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Pakistan-Iran Relations

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Establishment of Bittersweet Relations

Pakistan and Iran share strong historical, religious, cultural, and linguistic bonds. The relationship witnessed ups and downs, but despite all that the two countries tried to maintain a smooth path. Soon after Pakistan’s independence, Iran was the first country to recognize its independence from the British raj.  The diplomatic ties started with the visit of the then PM Liaqat Ali khan in 1948. The relationship took a good flight with the visit of the Shah of Iran in 1950. Both the countries enjoyed cordial relations until 1996 but then due to divergence of interest in Afghanistan both moved apart. Pakistan was pro-Taliban whereas Iran supported the anti-Taliban alliance (i.e. Northern Alliance). Pakistan’s post 9/11 policy had further increased the void. Islamabad’s pro-Saudi and West policy added salt to the recipe. Being partner of United States of America in WoT, and under a great American and Saudi Arabia’s influence, Pakistan and Iranian relations suffered a lot. The General Zia’s regime with a strong pro-Saudis attitude also negatively impacted the two. However, the land connection between the two gave an opportunity to revive the relationship.

Adding Economic dimension

Being immediate neighbors, Muslim states and once good partners tried to fill-up the gap through non-economic means. However, in the age of development, both the states have to analyse the level of their relations through the lens of economic means as well. As, both the states have huge potential. Both Pakistan and Iran look towards the untapped the economic opportunities in order to have a strong regional bond. In addition, history also witnessed that both the states have extended their support to each other in worst times as well.

With the help of China and smooth development of CPEC, United States’ influence in the region could be countered. Convergence of interest in this very case is of utmost importance. The impetus behind the closer relations between the two should be prospered in  developed state system.

Pakistan as a growing state needs to meet the energy deficiency, and for that Iran could be a good option, being a neighbor rich in natural resources especially oil and gas is vital for an energy deficient state. On the other hand, Pakistan, a country of 209 million people with a per capita income of $1,480, is a developing economy with a GDP of $312.57 billion and an estimated real growth rate of 3.3% (2019). Pakistan has to strengthen its trade relations with Iran and vice versa for a prosper future. To that end, both states have to utilize economic means as well, an element of soft power, to further deepen the economic dependency for development and growth.

Trade Amount US Dollars
Pakistan Exports To Iran Rice, Meat, Paper and Paper Board, Chemicals, Textiles, Fruit & Vegetables 22.86 million
Pakistan Imports From Iran Iron Ore, Hide & Skins, and Chemical Products 369.23 million
Total Trade Volume 392.08 million

Table 1: Pakistan – Iran Trade Volume

Other spheres of cooperation

The people to people contact between the Pakistani and Iranian community is unique. Religion, Sufism, and Persian language all have a deep imprint. The state relations currently are in transformative phase. Positive state attitude tip-offs that both Iran and Pakistan desires to work together for a brighter future. In the recent history, and under the current government of PTI, the relations took a new height. Exchange of high profile visits including Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif (August 2018, October 2018, May 2019) and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister (Dec 2018), and Prime Minister Imran Khan(21-22 April 2019) all are a start of new beginning. Moreover, helped enhance mutual understanding on political, economic and security sectors. Strong communication links between the two also facilitated policy formation for a consistent and mutually beneficial diplomatic, political, and trade ties. Pakistan and Iran signed Declaration for Cooperation in Healthcare Sector; opening of new crossing points, initiation of the process for release of a number of Pakistani prisoners; and call for peaceful solution of Jammu &Kashmir dispute.P akistan’sbacking on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and commitment towards Tehran in the face of U.S.’s unilateral sanctions has been a great source of strength and applauded by Iran too.

Iran’s Standing in the Middle East

Iran has a long history and is an important regional player, one of well-known Middle Eastern power bloc. Iran survived and is surviving despite of all the International sanctions. Power politics is not only western dream but is admired by the eastern countries too. Iran has a good regional connection and time and again has played its role in a very smart manner. Its affiliates are everywhere, from Palestine to Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, & Pakistan.

Since, Iran played a major role in Middle East, a strong Iran is always seen as a challenge not only to the Middle Eastern power machines but also world’s superpower U.S. A fragile Iran favours of all those. To this end, even America played its card well and hence tried to put it under pressure.

