Flip-flops of surround syndrome

Obsession with surround and contain syndrome in Asia has overwhelmed India-US axis (not yet nexus), since the end of cold war. The US wants to surround and contain China and India is a clandestine partner in this venture while articulating denial. India wants to contain/surround Pakistan and the only (conditional) partner it has been able to enlist is the United States. American Defence Minister thinks China is building a Wall of Sand in South China Sea; at the same time he is maintaining deafening silence over India’s efforts to nuclearize Indian Ocean and its vertical missile proliferation ventures. India thinks that after recent tripartite agreement over Chabahar port it has surrounded Pakistan and neutralized China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

On their part China and Pakistan share a vision of regional and transcontinental connectivity.  After the formalization of CPEC, the US and India seem to further harmonize their effort to squeeze Pakistan. Though the US has not openly opposed CPEC, its heart and mind is not with it. India has anyway out rightly objected to it, allocated a fund of US$ 300 million and created a dedicated cell under its National Security Advisor to disrupt the project.

These strategies of containment and connectivity are out and competing. Americans have their ways of asserting oblique pressures and arm-twisting. For countries like Pakistan and India they give with one hand and take back with the other—Pakistan has learnt this the hard way, India is still in honeymoon mind-set. Chinese follow cool and calm strategy to pursue their objectives. It is Chinese pragmatism that sees compulsions of a natural hyphenation while dealing with Pakistan and India, which is why Pakistan and India were offered the SCO membership simultaneously.

The US has enlisted about nine countries which are active part of orchestra demonizing the legitimate Chinese rights in South China Sea. Earlier a term ‘String of Pearls’ was coined to float the strategic concept mischievously alleging that China was developing and or acquiring port rights from South East Asia to West Asia; this was a ploy to justify the move and permanent deployment of the US military assets in Asia-Pacific. Now once that objective is achieved, no one hears about String of Pearls. And on the other hand the US and India are about to sign an agreement under the innocent caption of “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement” (Lemoa). This would make all Indian ports d’ facto bases for American ships in transit—both civil and military.

There is now much discussion about whether China should accept the ruling of the South China Sea arbitration process. Arbitration process was started by the Philippines unilaterally, in all likelihood on American behest, to legitimise its illegal occupation of the Nansha. Unknown to most of world is the fact that more than 40 of China’s islands and reefs in Nansha are illegally occupied by the Philippines and some other countries, who have built airstrips and deployed weapons there. China has always responded with maximum self-restraint, appealing for negotiations and consultations.

In exchange for its wholesome alignment with the US in China containment policy, India had asked America to deliver an India pliant South Asia. America is working on the last post—Pakistan to fulfil this promise. Over the years, America has taken a number of steps to further tilt Pakistan-India strategic balance in latter’s favour. One of these steps is letting India become member of four strategic trade regimes— while keeping Pakistan out of these.

Pakistan has formally asked the US to support its application for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership, saying the NSG should adopt a non-discriminatory approach that treats India and Pakistan equally. However, President Obama is all out to support India only. A handful of other nations resisting India’s admission to the group, including South Africa, New Zealand and Turkey, have softened their stance somewhat, opening the door to a process under which non-NPT states such as India and Pakistan might join.

There are visible concerns within the US itself over Obama’s extraordinary efforts towards his India only approach. A few weeks back, a key US Senator, Ed Markey, had warned that enabling India to join the NSG would cause a never ending nuclear race in South Asia. Likewise, The New York Times, in its recent editorial, has also challenged the very credentials of India for the NSG membership, terming it as unmerited.

Notwithstanding, in their game of surround and contain, both America and India have limitations. India wants to side with the US in its anti-China ventures but without radiating a deep impression of “Hostile India” towards China. America too has limitations with regard to squeezing Pakistan. Key to all solutions to Afghan conflict rests with Pakistan. And Pakistan is useful to America for keeping India under check. In its quest to contain China, America does not want to prop up an unmanageable India.

And on its part, China is keeping India engaged to the extent that India does not find an excuse to out rightly become hostile and become totally aligned with American objectives in Asia-pacific. India is also aware that America is a declining power with roving interests; tomorrow it could wind up its “Asia Rebalance” shop and take it elsewhere, while China is a rising power and a neighbouring country with whom it has long contentious borders alongside a history despondently lost war.

India wants to gain from both sides through a dirty game of alliances and counter alliances whose ramifications could eventually get out of Indian control. For that India is keeping Russia as a fall back, it has adequate clout over Russia through which it has been able to hold back President Putin twice from undertaking his announced visits to Pakistan.

In the wake of Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate of the Salma dam in Herat, alongside tripartite agreement with Iran and Afghanistan to develop a small Iranian port at Chabahar, Indian foreign office has gone overboard foolhardy to informally float an assessment that India has succeeded in getting the Afghan government out of the Pakistani orbit of influence, forging what it perceives as an emerging Indo-Afghan-Iran axis. Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan has recently clarified that such agreement on this port was first offered to China and Pakistan, the offer is still open; and Iran is still keen to develop Chabahar port in tandem and not as a competitor to Gwadar port. A MoU is already in place between Iran and Pakistan declaring Chabahar and Gwadar as sister ports.

In case of Afghanistan, India fails to note that even the border can’t separate Afghan and Pakistani people. Every day, thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis cross the international border—contrast it with recent travel and visa restrictions imposed by India on Afghans. A known Pakistan basher former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has recently said that cordial relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are in the interest of both the neighbours. He praised Pakistan and its people for extending ‘tremendous support and hospitality’ to millions of Afghan refugees at a very crucial time. “The Afghans will remember their unprecedented support forever,” he added. Asked about the ‘third country’ undermining Kabul-Islamabad relations, Karzai said: “It shows our (Afghan) weaknesses.” He added that the ‘third force’ (India) has since long been involved in Pakistan via Afghanistan. “But yes, Pakistan has the right to ensure the territory of its neighbours is not used against it.” He added.

Despite ongoing Indo-US games of alliances and counter alliances, Pakistan has adequate strategic space to manage its way through such manoeuvres. There is neither a danger of physical sabotage of CPEC nor that of strategic isolation of Pakistan. Nearly a dozen countries including Iran and Afghanistan have shown keenness to join it.

The Nation June 13, 2016

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI Policy.

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About the Author

Khalid Iqbal
Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal is Consultant Policy & and Strategic Response at IPRI. He is on the panel of experts for Spearhead Research and Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. He is a member board of advisers of Opinion Maker and member National Academic Council, Institute of Policy Studies. He is on the visiting faculty of Quaid-i- Azam University, Islamabad. He is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.

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