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China-led Regional Cooperation Initiatives in South Asia: What does It Mean for the Region?

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The recent developments of China-led initiatives of regional cooperation involving South Asian countries have come to the forefront as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is in stalemate situation. Founded in 1985, SAARC is coping with several problems within the region and is mostly distracted by the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan. Notably, the 2016 summit was called off after India and Afghanistan said it would not participate. Analysts raise questions whether the new Chinese initiatives, alongside the more-visible Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is going to ring the death-knell for the traditional structure of SAARC making an alternative regional body to SAARC, where it had failed to go beyond the ‘observer’ status, to obtain full membership, or not. Chinese initiatives came on the juncture when the SAARC is facing the existential dilemma.

Growing Chinese Engagement in South Asia at Multilateral Level

On 15 June 2018, China launched the ‘First China-South Asia Cooperation Forum’ (CSACF) in Yunnan Province. SAARC member-states except Bhutan attended the meeting and lauded Beijing’s initiative to launch the CSACF to bring South Asia and China together on one platform. Li Jiming, Director-General, Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan Province, said that the CSACF was a part of the BRI, which is expected to bring together South Asian countries that share a geographical vicinity and cultural affinity with China. The second major initiative is that the China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center was recently launched in Chongqing City, China. Out of the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), five have joined the Beijing-led initiative except India, Bhutan and the Maldives. The idea of setting up such a center was first introduced during a virtual meeting between foreign ministers of the five South Asian nations and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the end of April 2021 to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apart from the Center, as per the agreement between China and five South Asian nations, China has already set up China-South Asian Countries Emergency Supplies Reserve in Chengdu mostly targeting natural disasters and prompt supply of emergency goods. The assistant foreign minister of China and the ambassadors of the above-mentioned South Asian countries got together in Chengdu on July 9, 2021 to set up these platforms. The purpose behind it is to pool strength, integrate resources, and exchange wisdom to support and help the South Asian countries’ economic development and livelihood improvement, jointly working for COVID-19 vaccination and promoting the cause of poverty reduction. Another platform that China is working with South Asian nations is to set up a China-South Asian Countries E-commerce Cooperation Forum on Poverty Alleviation in Rural Areas. These initiatives along with the Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center have repercussions for regional cooperation, as China-led BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) has already made geopolitical and strategic inroads of Beijing to South Asian landscapes.   

Prospects and Challenges

The growing engagement of China raises a strategic question – will China be able to create a new regional framework in South Asia with or without the SAARC? It may be mentioned that China has been closely linked with SAARC as an Observer since 2005. At the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, sent a message of greetings to the SAARC member countries. It was at this summit that the SAARC leaders agreed to ‘establish dialogue partnership with other regional bodies and with states outside the region but interested in SAARC activities.’ China and Japan were the first countries accepted by SAARC with observer status at the 13th SAARC summit at Dhaka in 2005. As time has passed, SAARC has faced more hurdles and China’s engagement in the region has sharply increased in the recent years. The membership of China in SAARC emerged as a major debate in the 2010s. Particularly, in the backdrop of the Kathmandu Summit in 2014, the issue of China’s full membership was widely discussed.

South Asian countries and epistemic community have two opposing views in this regard. One view, championed by Pakistan, promotes the idea of engaging China in SAARC as a member to maximize its relations with South Asia at multilateral level. With the status of Observer China has a limited scope to involve in regional cooperation process. The full membership would provide an increased opportunity for China to invest its resources in the region. Some also argue that it would strengthen SAARC and balance India as a dominant member. Another view, advocated by India, tends to limit China’s engagement in SAARC and is opposed to full membership to China. It favours limited involvement of China with the current status of observer. Other members of SAARC have not voiced any concrete positions on this issue. However, one can argue that some of these members are open to the idea of having greater interactions in the backdrop of growing bilateral and regional connections with China. Besides, Pakistani and Indian positions are based on their respective national and bilateral interests guided by strategic calculations. Given the opposing views of India and Pakistan and the compulsion of SAARC Charter for a unanimous decision-making process, the issue of China’s membership has not moved further.

