantota port.

The Indian Ocean is about to become the epicenter of the tri-polar competition between China, India and the US and can become one of the most intense points of conflict in the near future. All three states have their own interests and priorities in the Indian Ocean region. Sri Lanka hence being located along the east west corridor is the key for them to achieve regional dominance. Hence, whether Sri Lanka would remain neutral or align with any of the three regional powers will have strong geopolitical implications. It is likely to play a major role in determining who will come out victorious in this great game.

The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.

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South Asia

Pakistan puts press freedom at the core of struggle for new world order

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Sweeping new regulations restricting social media in Pakistan put freedom of expression and the media at the heart of the struggle to counter both civilizationalist and authoritarian aspects of an emerging new world order.

The regulations, adopted without public debate, position US social media companies like Facebook and Twitter at the forefront of the struggle and raise the spectre of China’s walled off Internet with its own state-controlled social media platforms becoming the model for a host of illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats.

The regulations, that take effect immediately, embrace aspects of a civilizational state that defines its legal reach, if not its borders, in terms of a civilization rather than a nation state with clearly outlined, internationally recognized borders that determine the reach of its law and that is defined by its population and language.

The regulations could force social media companies to globally suppress criticism of the more onerous aspects of Pakistani law, including constitutionally enshrined discrimination of some minorities like Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed as heretic by mainstream Islam, and imposition of a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy.

The new rules force social media companies to “remove, suspend or disable access” to content posted in Pakistan or by Pakistani nationals abroad that the government deems as failing to “take due cognizance of the religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities of Pakistan.” The government can also demand removal of encryption.

Social media companies are required to establish offices in Pakistan in the next three months and install data servers by February 2021.

The government justified the rules with the need to combat hate speech, blasphemy, alleged fake news and online harassment of women.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a technology and internet industry association that includes  Facebook and Twitter, warned that the regulations “jeopardize the personal safety and privacy of citizens and undermine free expression” and would be “detrimental to Pakistan’s ambitions for a digital economy.”

The introduction of the regulations reflects frustration in government as well as Pakistan’s powerful military with social media companies’ frequent refusal to honour requests to take down content. Pakistan ranked among the top countries requesting  Facebook and Twitter to remove postings.

On the assumption that Facebook, Twitter and others, which are already banned in China, will risk being debarred in Pakistan by refusing to comply with the new regulations, Pakistan could become a prime country that adopts not only aspects of China’s 21st century, Orwellian surveillance state but also its tightly controlled media.

The basis for potential Pakistani adoption of the Chinese system was created in 2017 in plans for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, an infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative to tie Eurasia to China.

The 2017 plan identifies as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. The plan appears to question the vibrancy of a system in which competition between parties and interest groups is the name of the game.

It envisions a full system of monitoring and surveillance to ensure law and order in Pakistani cities. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media that would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.” The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

Critics in China and elsewhere assert that repression of freedom of expression contributed to China’s delayed response to the Coronavirus. China rejects the criticism with President Xi Jingping calling for even greater control.

Pakistan’s newly promulgated regulations echo Mr. Xi’s assertion during the Communist party’s January 7 Politburo Standing Committee meeting  that “we must strengthen public opinion tracking and judgment, take the initiative to voice, provide positive guidance, strengthen integration, communication and interaction, so that positive energy will always fill the Internet space… We must control the overall public opinion and strive to create a good public opinion environment. It is necessary to strengthen the management and control of online media.”

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Kashmir burns as lockdown continues

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The valley is on fire again, and it is engulfing the whole region. It is not just about Pakistan or India but the onus remains on the world, every person, every country, and every individual as Kashmir suffers from these flames.

It is burning everywhere. The dispute of Pakistan-India is not new. It has elevated from its dormant levels. From the disruption of peace-talks to election fueled border skirmishes, every action and every other effort in the region is worsening the situation.

Time has stood still. It has stopped healing wounds and only the lacerations have increased. As the lockdown persists, the agony persists and continues to darken the skies.

