Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal, who also happens to be General Secretary of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) while addressing a conference in Lahore (the capital of Punjab province in Pakistan) on April 24, 2022 made some important points. First, he said that due to the slow progress of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project — during the previous Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government, Pakistan’s bilateral relations with China had got adversely impacted. While Iqbal has given orders for scrapping the CPEC Authority, and merging it into the Pakistan’s planning commission, even Khan had to replace the head of the CPEC Authority due to slow progress of CPEC projects. In August 2021, Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa, a former army spokesperson, was replaced by Khalid Mansoor. This change was made days after Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to China during which the latter had expressed concern with regard to the progress of the CPEC Project.
Current Pakistan PM and PML-N Supremo Shehbaz Sharif has indicated that his government will focus on strengthening bilateral ties with China and special focus will be given to projects related to CPEC. In his first speech after taking over as PM of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif said that his government will give high priority to ties with China, while Beijing which has worked closely with Sharif as CM of Punjab welcomed his appointment as PM.
Iqbal significantly highlighted the importance for Pakistan’s ties with the west. Said the Minister:
“It is against the national interest to spoil relations with the European Union and the US as we have to go to their markets for trade and technology’
Both the army and the ruling PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) alliance had expressed their discomfort with Imran Khan’s accusations against the US for plotting to remove his government (the Pakistan army categorically ruled out any US role in Khan’s ouster). US is important for a number of reasons. First, along with EU it is an important export destination for Pakistani goods.
Second, from the point of view of Pakistan’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial assistance, Islamabad needs to improve ties with the US. A loan for 6 billion under a three year Extended Fund Facility (EFF) agreement was negotiated between IMF and Pakistan in 2019. Talks pertaining to the 7th review had been put on hold due to the political situation in Pakistan.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s current Minister for Finance and Revenue Miftah Ismail held talks with IMF officials, on the sidelines of the annual meeting of IMF/World Bank and said that officials of the IMF will be coming in May 2022 for negotiations on the 7th review of the EFF. Ismail said that he had requested the IMF to extend the duration of the program as well as to increase the funding. Said Ismail:
‘I’ve also requested that they enhance the funding available to Pakistan from $6 billion under this programme to perhaps a little bit more.’
The IMF on its part said that Pakistan had agreed to roll back subsidies to the oil and power sectors before a review next month of the agency’s support to Pakistan.
Ahsan Iqbal also made an interesting reference to ties with Gulf countries deteriorating during Khan’s tenure. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Foreign Minister in the PTI government, had expressed his disappointment with Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), chaired by Saudi Arabia, for not convening a meeting of OIC Foreign Ministers to discuss the Kashmir issue – in the aftermath of the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir by India. This had led to a downward slide in ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with the latter asking Pakistan to return $1 billion USD (which was part of a $ 3 billion assistance package from the Saudis to help Pakistan deal with its balance of payments crisis). Imran Khan’s hints of forming a parallel Islamic bloc to OIC along with Malaysia, Iran and Turkey had also not gone down well with the Saudis. In 2019, it was due to Saudi pressure that Khan did not attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit whose attendees included the Qatari emir, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
In December 2021 however, the Saudis provided financial assistance of over $4 billion — $ 3 billion in cash deposits to Pakistan’s central bank, and $1.2 billion for financing refined petroleum products to Pakistan. The main reason cited for this assistance was Riyadh’s desire to prevent Islamabad from moving closer to Tehran. A strong reiteration of the importance which the PML-N led coalition attaches to ties with Saudi Arabia is the fact that Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif will be embarking on his first official visit to Saudi Arabia (April 28-30,2022)
While it is true, that Pakistan’s ties with China have strengthened in recent years, the steps taken by the PML-N led coalition clearly indicate that it is keen to strike a fine balance in its foreign policy, and that it needs to not just reduce tensions with the west, but also keep ties with traditional allies in the Gulf intact. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka clearly underscores the perils of being excessively economically reliant upon China, something which has been flagged not just by western analysts, but by business communities in different South Asian countries including in Pakistan.
U.S. Strategic Engagement in the Bay of Bengal: Navigating Superpower Rivalry
Over the past two decades, the geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean has undergone a profound transformation. China, once viewed the Indian Ocean as the “Far Sea” has enhanced its influence in East Asia and expanded its reach as far as Europe. India has emerged as a dominant maritime force in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, to contain India, China has invested billions of dollars in South Asian nations, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. This strategic maneuver, coupled with China’s strong presence in the South China Sea has left the Bay of Bengal as a focal point for Washington’s ambitions to assert dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The preceding half of the century saw the United States and its allies primarily focused on the Middle East and Africa. Their approach often involved aggressive tactics like regime changes, intimidation, and, in some instances, the elimination of perceived threats. In contrast, China adopted a “soft power” strategy in East and South Asia with non-interference in domestic affairs and economic and infrastructural developments. However, as the new century dawned, Beijing’s relations with South and East Asia began to expand and deepened significantly in line with its broader efforts to ‘Go Global’.