Recently, the debate has resurfaced. As indicated above, China has led several regional initiatives of social and human development in South Asia. Majority of the member countries have joined these endeavours from poverty alleviation to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years India is also diverting its attention from SAARC to BIMSTEC making its priority of “Act East” policy agenda. What are the options for institutionalizing Chinese engagement in South Asia at multilateral level? One of the options is offering a membership of SAARC to China and building a new SAARC. This view has already been opposed by India. Another option is developing a parallel regional regime alternating the existing one. If one looks beyond SAARC, there are some examples of regional cooperation involving South Asian countries. BIMSTEC, BCIM, BBIN, and SASEC are some concrete instances of regional and sub-regional cooperation, which also largely remain ineffective. It must be a herculean task to create another platform especially when the members have diverse interests and geographical landscapes. Despite the issues of lack of solidarity and lack of consensus among SAARC members, the current SAARC members have an established avenue with homogenous tradition, culture and history. Therefore, replacing SAARC with a new platform led by China is not a possibility.

Moreover, the Beijing-led initiatives have not, till now, stipulated any policy, charter and the mechanisms and directions of regional cooperation. An attempt of creating parallel regional platform in addition to SAARC and BIMSTEC may not serve the purpose of genuine regional cooperation for the South Asian countries. Even the role of the BIMSTEC should be perceived as a complement to South Asian regional cooperation that was mooted by great leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Jawaharlal Nehru. The subsequent establishment of SAARC in 1985 was the concrete development of their vision.

Focusing on the successful experiences of ASEAN and EU, one can argue that in the case of South Asia an alternative attempt of regional cooperation sidestepping the SAARC would be unhelpful for the entire region. The current interest of China about an alternate platform has its limit. The underlying motives behind Chinese initiatives of developing such regional bloc are linked with its geopolitical, strategic and economic compulsions. China has different kinds of strategic, maritime, political and ideological interests with different South Asian nations to counterbalance India. It is clear that China focuses on South Asia and wants to counter SAARC with an intention to attach the BRI to the regional dynamics and counter QUAD in gaining strategic footing in South Asia.

In conclusion, as far as South Asian regional integration is concerned, the region should focus on revitalizing the SAARC. India and Pakistan must cooperate on the issue regional cooperation as they committed in different summits and declarations since 1985. The non-cooperation of India and Pakistan at bilateral and SAARC levels has been damaging the region for decades and deprived more than one-fifth of humanity from the opportunities of regional cooperation. Any move by India or China to circumvent the SAARC is against the spirit of regionalism. However, any initiatives with positive intention of cooperation would definitely create new opportunities for multilateral cooperation and complement the existing regional cooperation framework. The recent initiatives of China in promoting cooperation on poverty reduction, COVID-19 vaccination and social development may be considered as multilateral diplomatic initiatives with an objective of common interest and mutual benefit. It would play a positive role if these initiatives were not meant as some call the creation of a northern Himalayan Quad aimed at countering the Washington-led Quad of which India is an active member.      

Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.

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South Asia

Shaking Things Up: A Feminist Pakistani Foreign Policy

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Almost eight years ago, under Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom in 2014, Sweden created its first of a kind feminist foreign policy and released a handbook later on about how it has become a part of the entire Swedish Foreign Policy Process i.e. initiation, formulation and implementation. Consequently commendable results were achieved covering rights, representation and resources. The handbook states that such a foreign policy propels the idea of application of a systematic gender equality perspective throughout the whole foreign policy agenda of the Swedish government.

A feminist foreign policy is a framework which uplifts the day-to-day lived experience of ostracized communities to the forefront and delivers an expansive plus profounder analysis of international issues. Moreover, it takes a step beyond the black box approach of customary foreign policy discerning. It provides an alternate coupled with an intersectional rethinking of security and that too from the viewpoint of the most marginalized strata of the society on military force, violence, and domination. Furthermore, it is a multidimensional policy framework that aims to elevate women’s and marginalized groups’ experiences and agency to scrutinize the destructive forces of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and militarism. The Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy is designed to enhance women’s ‘rights’, ‘representation’ and ‘resources’ in every facet of its operations using a facts-based methodology, indicating out the hard numbers and statistics behind systemic inequalities that exist between men and women in rights, representation and resources, while remaining stranded in the fourth concept — the ‘reality’ of where these females live, which is an affirmation to the feminist notion of intersectionalism.