The cries of innocent Kashmiris (nine million of them) scream on the loss of their loved ones. The arrests under the Public safety Act (PSA) has demeaned its meaning in Kashmiri eyes and in the eyes of the world. Everyone arrested under this act have gone under detention without trial for a maximum of two years. As absurd it sounds, the trauma is more horrific.

And all of this began with the passing of Article 370. And it has raised many questions in the minds of the people living in these areas

Voted by the majority of Indian parliament members, that is,351 votes in favor and only 72 against, on 5th of August. The timing, the stunts being played by the restraining government are to be questioned. Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed to normalize the abnormal situation in the state of Jammu Kashmir. But the truth cannot be further from this. In the six months since, the state could not have destabilized more had Pakistan directly intervened. At its lowest ebb of the past 40 years, the situation needs to be normalized.

And in this manner Modi and the current Indian government have set the template for every dictatorial regime. Arrest all possible voices of a region, cut all communications, blockade the region and you are on your way.

Internet, tele-communication and any sort of media coverage was limited to say the least. As millions suffered badly with each passing day of the curfew. The valley burnt and there were no witnesses as a complete lockdown continued as the government tried to normalize the state.

But the images of the valley made their way out and the stories they tell do not need much interpretation. They support their tales without much context. It will be wrong to assume their context but there was no one to state it. Such was the stranglehold of the government. And this was in stark contrast to what was aimed at.

To revive Kashmir’s economy and make it come at par to rest of the country, a lot of different directions were available. So why mess with the hornets nest.

The necessary steps that Modi’s government had to take were promote local governance and encourage new investment plans in the state. Outdated plans had to be set aside and a renewed focus on ones that bring the state to the forefront after lagging behind rest of India for so many years.

What Mr. Modi does is anyone’s guess. After all, he has been the face of RSS backed BJP known for its neo-Nazi politics. The great face of secular India maligned by the idiosyncratic visions of a deranged lunatics.

And it has not played out well in Kashmir. The state’s lack of governance has had a detrimental impact on its development and the current legislature change will not help its case. All these measures were strongly criticized by the international media and on political forums.

The need to stabilize the region of Indian occupied Kashmir becomes very frequent question in the minds who follow the news update on the region. For Pakistan and India, the claim of Kashmir could not be more skeptical than in current situation. And impact current affairs situations in the geography.

From America taking out its soldiers from Afghanistan, to unrest in Iran and middle-east. The noisy neighbors and Kashmir issue impacts everyone. And as we learn from Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and its ensuring unrest, South Asia is not going to stabilize for some time. And Kashmir will be the talking point.

Wisdom would suggest that this issue should be decided sooner rather than later. Even if India’s claim of Kashmir being an unresolved matter of India, it should be resolved at the earliest. This has to be done some day, and with American troops leaving Afghanistan, doing it before will be a good time.

The freedom fighters have been engaged in Afghanistan for the better part of two decades and the focus will return on Kashmir. The suffering of millions of Muslims cannot be overlooked and the region will not be able to stabilize. It is in the best interests of all parties involved, especially India.

On the other side of the border, Pakistan is watching eagerly and getting support for its international claims. Peace talks have been proposed and they would mutually benefit both the countries and stabilize the region. But no movement has been seen on this front. Both Islamabad and Delhi are far from sitting across each other.

Pakistan itself has unilaterally changed the structure of Azad Kashmir government. And they did it by changing the status of the Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir territories last year. Any kind of the unrest in the Kashmir state has a direct effect on the Azad Kashmir.

And Pakistan cannot keep a blind eye on a region as close as the Indian Kashmir.It has openly talked about freedom of Kashmir from India and demands from the world to support its rights. And as Pakistan supports the Kashmir issue on all forums indiscriminately, the pressure is piling on Delhi.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced solidarity with Kashmir. His government is taking the issue to every forum possible including the human rights forums in United Nations (UN).Islamabad knows the significance of this period and has highlighted the violations happening under Article 370.Pakistan’s support Kashmir is firm and is not budging.

As the issue takes rage, other countries also got involved in it as sitting back and ignoring the matter is out of question.