Iran vs USA

To this lead, even killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Solemani in January is also a move to further weaken Iran. U.S. instead of acting wisely, start frivolous acts, for instance trade war with China, assassination of Solemani, zero response on Kashmir and Palestine, just to keep itself up.

U.S. was well aware of that in wake of Solemani’s murder, Iranians would fight back. Though Iran would not indulge in any straight conflict but proxies. Hence, U.S. tried to influence regional states even Pakistan to be part of its dirty games. Pakistan as already trapped in Afghanistan, and lost so much in terms of human life and economics, doesn’t want to support the Big Might this time. Hence, Islamabad refused to be part of a problem that would be a havoc for the regional peace and stability. One reason behind U.S.’s all these efforts is also to disturb China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC a game changer for the region which is also perceived by the world community is a problem for U.S. China’s rise and economic influence in the region is wearisome for U.S.

U.S. wanted to have a permanent presence in Balochistan near Iran, not only to keep an eye on Tehran but also Beijing and Gwadar. The impetus was to destabilize the CPEC progress through its presence there. As, if the conflict erupts and U.S. start operating for Balochistan, there would be no moment and no development and hence will indirectly hinder CPEC.

Pakistan’s stance on the emerging conflict

Pakistan’s establishment and political parties were well aware of this odd game and hence were on the same page; therefore sent a straight message to Washington that it will not be part of any ferocious act. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi conveyed the message that, “Pakistan’s soil will not be used against any other state, and nor will Pakistan become a part of this regional conflict and doesn’t endorse any unilateral action”.

Pakistan’s strong position on that fortunately hoarded the region from another Afghanistan to happen.  Pakistan is trying to correct its already complex relations with Iran.

Power shift in Iran

Iran just had the first round of its parliamentary elections in last week, the second round is yet to happen in May most probably, but the results have clearly indicated the patterns and the ones sliding into the power corridors are been identified. However, a number of factors are responsible for these “obvious results” as some citizens are calling them to be.

Giving a brief account of the ideologies into play, Iran had a coalition for reformists and another of principlists. There was the right wing, the left wing and the centrists i.e. the ones with a moderate approach. In 2016, the 120 seats were won by the reformists while 113 were taken up by the principlists or conservatives. The remaining ones were distributed between the independents largely and others. However, the emerging picture of results in 2020 is very different from what it was four years back.

The parliamentary elections 2020 for Iran had made it easy for the conservatives or the hardliners to get to power. In Islamic Republic’s Majlis of 290 seats, 219 are already won by them. Primarily, because of the fact that only a small number of participants are allowed to run for the office or contest the elections. Prior to elections the contestants are supposed to go through a scrutiny by the Guardian Council. It is a body that includes six jurists and six clerics who are appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This time, the GC had disqualified more than fifty percent of the total 14,000 applicants who had applied to run for the office. Most of these disqualified names were those of the reformists or the moderates.

So far, the canvas seems clyster the brush is in hand of conservatives with the lead of 219 seats in the majlis. The lowest voter turnout since 1979 was also alarming however, even though it favoured conservatives, it will have an impact until the next parliamentary elections. Whatever excuse or loopholes one may identify, the point to notice is now that the conservatives appear to be at the driving seat, how can the outcome for the internal as well as external Iranian affairs can easily be contemplated.

Domestic issues

Another factor to understand here is that Iran experienced lowest voter turnout since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Less than half of the total voters is said to have voted in the recent elections. It is said that some people didn’t participate because of the economic situation. The most important reason for those people is the sanctions by the USA and so they have became hopeless as of anything can be changed. However, the good news is that if the new representatives would do anything against the illegal sanctions, the domestic situation can be changed in favor of the government. It has been said that people have shown dissatisfaction over the clerical rule particularly after the Ukrainian plane massacre. If conservative proceed with narrower scope to function there is likely a chance that they can face fallout of the mass protests leading to the worsening of the situation for Iran.

In bag for Ruhani

The new parliament will not be an ally for Ruhani. Because conservatives are not so fond of him and reformists. They cannot forget his politics and political rhetoric about their opinions and principles. Also, it seems they will put more pressure on him in order to get more privileges. So, Ruhani should be prepared for new critics and hard domestic situation.

In all, the foreign policy of Ruhani toward the west will be more weakened because the new parliament is not expected to be on the same page as him. Although, Ruhani has shown a flexible political opinion which made him able to work with all parties of Iran, the new era of Iran’s domestic affairs are not so clear. So it’s a little soon to predict the future!

