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China in the Indian Ocean: Agenda Beyond Development?

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Authors: Prajakta Sawant and Jayesh Khatu*

Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, during the last leg of his five-nation visit to Sri Lanka on January 09, 2022, floated the idea of creating a ‘forum on the development of Indian Ocean island countries’ to ‘promote common development’. What becomes crucial is the place and the timing of this proposal. Facing its worst economic downturn since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean Island country, has reached out to China, its biggest bilateral lender, for debt-restructuring. Thus, after visiting Comoros and Maldives, Sri Lanka became a perfect destination to talk about a forum on development for Indian Ocean Island nations. But one would wonder- don’t such forums that seek to meet the developmental needs of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) already exist?

Existing fora in IOR and their development outreach

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), formed in 1997, is one such inclusive forum that brings together the most geopolitically dynamic regions of South, South-East and West Asia, Africa and Oceania, anchored together by the Seas. Its nascent forays into harbouring the member countries to the Blue Economy accompanied by trade and facilitation mechanism aim at addressing the members’ developmental needs. The MASE programme, supported by the European Union and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), attempts to create a regional maritime security architecture in the Indian Ocean for fostering growth and development in the region.

However, the organisations and institutions in the region are often marred by overlapping functions and the want of effective practical engagement concerning economic development. The lack of concrete regional economic integration is a major gap, which Beijing is looking to profit from.

Estimating Chinese aspirations in IOR

With the proposal for a development forum, Beijing has hinted towards the creation of an arrangement in which China could get all the Indian Ocean island states to the same table to advance its development diplomacy goals. Such objectives have been reflected in its January 2021 white paper on foreign developmental aid, which complements its efforts of aid and financing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, in September 2021, Beijing launched the Global Development Initiative, consistent with the BRI, to facilitate development aid for meeting the “special needs of developing countries”. But, what motivates Beijing to advance such an idea of a regional developmental forum for the Indian Ocean island nations?

Firstly, there is no such forum that constitutes exclusively the Indian Ocean island states and that addresses the issue of their economic development. The IOC comprises Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles, but excludes the island countries of Maldives and Sri Lanka which are SAARC member-states. Even though the IORA includes all the aforementioned countries, the forum has an extensive membership and a wide array of agenda. Thus, a singular forum that solely includes all the IOR island states and where their specific developmental needs would be prioritised, remains missing. Beijing could capitalise on this vacuum by offering alternative sources of finance for supporting economic development of the countries through institutionalisation.

Secondly, agenda-setting would be possible for Beijing in a forum lying in distant geography. Being a non-resident power of the IOR, China misses out on any direct participation in institutionalised mechanisms and forums of the region. Thus, formulating a forum would grant it more say in setting developmental priorities for the Indian Ocean island states and the region in order to gain economic leverage.

Lastly, and more importantly, with Beijing’s economic leverage comes political and geostrategic motives. Sri Lanka’s leasing out Hambantota port to China could be considered as a textbook example of using geoeconomics for gaining geopolitical leverage. Due to its interests in trade routes and unfolding energy politics, China has increased its naval presence and recently expressed ambitions to create a platform for deeper economic engagement in the IOR. The question is, what do powers like China bring to the table?

China’s status in IOR fora

The existing regional organisations in the IOR included China as an observer or a dialogue partner in the first place to create an environment where China can be socialised into cooperative maritime security and development in the IOR. The aim was to create a shared understanding of regional security and developmental issues. But China has focused on unilateral gains for expanding its sphere of influence in the region. Therefore, calls for the institutionalisation of developmental mechanisms in the IOR coming from Beijing ring hollow. In fact, with the growing Chinese clout in the region, these platforms face the threat of being entangled in superpower rivalries and regional bickerings.

China’s intentions of creating a development forum for the IOR should be looked at with more suspicion than with possibilities of benign motives. China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is an evidence of its rogue and unilateral assertions which could be replicated in the IOR to Beijing’s strategic advantage. With the largest navy in the world and the Chinese record in the Western Pacific, such possibilities cannot be overruled.

It also adds new dimensions to the Sino-Indian maritime complexities and foreign policymakers in New Delhi should be alarmed. Darshana Baruah opines, “Should China manage to find the means and ways to sustain itself in the region and gain experience operating there, it will be able to quickly overcome India’s (geographical and operational) advantages.” The recent development posture put forth by Beijing to gain influence in the IOR could turn into a belligerent one in the near future.

*Jayesh Khatu is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets @jayeshkhatu

Prajakta Sawant is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organisations and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She tweets @prajakta95.

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South Asia

“Haqeeqi Azaadi” or “Political Invasion”?

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You call it a “Long March” or an “Azaadi March” or a “Haqeeqi Azaadi March” and lastly according to some people “Political invasion of the capital”; whatever attempt it may be, the impact of this “Long March” will not be “Short” at all. Seems like history is repeating. Yesterday, it was PTI, later it was TLP, then JUIF, PDM & now again PTI. This reminds us about a Supreme Court’s historic judgment on Faizabad Sit in by Supreme Court, which is quite relevant again in these crucial times. The historic judgment of Supreme Court on Suo moto quotes that “The leaders of the dharna intimidated, hurled threats, abused, provoked and promoted hatred. The media provided unabated coverage. Inflammatory speeches were delivered by irresponsible politicians. Some unscrupulous talk-show hosts incited and provoked citizens.” Isn’t the situation once again similar? Doesn’t it seem like history is repeating? Few analysts consider it to be a worst kind of situation.