This transformative shift has placed Beijing in a formidable position to compete with Washington at a time when Indo-Pacific nations increasingly lean towards China. Consequently, a significant strategic maneuver has unfolded by the US, centering the Bay of Bengal, particularly in Bangladesh.
For nearly two decades, Washington’s priorities in South Asia were significantly influenced by the conflict in Afghanistan. Concurrently, a strategic partnership with New Delhi was evolving within the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific, later the Indo-Pacific. President Donald Trump first introduced Washington’s ” Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” vision. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is marked as the beginning of a US-led alliance aimed at containing China. However, China’s soft power tactics have ensnared and indebted nations along the Indo-Pacific shorelines.
China’s strategic infrastructure projects, including seaports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyauk Pyu in Myanmar, as part of the “String of Pearls” strategy mark to contain India and secure a strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s relations with North Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have successfully counterbalanced the US and Indian geostrategic maneuvers. Beijing forced New Delhi to devote time and resources to its neighbors rather than extend influence into East Asia. Subsequently, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) government could not substitute China’s role in its neighbors. That is why, Washington’s supremacy in the Indo-Pacific is now at stake and necessitates a more robust, action-oriented approach with the Bay of Bengal as a prime theater to establish its hard presence.
In response, the United States has reevaluated its geostrategic approach towards the region to make its policies less about influencing the allied governments and more about engaging with people-to-people in South Asian nations. While, the United States sought to make the BJP see China through its eyes, and BJP also tried to showcase Indo-Pacific nations through its eyes. But, in the end, Washington has not gained any geopolitical leverage from India’s BJP. While the USA was engaged with countering extremist groups in South Asia and sought to increase the capability of those nations to fight against terrorism, at that time, China was enhancing cooperation, low-cost consumerism, and people-to-people engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
India’s historical ties with Russia, its non-alliance membership, and its inability to prevent the expansion of BRICS have irked the US. In the last G20 summit, India’s diplomatic maneuvering on the Russia-Ukraine conflict further strained its relations with Washington. Furthermore, internal issues within India, such as BJP’s handling of human rights, and freedom of expression have dampened Washington’s enthusiasm for partnership with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The unfolding events exposed India’s vulnerability when sandwiched between the Chinese and Russian blocs from all sides.
Bangladesh, a South Asian nation sharing borders with India and Myanmar has long maintained a balanced foreign policy. So far, Bangladesh has also maintained balanced relations with India, China, and the USA. But, over the past decade, substantial Chinese investments in multi-billion-dollar projects have converged with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s development agendas. It has raised the eyebrows of US policymakers and they have found China’s massive influence over Bangladesh. Moreover, Sheikh Hasina’s proposal to China for building a deep sea port in Sonadia made skeptical India, Japan, and the US. According to PM Hasina, the US expressed the intention of establishing a naval base in the Bay of Bengal and this proposition met with rejection by her government caused discontent among the Western powers. Hasina’s government stance is also not aligned with the US’s approach in Arakan of Myanmar.
Washington has dissatisfied with the BJP’s approach towards China. When Barack Obama questions India’s territorial integrity that means Washington is taking an assertive posture toward South Asia. The US-backed Canada’s accusation of the BJP government for Hardeep Singh’s murder has tarnished the diplomatic relations with the Western powers. Once India became preoccupied with domestic issues would create an opportunity for the West to destabilize Bangladesh. The US seeks to establish an independent and puppet government in Arakan to contain China’s ascent.
China is always one step ahead of the USA in Indo Indo-Pacific region. Sino-Myanmar bilateral relations are very warm, in terms of economic and military cooperation. China’s influence in Myanmar is further evident by the Rohingya crisis. China considers Rohingya Muslims as its potential threat. The China-backed military junta in Myanmar is facing widespread civil protests, armed resistance from ethnic insurgent groups, and civil defense forces backed by the National United Government(NUG). NUG has acknowledged and accepted the arms struggle of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has a deep-rooted connection with the ISI( Pakistani espionage agency). Both NUG and ISI have strategic ties with the US. Hasina’s government stance on ARSA may not align with US expectations.
The Western powers have a keen interest in the golden triangle of Bangladesh Hill track, Mizoram, and Arakan areas, which are very rich in mineral resources. So, Beijing has worked to destabilize this region with the support of the Myanmar military and the Kuki-Chin nationalist front, a banned ethno- nationalist and separatist political organization. The strategy yields geostrategic advantages for China over India and the US.