Considering the principle of these four R’s, Pakistan is a great candidate for following the footsteps of Swedish foreign policy as the citizens of Pakistan are still struggling to believe in the central principle of the Feminist Foreign Policy which is to enjoy while having the same power to shape society and their own lives by both men and women. Furthermore, based upon Pakistan’s patriarchal status quo, the principles of inclusion and removal of gender parity in the fields of diplomacy, foreign policy, economics, decision making and especially Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) are need of the hour. For reference, it is pertinent to note that Pakistan secured a position of 153rd out of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Regretfully, the country got placed at 7th position among eight countries in South Asia, only better than Afghanistan.

Pakistan had a female prime minister (11th and 13th PM), a female foreign minister (21st FM) and quite recently a couple of days ago, the country sworn in its first female judge of the Supreme Court. The latest development sounds promising as it brings in a new ray of light to ensure a more gender sensitive shift in decision making lens of the apex court in the judicial hierarchy of Pakistan. However, this is just a single piece of jigsaw puzzle due to which the bigger picture still remains incomplete and awaits a proper addressing mechanism. The simple math tells evidently that if women are not part of decision-making and leadership especially in underrepresented and highly patriarchal provinces of Pakistan such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan where conflict also adversely affects the women’s lives, it affects society as a whole. In Pakistan, where the reserved seats for women in parliament are also questioned amongst some facets of society, it is highly necessary to formulate foreign policies based upon the footsteps of Swedish government to inculcate a sense of importance of women participation in diverse areas following the principle of ‘representation’.

For starters, Pakistan should start with strengthening women participation domestically and then move towards achieving global objectives through its foreign policy. Working on the footsteps of Swedish government these goals to be achieved are to provide globally, by the Pakistani foreign ministry through promotion of  women’s full enjoyment of human rights; freedom from violence; participation in conflict resolution and peace-building; political participation and influence; economic rights and empowerment; most importantly sexual rights along with reproductive health. Moreover Pakistani foreign policy makers should recognize the link between certain treaties and acts which are directly or indirectly related to gender-based violence since women are the largest sufferer of violence resulting through use of force either through state or non-state actors as women are the first to be affected by power dynamics during and after conflict. The best example of such sensitiveness towards marginalized strata was set by the Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström when she declared the revocation of a 37 million euro arms deal with Saudi Arabia back in 2015 over human rights issue. Pakistan should do likewise in similar situations to establish a firm stance.

A feminist perspective has been implemented in academic scholarship throughout, but less so in policy practice. Lessons should be drawn from key critical scholarships into tangible policy development and discussions should be made on how to make foreign policy more accessible and democratic. In order to do this, Pakistan must challenge the dominant narratives of international political discourse and push for structural and hierarchical change to challenge systems that perpetuate the status quo; the intertwined structures that sustain global patterns of oppression and discrimination must end. Pakistan must ask difficult questions and engage those who have traditionally not been included in foreign policy in order to elevate the voices of those who’ve suffered from global injustices. This means emphasizing historicized, context-specific analyses of how destructive dichotomies play out in practice, as well as interrogating domestic and foreign policy decisions to push for a more just global order.

A feminist approach to foreign policy will provide a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the hierarchical global and national systems of power that have left millions of people in a perpetual state of vulnerability. Looking at foreign policy of countries such as Pakistan from the feminist perspective, will not only bore fruits to the women but also other nations as a whole. The future is promising under the ambit of such a foreign policy but it requires cultural and policy shifts in the country. Much evidently, the idea of a secure and just world will remain a utopia without a feminist foreign policy.

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India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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