Supreme Court writes in its judgment that “the freedom of speech and expression and of the press are fundamental right. However, these rights cannot be used to denigrate or undermine the glory of Islam, security or defence of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, or commission of or incitement to an offence.  He categorically mentions that “PEMRA Ordinance mirrors the restrictions as set out in Article 19 of the Constitution and further prohibits broadcasts which are, “likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.” So, Supreme Court has already given clear instructions that if some event is likely to disrupt peace and tranquility, media broadcasts can be prohibited.

Insiders say that we are in a dead end and this is the most crucial time of history for Pakistan, especially when the economic fate has to be decided by IMF on 25th May when Imran khan marches on Islamabad. So let’s playout the possible upcoming scenarios which political stakeholders may have to consider;

  1. Marching towards Islamabad with huge crowds is one thing but forcing a government to dissolve assemblies with this crowd is another thing. Imran Khan very well knows this is a do or die situation for his political career as well. He knows his March will only succeed if he can force an early election.
  2. Bringing larger mobs to Islamabad will only be fruitful if there is some kind of disruption by the present government or by the PTI itself. IK knows that a prolonged sit in without happenings in the red zone won’t be impactful.
  3. PTI leaders have been repeatedly convincing people including government employees, Army officers and police to bring their families in their Haqeeqi Azaadi March. The question which arises is that “Why IK doesn’t bring own family members to join the “Jihad” or “Haqeeqi Azaadi”?
  4. IMF has to take crucial decision on Pakistan’s economic fate. Without an IMF Package, a Srilanka type scenario may arise. The decision will come on the same date as of long march, on 25th May. This is a do or die situation for Pakistan’s economy. So the leaders of this March should definitely come with a futuristic economic plan and tell the masses how will they get rid of this dire economic situation.
  5. While Srinagar Highway will be full of Marchers led by the so-called Ambassador of Kashmir, a big decision is expected to come from Srinagar about Yasin Malik. Unfortunately, it is expected that his sentencing maybe announced on 25th May as well.

The government also has limited options. They are arresting leaders of PTI. They are raiding houses in their own panic mode which will further incite the situation. The removal of fuel subsidiary has become inevitable and when it happens it will be the most unpopular decision. Rising, Inflation will cut purchasing power. Finalization of IMF program has brought them to a dead end.

The dread is in the air. 25th May is around the corner. It is Crucial. It is Do or Die for Pakistan. We must fear!!

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When Politics turns Personal; The Toxic Allegations & Accusations become a Norm

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Image source: timeofpakistan.com

There is something happening beneath this political turmoil which is NOT looking good!!

Whenever Political landscape turns into a Personal battleground, defeats become unacceptable. These past few days are a perfect case study to see that how Political elite in Pakistan has done whatever it took it to stay in power. In this power grab scenario, there could be numerous losses including the integrity of institutions. We have unfortunately entered into a very dangerous phase, where some political stakeholders have put all stakes at risk, where they have stretched their limits beyond a constitutional limit, all to gather mass support, all to stay in power and avoid defeat. Is it a threat of losing power? Is it a double game? Is it a practical hybrid war we are fighting?  Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be good. All is at stake, all is at risk and all is toxic.

As if the political temperature was not noxious enough, Shireen Mazari Saga took place. Once again, accusations, allegations and assumptions started pouring in against the state institutions. Soon after her arrest, her daughter, a lawyer herself Imaan Zainab Mazari alleged that her mother was beaten by male police officers during the arrest. But few minutes later, a video clip surfaced that showed clearly that her mother was arrested by Female Police officers in broad daylight and as per the law. Lie number 1 of the daughter stood exposed. Within moments, without any cogent evidence the lady, known for many controversies in the past targeted state institution for such an act, although the anti-corruption already had taken responsibility of her arrest.

Abuse of power can never be tolerated, regardless of who it targets or from where it emanates. This mantra is true and everyone has an equal belief on it but let’s take a deep dive to see that how politics turned dirty in this case, how blame game took place and how this entire episode was used as a tool to churn propaganda against Army leadership and Armed Forces.

1. The anti-corruption police had arrested Shireen Mazari and she herself accepted that Prime Minister and Interior minister were responsible for my arrest. But the mother daughter nexus brazenly started blaming institutions without any solid evidence. Shouldn’t there be an inquiry on this too?

2. PTI was always of the opinion that why courts were opened mid night to send IK packing while he wasn’t listening to anyone however when same court gave a verdict in favor of PTI ex minister, late night, it was celebrated and much appreciated by Shireen Mazari & IK who have been spearheading anti judicial tirade until recently. Isn’t it blatant hypocrisy? Judicial inquiry has been ordered by the Court which is a positive sign, but the serious allegations which Mazari nexus have raised must also be inquired during this newly formed judicial inquiry. Should the Judiciary not question them on hurling these baseless allegations?

3. The present government, whose Police itself arrested Shireen Mazari disowned this attempt. Attorney General displayed his ignorance about the matter in front of the court. So, somehow the government created this impression in the public eye that they are not to be blamed for the arrest of Shireen Mazari. Was it a double game? Or a deliberate effort to discredit institutions?

Pakistan is already facing serious economic downfall, political uncertainty and civil strife. PTI has also announced Long March to Islamabad on 25th May which is likely to further exacerbate already fragile political and economic instability. It has become quite evident now for achieving petty political ends, our political elite has no serious resolve to address the crisis confronting the country. Country is being deliberately pushed to limits of economic and political dead end. The political immaturity and lack of vision to handle the crisis situation is also hurting the repute of institutions amidst internal political wrangling. If political leadership doesn’t come to grips of the critical situation prevailing which is likely to aggravate further in coming days, people of Pakistan in particular and the country in general are likely to suffer unprecedented damage. Political elite must put its acts together and steer the country out of prevalent political and economic crisis by showing sagacity and political wisdom until it’s too late.

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Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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