Who could be the next supreme leader?

The struggle for power is already into play admist US sanctions. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei’s failing health and increasing age has led to the speculations of who could take his place. His resign or death can altogether reshape Iranian politics. The most likely names in this regard are Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Sadeq Larijani and Ebrahim Raisi.

Vague future

The imminent question rises that next president off course would be from conservatives, how they will orientate state cogs when it comes to dealing with Washington? Will they behave in same manner or worse?  Or there is any minute chance that they will behave in an opposite manner and try to men the ties with international community and Oval? While it this point in time, the parliamentary elections cannot directly have an impact on the foreign policy but after the presidential elections, where the same conservative parliament can elect their president things can get a little shaky. The conservatives apparently are not so fond of the direct negotiations and can lead to re-imposition of sanctions as well. At this moment when the global economy is on a gamble in post corona outbreak, Iran being affected by this terrible news too, needs to secure their economic interests. There is likely a chance that conservative would act in a liberal and a quite understanding manner when it comes to dealing with Washington.

Pak-Iran and the West

As both the states have new political elites, it is time to counter the western influence in the region, both states have to entrust working closely with each other in different sectors. Following are some points highlighting the Pakistan – Iran convergence of interest:

  1. Pakistan – Iran cooperation and collaboration in Afghanistan
  2. Combating terrorism, extremism, & separatism
  3. Countering Epidemic Disease
  4. Iran – Pakistan Gas Pipeline
  5. Trade: Iran – Pakistan Economic Corridor
  6. CPEC
  7. Promotion of Tourism
  8. Gwadar – Chabhar Junction
  9. Marine Investment
  10. Defence/Military Relations
  11. Energy Sector
  12. Counter border Corruption
  13. Controlling illegal goods and human trafficking
  14. Vocational/Professional trainings
  15. Joint working groups on regional strategic stability

To conclude, Pakistan doesn’t want to be part of any game that could have a negative impact on Pakistan. Pakistan, a sectarian sensitive state could have severe internal civil consequences. Being part of U.S. against Iran could have triggered an upsurge in sectarian tensions of the region especially Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, it opted to be neutral. Pakistan, has to work on its foreign policy viz-a-viz Middle Eastern states. Both Pakistan and Iran as to realize the importance of their positions and relations in the region and also have to reap their full economic potential. It’s time to come to workable agreements and negotiations in order to show need for cooperation and collaboration.

Sabah Aslam is the Founder & Executive Director of Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR), and member visiting faculty Dept. of Peace & Conflict Studies, NUML, and School of Politics & IR, Quaid-I- Azam University, Islamabad.

South Asia

CoVID-19 Control: Can Pakistan Learn From China?

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coronavirus people

It has been over a year since the first case of CoVID-19 was confirmed in Pakistan. The tally has reached 721,018 confirmed cases, 15,443 have died and 4,143 critical cases by 11thApril2021. Across many countries, since January 2020, a massive surge of research into CoVID-19 had enabled the scientific and medical community to better understand how to manage and eliminate the virus through public health interventions. Today, we have learned, CoVID-19 causes acute symptoms and death. We have learned, immunity lasts at least eight months and we also have five licensed vaccines. We have learned, the long-term effects of CoVID-19 and the morbidity attached to having this virus. We have learned, virus transmission occurs through droplets and aerosols spread through coughing, sneezing, breathing and speaking. We also have learned, stopping the spread of CoVID-19 requires people to avoid mixing though restrictions on social life. We have learned, the virus can mutate into various strains that can be more transmissible – and we also have understand cat-and-mouse game between vaccine and variants.

To alleviate the destructive effects of CoVID-19 on the economy, Pakistan has sought debt relief of slightly around $2 billion from its G20 creditors. In addition to the G20 countries, China was the largest bilateral creditor with $9 billion, followed by Japan with $5 billion. By early April 2020, when there were just about 2,000 CoVID-19 positive cases in Pakistan, the World Bank approved $200 million package to help Pakistan. Likewise, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved the payout of $1.386 billion as financial support to Pakistan to meet its urgent balance of payment needs halting from the CoVID-19 outbreak. Further, to support Pakistan’s public health response to the CoVID-19 and allow to meet the basic needs of the vulnerable and poor segment of society, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved $500 million emergency assistance loan to Pakistan. Similarly, The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) also provided a $650 million financial package to support Pakistan in its efforts against the CoVID-19. All these grants were provided to Government of Pakistan to assist in effective and timely action in response to the spread of the CoVID-19. The objective was to strengthen Pakistan’s public health infrastructure and to alleviate socioeconomic disruptions due to the pandemic. Despite huge grants and substantial endowments, Pakistan’s response to the CoVID-19 has been unsatisfactory. Lack of basic healthcare infrastructure, disease surveillance and management system,  and inconsistent implementation of policies and SOPs resulted in the rapid and incessant spread of third-wave of CoVID-19 throughout the county.