PM Sheikh Hasina has openly lambasted the intention of the USA which does not want the Bangladesh Awami League in power. That is why we can see proactive measures taken by Washington to oust the ruling government. The USA emphasizes human rights, freedom of expression, and fair electoral practice, then what about Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Israel? Washington previously used a Visa restriction policy for fair elections in Nigeria and Uganda, after the election was held. But, in Bangladesh, it was executed before the election. That means a fair election is not an issue for the Western powers. PM Hasina also refused to join the military alliance in QUAD. To contain China, Washington needs bold strategic maneuvers in the Bay of Bengal, necessitating reliable partners in India and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and other South Asian nations find themselves at the crossroads of superpower rivalry. A crucial time is ahead for these nations. To survive this crisis, national unity and political acumen are required to navigate this turbulent era. Last but not least, no Superpower will go against the local populace’s support. History attests that without it, Superpowers cannot remain in foreign lands, despite the presence of the fifth columnist. This historical lesson is evident in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971 and Afghanistan recently.
The Significance of the United Nations High Seas Treaty for Bangladesh
As the sun sets below the horizon over the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is at a pivotal juncture in its distant past. The state of the seas is crucial to Bangladesh’s economic development and sustainability in the future because the country’s waterways and maritime heritage serve as a major defining feature. Thus, the United Nations High Seas Treaty in 2023 provides Bangladesh with a once-in-a-generation chance to safeguard its interests and promote sustainable growth in an age of mounting international challenges.
The historic treaty to protect international waters from exploitation, oil extraction, and climate change has been signed after two decades of talks under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In March of this year, countries reached an agreement on a worldwide commitment to protect marine life, and in June, the United Nations officially adopted the treaty for the protection of the world’s seas. The treaty was ratified by 67 nations on September 20, 2023. Under this treaty, the UN has recognized international jurisdiction over two-thirds of the seas. This implies that every nation has the right to engage in fishing activities, shipping, and scientific research in that particular region.
To protect vital ecosystems from “extractive activities,” member states will follow the guidelines established by the Treaty on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) to establish a marine protected area (MPAs). In this regard, it is considered a vital resource in attempting to achieve the “30 by 30” goal of protecting 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030. As the signing process is scheduled to go until 2025, experts are optimistic that this will be a watershed moment in the history of marine conservation.
On September 20, 2023, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, ratified the treaty to avert the further destruction of the maritime environment caused by overfishing and other human endeavors.
Water is more than a natural resource in Bangladesh; it is essential for survival. Bangladesh is often referred to as the “Land of Rivers” due to the country’s extensive river network. Water is are intricately interwoven with society, economy, and culture. The waters of the Bay of Bengal, which extend into the high seas, play a vital role in our daily lives, supplying us with fish—a primary source of nutrition for millions—and connecting us to the rest of the world. Under the provisions of the new treaty, countries will share genetic resource profits equitably. The Treaty is a forward-thinking piece of international law because it gives developing and least-developed nations such as Bangladesh a voice by promoting capacity development.
From the magnificent Royal Bengal tiger to the mysterious Irrawaddy dolphin and a variety of sea turtle species, Bangladesh is home to a diverse maritime ecosystem. However, overfishing and habitat loss pose major hazards to numerous species. The United Nations High Seas Treaty seeks to establish marine protected zones in international waterways, recognizing the interdependence of oceans and coastlines. The initiative is commensurate with Bangladesh’s commitment to marine life conservation. This treaty makes an explicit effort to ensure that everyone, including developing and underdeveloped countries, benefits from a shared space, a principle that has been neglected for decades in international agreements, particularly in terms of global commerce.
The issue of overfishing is a problem on a worldwide scale, and Bangladesh is not an exception. In the Bay of Bengal, there are several instances of local fishermen having to compete with foreign vessels. As the high seas are inaccessible without using enormous amounts of energy and money, this is crucial information: 97% of commercial fishing boats in the high seas are registered to higher-income nations. Countries with lower incomes are frustrated by the fact that fish migrating to their waterways are now being caught by wealthy nations. The pact seeks to solve this problem by encouraging responsible fishing techniques and enforcing strict rules in international waters. This not only safeguards Bangladesh’s fishery industry but also contributes to global efforts to reduce overfishing.
Bangladesh is at serious risk from climate change as rising sea levels submerge agriculture in salt water and force entire coastal villages to relocate. Due to its strong link with atmospheric CO2, the ocean is vital to climate change. Again, marine bacteria that break down methane could make biofuels. By addressing climate change globally and transforming clean energy, the deal indirectly helps Bangladesh. International cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect vulnerable coastal areas from climate change is enabled under the pact.
There has been a rise in transnational threats, including piracy and illicit fishing in the Bay of Bengal. The UN High Seas Treaty is anticipated to increase maritime safety by encouraging governments to collaborate and share intelligence. This means a safer marine environment for Bangladesh, where fishermen have no reason to fear for their safety and criminals have no desire to leave.