The United States (US) senate committee on foreign relations has called to bring an end to this type of “humanitarian crisis” in Kashmir. Even Donald Trump has offered to support in any way to solve this “complex issue”.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shared that he is personally keeping abreast with the situation in Kashmir and would “support Pakistan in issues related to its core interests.”Xi, however, added that both India and Pakistan should resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took up the issue in the UN General Assembly. He called to resolve it through peace dialogues as they ensure the safety, equity and happiness of the people of the region rather thana rmed collisions.

Even Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stated that the people of Kashmir “must be included” in decisions concerning their future.

Decades have passed and there is a dire need to resolve this issue as the time flies it brings more anger in the residents. Open dialogues area solution which is in the best interest of Kashmiri people. Other repercussions are hard to fathom and difficult to digest.

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South Asia

How Internal Political Instability Risks Threatening Pakistan’s International Commitments

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Dharna (Mass sit-ins) politics in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon as it has happened several times by various political parties and other entities. Yet, it is the “timing of such Dharnas” that is the most important thing for the success and failure of such methods when pressurizing governments. Currently Pakistan faces numerous problems ranging from an unstable economy, terrorism, staunch opposition from other major political parties such as the PML (N) and PPP, the Kashmir issue, the Afghanistan matter and mounting Western pressure regarding CPEC.  Any misadventure created by a Dharna or any other issue could cost the present government a heavy price in the form of regional commitments considering the current situation of the country.

Recently Bilawal Bhutto announced a Dharna to be held in March in addition to the one planned by Fazul Rehman this month. Both parties through Dharna politics want to pressurize the incumbent government via politicizing the widespread inflation plaguing the Pakistani economy. They also aimed to further build on how Fazul Rehman through his previous Dharna the previous year had tried to pressurize the Imran Khan government along similar lines. One of his top demands then was calling for a re-election because he considered the election of July 2018 rigged. This demand was favored by wide swathes of the opposition because of their resentments against the existing government and its policies.

As is the current situation within Pakistan is already unstable because of various problems. The most pressing being Western pressure being applied through the FATF and IMF in key development projects such as CPEC. Under the current circumstances, the government cannot afford any kind of strike or resentment by political parties which can diminish its image at the national as well as global levels.

This is apparent in how, the United States and India through the FATF and other means have been pressurizing Pakistan on the pretext of clamping down on money laundering which is allegedly being used by various terrorist organizations within Pakistan. In this regard, any kind of trouble generated within the country through Dharna politics or any other means would lead to the country gaining further unfavorable international attention. The resulting political instability could further bring Pakistan closer to being placed on the FATF black-list. If that happens then Pakistan would suffer immensely giving birth to a whole host of new political and socio-economic restrictions for the whole nation.

According to the present government, it has already been struggling to control the list of demands given by the FATF to avoid being put on the blacklist. This was evident in the recent visit by Imran Khan and the Army Chief to the US where a whole range of issues were clarified with the US government. These included the internal situation within Pakistan along with other regional concerns such as terrorism, the Afghan peace process, the Kashmir dispute and Chinese involvement through CPEC. Moreover, the statement by American president Donald Trump should be taken seriously by the present government that America with the cooperation of various nations will protect human rights violations throughout the world and fight against radical Islamic terrorism. There are many precedents where America has been intervening within various regions of the world under the pretext of protecting human rights and eradicating terrorism.

In addition, there is no denying that India wants to exploit the situation further by projecting the Pakistani state as the mother of terrorism at multiple regional and global forums. There can be various motives behind this move in which the Kashmir issue and RSS ideology hold immense importance. It is widely believed that PM Narendra Modi wants to divert the attention of Pakistan as well as other regional and global forums from the atrocities and human rights violations taking place in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this regard, Imran Khan has been trying his best to halt Dharna politics through multiple strategies by calling for political unity to help alleviate the current difficult situation in the country. This for instance has been evident in his attempts to prioritize the threat from India regarding the Kashmir issue well as India’s designs to portray Islamabad as a terrorist state, above the internal politics being waged within Pakistan. Such concerns have made the situation of the country considerably sensitive hence the government has to behave and act sensibly to control the emerging situation. If such issues are not going to be solved skillfully and efficiently, then the entire nation is likely to bear the consequences and repercussions of the troubles generated through such internal instability.

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