China’s extraordinary organized and preventive risk management approach, established on coalition between government officials, virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts, has demonstrated to be successful in containing and controlling CoVID-19.The experience in China emphasized the significance of listening to science and public health experts during pandemic event. Firstly, China’s response demonstrates the value of national research and public health capability. Huge investment in research and development rendered China much better prepared for CoVID-19. China’s experience indicates the value of investing in national health and research scheme to boost laboratory capacity along with workforce. They are essential to a rapid and effective national response to health emergencies and to national health security. Secondly, a strong foundation of research and development cannot ensure effective control without powerful top-level political dedication to use science to confront the outbreak. Government and leaders must respect science, understand its significance, and act on science-based advice in a way that is best for society. Thirdly, attaining speedy and successful implementation of control measures for CoVID-19 requires extensive community engagement. Public solidarity during the CoVID-19 outbreak in China had been unprecedented. Control measures that could sacrifice personal freedom were accepted readily by the nation.

To be brief, cricket is to South Asia and football is to Europe. In fighting CoVID-19, everyone is equal. Everyone has the identical liability and shares the equal threat. The effective implementation of prevention and control measures in China is a model for Pakistan other parts of world to follow. From the beginning, a science-based, risk-informed and phased approach was taken, with a clear appreciation and enthusiasm. Today, China has restarted its economy, reopened and almost returned to normality. The key of success story is to make everybody responsible, get every single division involved and held executives accountable. These are the most prominent lessons Pakistan could learn from China at national and local levels. After the failure of “Smart-Lockdown” strategy, Pakistan needs to choose a strict strategy, should follow the example of China and continue the lockdown until the number of CoVID-19 infections is brought close to zero; the strategy should then be to maintain infection rates at very low level until vaccination is done. China’s epidemic management provides an important experience from which countries such as Pakistan can learn. This applies in particular to Pakistan, which would risk to lose many of its achievements in case of a severe third wave of the epidemic. Government of Pakistan should involve not only public health experts, virologists and epidemiologists, but also scientist and respect science advice when making any decision that is required to keep the epidemic under control. The rest of the world can also learn from China’s success in bringing outbreak under control.

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United States snubs India for its excessive maritime claim

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On April7, 2021, a 9,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, USS John Paul Jones (US 7th Fleet), waded (not strayed as it was deliberate) into the vicinity of India’s Lakshadweep Islands. The ship was 131 nautical miles away from India’s coast (12 nautical miles territory) but well within its exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles, 370.4 kilometre).

Shockwaves

The trespass by the US destroyer triggered indignation through all walks of life. It conjured up memories of the arrival of the 7th fleet during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. The fleet gave a message, loud and clear, to India that it should not dare finish West Pakistan, its long cherished desire. Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan a blunder. His rancour against Pakistan reaches a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” (D. H. Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, page 14). During 1971, Pakistan was a US ally. Now India is in the anti-China US-backed basket.

Yet, the `destroyer’ conjured up memory in India’s mind of `bitter’ American intervention.  Congress leaders voiced surprise at the U.S. move. In a tweet, Manish Tewari said, “This never happened in the 10 years of UPA [Congress-led rule] or perhaps even before that as far as I can recall. The last time I remember it being so rather in your face was 1971 – Task Force 74 – 7th Fleet. What then happened is History. Hope the NDA/BJP shows some Oomph?” Echoing the surprise, former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, said, “And this happened when the former U.S. Secretary of State and Climate Envoy, John Kerry, was meeting Ministers in New Delhi.”

The euphoria created by US gung-ho support for Quad, and Pakistan’s exclusion from the climate conference petered out.