There may be a palpable concern about obtaining sufficient funds for the treaty’s implementation. By establishing a shared trust fund to pay for technological transfers, capacity building, and training for low-income governments so they can participate in scientific missions and development, the Treaty aims to offer a framework for the equitable distribution of high seas earnings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that $500 million will be required initially and yearly $100 million may be needed for a special implementation and capacity-building fund.
Despite its complexity, such as the potential harm of deep-sea mining on sensitive ecosystems, world leaders and environmental activists are optimistic about the treaty. According to Mads Christensen, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, “we welcome so many governments signing the UN Ocean Treaty. This sends a powerful signal to the world that governments will maintain momentum towards protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030, after the historic Treaty agreement back in March. But this signing is a purely symbolic moment, now politicians must bring the Treaty home and ensure it is ratified in record time”.
Although Bangladesh is devoting a lot of resources to the blue economy and other development initiatives, environmental deterioration and climate change are major concerns. In the context of a global landscape characterized by enormous environmental and climatical concerns, the United Nations High Seas Treaty emerges as a source of optimism and promise for the nation of Bangladesh. It guarantees the continued success of the “Land of Rivers” and the protection of the waterways that connect us to the rest of the globe. The importance of this deal to Bangladesh goes beyond politics and directly threatens the country’s survival. Let us seize this opportunity as we navigate the murky oceans of the 21st century and collaborate with the rest of our neighbors to establish a safer, more prosperous maritime future.
No Alternatives for Taliban but Danger of Future Civil Conflict
Events and processes in Afghanistan are moving according to a negative scenario. Despite the significant information blockade, there is still some news regarding the situation in Afghanistan. The country’s economy is deplorable and has no significant moves towards stabilization. The humanitarian situation is stable but critical. Political repression against the Taliban’s opponents continues and became systemic. And it mainly occurred against national minorities, in particular Tajiks and Hazaras. The actions of global terrorist groups also cause particular concern and warning among reliable international players. Statements regarding threats from international terrorists are made by the UN, the USA, India, and the countries of the European Union.
Paradoxically, despite the difficult economic and social situation, political transformations are still problematic to foresee. Afghanistan under the Taliban run is a classic case from the theory of political science of a rigid militarized authoritarian regime with average legitimacy. The masses cannot express their political views given repressions by government institutions. There is no rule in Afghanistan yet that could challenge the Taliban nationally. Currently, and possibly in the mid-term, there is no alternative to the Taliban. The opposition, consisting of national minorities, does not have the necessary military potential and support among the population. Regardless, international diplomatic circles and representatives of the world’s leading countries actively explain to the Taliban leaders that such a situation won’t last forever. The world centers of power are not interested in the total destabilization of Afghanistan and the beginning of a civil-military confrontation there. As the socio-economic situation of the Pashtuns, who form the core of the Taliban, deteriorates, contradictions can result in an armed uprising. And even the most oppressed ethnic groups will sooner or later begin to resist the authoritarian control of the Taliban.
One of the factual aspects of possible future destabilization could be Pakistan’s policy. Even though Islamabad is the key creator, sponsor, and mentor of the radical Islamist movement, which used terrorism as a method of political struggle, there are certain contradictions between them. In September, the Pakistani leaders decided to expel all Afghan refugees illegally living in the country. According to Pakistani media, this means that about 1.1 million Afghans will go to Afghanistan in the near future. The Pakistani government states that this number of Afghans have fled to Pakistan in the past two years — in addition to several million others living in the neighboring country for years. The decision to expel illegal Afghan refugees was made against the background of the fight against terrorism, currency smuggling, and illegal trade in sugar and fertilizers.
Ariana News informs that the plan to deport more than 1.1 million Afghan refugees was supported by the government and the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. It also means the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Pakistan consulted with all interested parties, including the Taliban. The Pakistani police have raided Afghan migrants over the past few months. Hundreds have been arrested, and many have already been dispatched homeland. Most Afghan migrants are Pashtuns from the poorest rural areas, but their mass flow to Afghanistan will lead to additional economic and social difficulties.
The contradictions between the Taliban and Pakistan also lie on a different plane. So, the recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, wreaking havoc, paints an alarming picture of rising instability across Pakistan. Especially the TTP’s recent incursion into the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan is very concerning for the Pakistan military apparatus. According to the Pakistanis themselves, after the seizure of power in Kabul, terrorist groups intensified on the territory of Pakistan. Before the Taliban’s victory, official Islamabad spread the narrative that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were unrelated. However, today, it is becoming evident that this is not the case, and strengthening one unit leads to activating another.
It is difficult to predict the political events in Afghanistan, but it is evident that without attention from the responsible world centers of power, destabilization and strengthening of the international terrorist underground is unavoidable.
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