India’s foreign office tried to play down the event by stating that it was not a “military manoeuvre”. So, the USA was not bound to inform India about it. But, to India’s chagrin, the U.S. The Navy announced that its ship the USS John Paul Jones had carried out Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Indian EEZ, adding that its operations had “challenged” what the U.S. called India’s “excessive maritime claims.” The U.S. defends its actions saying they were in compliance with international laws.  Even Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby justified what India calls “intransigence’ by announcing the US Navy’s move was in compliance with international law.  He told reporters, “I can tell you that the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy destroyer, asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Republic of the Maldives by conducting innocent passage through its territorial sea in normal operations within its exclusive economic zone without requesting prior permission. We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements’.

India compelled to protest

As a face-saving gesture, India was forced to protest the U.S. decision to conduct a patrol in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the western Indian Ocean, rejecting the U.S.’s claim that its domestic maritime law was in violation of international law. India’s external-affairs ministry retorted, ‘The Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that the Convention does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or man oeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.’ The ministry insisted that the USS John Paul Jones was “continuously monitored” transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits.

The incident is a rare falling out between the two partners in the Quadrilateral Grouping that had recently committed to upholding freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together.

Bone of contention

The USA shrugged off India’s ennui. According to the annual FONOP reports released by the U.S. Department of Defence for each fiscal year, the U.S. had been regularly conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ. The FONOPs were carried out in several c continental shelves of several countries including its allies and partners. The USA regarded Indian maritime claim as “excessive” and in violation of International Law. From 2007 onwards till 2017, the U.S. carried out multiple FONOPs every year challenging “excessive” Indian maritime claims. No FONOP was carried out in 2018 and 2020 and one FONOP in 2019.

Difference of opinion is due to the fact that the USA has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of Seas. India and China have ratified it with some reservations. But, the USA does not care a fig about provisos attached by China and India.

Ashamed of USA’s crass rebuttal, India is coining excuses to mitigate its embarrassment. To relieve pressure on Indian government, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash interpreted the US “trespass” as if it were a message to China that the USA has unfettered “freedom of navigation”. Prakash Tweeted

“While India ratified UNCLOS in 1995, the U.S. has failed to do it so far. For the 7th Fleet to carry out FoNOPs missions in Indian EEZ in violation of our domestic law is bad enough. But publicising it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification, friend or foe)! Prakash added FONOPs by U.S. Navy ships, “ineffective as they may be,” in South China Sea, are meant to “convey a message to China that the putative EEZ” around the artificial SCS islands is an “excessive maritime claim.” “But what is the 7th Fleet message for India?” he asked.

Might is Right

 Obviously, the USA is acting upon might-is-right policy. India itself acted upon this policy to devour princely states, and annex Nepalese territory. Junagadh and Kashmir disputes are still unresolved on UN agenda.  Indian Union is an artificial sally.

In its entire history India had never been a single nation, or one country, until united at gun point by the British. The artificial nature of modern India created by the British colonialists and adopted by post-colonial India generated insurgencies and separatist movements.

At the time of partition, India was in grip of virulent insurgencies and separatist movements (Dravidian South, Khalistan, Seven Sisters in the North East, so on). Wikipedia lists 68 major organizations as terrorist groups. Of them, nine are in the northeast (seven sisters states), four in the center and the east (Maoist/Naxalites), seventeen in the west (Sikh separatist groups), and thirty eight in the northwest (Kashmir). India kept afloat as a union only at the barrel of gun. The Indian army chief paid a five-day visit to Bangladesh as a prelude to conducting a massive operation against the Naxalbari militants.

UK and USA’s Diego Garcia headache

International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Chagos Islands has catapulted Indian Ocean into limelight. The ICJ `advisory’ is a blow to UK’s forcible occupation of Chagos Islands, including the strategic US airbase of Diego Garcia atoll (leased out to the USA by the UK).

The ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf observed, `The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible’. The court ruled that separation of Chagos Islands from Mauritius during decolonisation in the 1960s constituted an “unlawful detachment” and was a “wrongful act”.

In 1966, the U.S. signed a secret agreement with Great Britain allowing the Pentagon to use the Indian Ocean territory as an airbase in exchange for a big discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. Three years later, hundreds of Navy Seabees arrived by ship and began pouring out two 12,000-foot runway that would become a bulwark of American Cold War strategy in the region, and a key launching pad for the first and second Gulf wars, the 1998 bombing of Iraq and invasion and carpet-bombing of Afghanistan.

The base can house more than 2,000 troops and 30 warships at a time. It has two bomber runways, a satellite spy station and facilities enabling the use of nuclear-armed submarines. It served as a CIA black site (like Guantanamo Bay) to interrogate and torture terror suspects including those from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The base holds key to America’s Afghan exit plan, by year 2024, to avoid a rout at the hands of Taliban.

Hand aloft

To India’s chagrin, the USA wants to exert its authority on Indian Ocean also. Forty seven countries have the Indian Ocean on their shores. The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water in the world. It occupies 20 percent of the world’s ocean surface – it is nearly 10,000 kilometers wide at the southern tips of Africa and Australia and its area is 68.556 million square kilometers, about 5.5 times the size of the United States. India’s motto is ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’. Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy highlighted the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in these words: “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. The Indian peninsula (i.e. the Deccan and below) juts 1,240 miles into the Indian Ocean. 50 per cent of the Indian Ocean basin lies within a 1,000 mile radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications. Under the law of the sea, it has an exclusive economic zone of 772,000 square miles. Chennai is a mere 3,400 miles away from Perth in Australia, slightly more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

 To dominate Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia), India established its Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair in the Andamans. It has developed Port Blair as a strategic international trade center and built an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campal Bay in the Nicobar Islands.

Concluding remarks

In diplomacy, there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. Afghan exit plan requires the USA continues to retain Diego Garcia.

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South Asia

US-China Developing Confrontation: India and QUAD

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At the request of the editors of International Affairs magazine, the renowned Kanwal Sibal, India’s Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, comments on new US initiatives in Southeast Asia.

Judging by its Interim National Strategic Security Guidance (INSSG) document (March 2021) the Biden Administration intends to be tough towards China on many fronts. Human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, threats to Taiwan, limiting Hong Kong’s autonomy, encroachments and territorial pressures in the East and South China Seas, freedom of navigation and overflight issues, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, unfair trade practices, technology theft, resilience of critical supply chains, emerging technologies, standard setting for 5G, a new competitive US industrial strategy, and so on.

Whereas Trump had alienated allies and weakened America’s hand in dealing with China’s challenge, the Biden administration seeks to speak to China from a position of strength. For this it seeks to restore ties of confidence with Japan, South Korea and Australia in priority. In doing this the US is indirectly recognizing its reduced strength and its inability to meet the China challenge alone. In this perspective, It had reached out to Europe for policy coordination towards China even before it took office, but Europe went ahead to sign a Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) to protect its own independent and competitive interests in China. After the fractious US-China Alaska meeting, the US has continued its coordinating efforts with Europe but faces resistance from Germany and France in particular who want to retain their strategic autonomy in dealing with China, believing that US policy under Biden will remain self-centred and that too much water had flown under the bridge for US-Europe ties to simply revert to the pre-Trump era.

The timing of virtual Quad summit before the Alaska meeting was also intended to signal to China that like-minded countries were coming together to deter what they view as China’s increasingly aggressive policies. From a telephonic meeting at the Foreign Ministers level in February 2021 the summit was a major step forward in consolidating the Quad politically. India, earlier reticent in moving too far too quickly with the Quad in the light of the need to manage the stresses of its China ties, decided to join. After the stand-off in eastern Ladakh India has realized that deferring to Chinese sensitivities is not reciprocated by China. The visit of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to India coincided with the US-China meeting in Alaska.

In the INSSG, India is not treated strategically in the same category as US allies like Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia. The China challenge is felt primarily in the western Pacific where the US has bases, deployed military forces and a powerful naval presence. China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean is not considered of the same order for the time being, but partnership with India, with its significant naval assets and geographic position, overlooking the critical sea lanes of communication in the region, is important for the future. India is seen as a net security provider, fitting into the template of burden sharing. For this the US has shown its readiness to build India’s maritime surveillance capacities by supplying defense platforms, intelligence sharing, increasingly complex military exercises with the inclusion of Japan and Australia, and utilizing the India-US defense-related foundational agreements that provide for inter-operability and sharing of geo-spatial data.

Although the joint statement issued by the Quad summit did not mention China by name, China was of course discussed, with each leader sharing his thinking. According to US NSA Jake Sullivan, China, about whom none of the leaders had any illusions he said, was discussed at the meeting but was not its focus. Coercion of Australia, harassment around the Senkakus, border aggression against India figured in the discussions. According to him, the Quad is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members too figured, including attacks against India’s power sector. He dismissed the talk about Quad being a military alliance, though he stated that it has to worked out at the leaders level and that of the working groups how the Quad can move from freedom of navigation to broader regional security questions. Apparently, at Alaska, the Chinese reacted negatively to US mentioning its dialogue with India.

The summit rightly felt that the Quad should have a broader agenda than simply China, a point of view that India has studiously supported. India is conscious of the fact that the US, as well as Japan and Australia, have deep economic ties with China, which can be rolled back selectively to lessen dependence by decoupling in critical areas, restricting Chinese access to advanced critical technologies in which China has external dependence such as semi-conductors, preventing Chinese investments in sensitive areas etc but cannot be dramatically reduced, given China’s huge weight in the global economy. The US policy seems to be “extreme competition”, cooperation and confrontation, as required. India’s investment in the Quad, beyond the maritime security aspect, would be to benefit from a shift away from China of critical supply chains, use India’s democratic environment to attract more US investment and technology transfers that would accelerate India’s growth for the welfare of its people, besides enabling it to close the developing gaps with China.

It is in this perspective that the decision on building India’s capacity for vaccines should be seen. The three expert groups set up by the Quad summit, on vaccines, critical technologies (5G, AI, Quantum Computing, human biology) and climate change broaden the Quad’s agenda, opening up bilateral opportunities with the US for India, besides creating the beginnings of a structure. In line with Indian thinking and emphasis on a broader agenda, the Quad leaders pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. The decision to manufacture US vaccine in India with Biological E Ltd to provide one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific region was taken, with Japanese finance and Australia’s delivery support. The third group will deal with critical – and emerging-technologies to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future. 

China’s concerns about the Quad summit and the strengthening of India’s strategic ties with the US have no basis. China has benefited enormously from US capital and technology and that of its allies for China’s rise. The economic power it acquired, and with that military power, has been used by it to expand territorially in the western Pacific and globally through the BRI, not to mention in the Indian Ocean. Now that defenses are being put up against China’s policies and ambitions, China, after the stand-off in Ladakh, has no ground to warn India not to become close to the US. Even now the US is China’s biggest economic partner and China is reaching out to the US to ease pressures on it. Its critique of “selective multilateralism” would apply equally to the Russia-India-China group, BRICS as well as the SCO. It has established a Quad in our region- the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Nepal group, in which Nepal does not fit at all.

The bristling encounter at Alaska demonstrates that China’s expectations that a change of administration in the US could lessen tensions and some accommodation could be worked out have been belied for the time being. China touted the Alaska meeting as a strategic dialogue, which was strongly denied the US. In response to Secretary of State Blinken’s severe strictures on China’s infringements of a rules based international order on various issues, Politburo member Yang Jiechi hit back brutally, decrying US democracy, castigating America’s racism, calling it the champion of cyberattacks, rejecting the notion that western nations represent global public opinion, and, most significantly, stating that the US lacked the qualifications to speak to China from a position of strength, now or even 20 or 30 years earlier. Yang Jiechi may have intended to say all this in private but felt compelled to do so in public to show to the domestic and international audience that China will not be bullied and will deal with the US as an equal. If he had reacted meekly, it would have been a blow to China’s prestige and its self-image. It appears that after the public spat the two sides got down to business calmly on the agenda items , with serious differences over Taiwan emerging and raising US concerns that this could become a flash point if Xi Jinping was determined to achieve reunification, by force, if necessary. There was no commitment by the US side to meet again despite persistent probing by Yang Jiechi to elicit a response.

With China and Russia in the cross-hairs of the Biden government, it is not surprising that both countries have closed ranks against the US. Lavrov and Wang Yi rejected US calls for “a rules-based order” and proposed a summit of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members to be held “to establish direct dialogue …in the interests of maintaining global stability”. With the sharper US divisions with China and Russia it is unclear what the P5 summit could achieve concretely, especially as the representative nature of the UN Security Council as currently constituted is questioned in large parts of the world.

Regrettably, a new version of the Cold War might now be taking shape. In the developing scenario, it is very important that the India-Russia dialogue is strengthened so that the implications of the new developments and the compulsions of the two countries are better understood bilaterally.

From our partner International Affairs

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