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Pakistan’s Emerging neighbourhood

During the last month, President Xi Jinping made two high-profile visits to Asian countries—Pakistan and Indonesia—which is indicative of China’s push for regional outreach, from East Asia to West Asia. While in Islamabad, Xi unveiled China’s biggest aid and investment package for a single country. And while in Jakarta he had a detailed meeting with Myanmar President U Thein Sein. Myanmar supports China’s cooperative initiatives like Belt and Road as well as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. It also looks up to China-Myanmar highway and the Irrawaddy River land-water transport channel within the bilateral cooperation framework. It also supports Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and hopes China’s involvement in Myanmar’s infrastructure construction through the Silk Road Fund and other means would make a qualitative change.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement and America’s clearance of Foreign Military Sale of Viper Attack Helicopters and Hellfire II Missiles to Pakistan have been major contributory factors to Pakistan’s elevated profile. After a long spell, anti-America sentiment in Pakistan is subsiding; it reflects a subtle but broad shift in Pakistani society as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close and there is significant drop in the frequency of drone attacks. A Pew Research Centre poll, released in August 2014, showed a significant decline in the percentage of Pakistanis who held negative views of the United States — still a majority at 59 percent, but down from 80 percent two years back. Although conspiracy theories about US involvement in the region remain rife, the intensity of such accusations is settling back into a more tolerant form of scepticism. However, PEN America’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo magazine for publishing caricatures of Holy Prophet (pbuh) has once again undermined the evolving goodwill.
Moreover, upward trajectory in Pakistan-Russia relations has culminated in a Defence Agreement and procurement of MI35 helicopters is on the cards. Prudent avoidance of direct military involvement in Yemen crisis is likely to pay off in the long term, while downturn in relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be temporary. Afghanistan’s rationalized foreign policy towards Pakistan has brought respite in Karzai era cross border attacks. If the P5+1 and Iran seal the nuclear deal, then Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project would become a reality. China has already offered to construct this pipeline. And has also committed to sell eight submarines to Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan have decided to set up a hotline, open four new border crossings, and increase security forces’ patrols along the borders.
The US-Pakistan arms deal delivered a strong message to India that if it continues to shop elsewhere then America will sell arms to other countries of its choice. Pressure was too much for India to sustain and it succumbed; as a consequence, it has walked away from purchase of 126 Rafael fighter aircraft from France, much in the similar way it had walked away from Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline a few years back. Now in all likelihood, India could go for an American warplane—may be F-16. An over confident (read arrogant) India of Modi’s early days may slowly mellow down and reconcile with changing realities of regional flux. But periodic erratic impulses radiated by Indian policy making circles often smack of belligerence and aggressive mindset, which though is more of a nuance than substance; has disrupted bilateral dialogue many a times and has scuttled many meaningful peace initiatives. An arrogant India, though does not pose existential threat to Pakistan, it is certainly a source of regional instability; because to channelize its aggressive mindset it ferments trouble in the neighbouring countries by accentuating their otherwise benign fault-lines.
India realizes its critical dependencies on Pakistan in the context of trade transit facilities. However, instead of pursuing these objective through prudent statesmanship, it endeavors to extract these concessions through arms twisting, literally and figuratively. Though there is renewed talk of an India-Iran deal to develop the Chahbahar port; India has lost the comparative advantage after the conclusion of CPEC agreement.
Now Pakistan’s sensitivities about Afghanistan are better factored-in in the US strategic calculus. America has reconciled with the distinct possibility that it will be replaced in Afghanistan by China with the help of Pakistan. China already has a considerable economic presence in Afghanistan. It will now concentrate on energy-rich Iran that shall emerge much stronger after its nuclear deal and the recent unravelling in the Middle East. Region. Russia, with its growing understanding with China is emerging as an important regional player looking up to revive its stalled S 3000 missile deal with Iran.
President Ashraf Ghani has completed the first roundtrip of the capitals which matter in the future political and economic settlement of Afghanistan. During his visit to India he expressed the desire to “make Afghanistan a graveyard of terror” and for this looked up for help from India, Pakistan and other neighbors. Indian analysts feel that New Delhi may be losing influence in Afghanistan because of Ghani’s efforts to forge closer ties with Pakistan and China; however, it is because India has disappointed Afghanistan on many counts, especially its promises of providing hi-tech military equipment. Modi said that India should join an existing Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit agreement to allow goods to flow by land from Afghanistan to eastern India and back. “We believe that Afghanistan’s direct surface link to India and the rest of South Asia, and increased connectivity to sea, could turn Afghanistan into a hub that connects Asia’s diverse regions and beyond,” Modi said. The spirit behind the effort is to replace Pakistan’s influence in Pakistan rather than facilitating Afghanistan. During Afghan President’s the visit to India no agreement was signed. Ghani said “we must have a unified approach, we must be united both in the region and globally to contain this terror.” These words indicate a shift in Afghanistan’s position on countering terror, from charging Pakistan with complicity in attacks by the Taliban, to a more cooperative approach with Pakistan. He referred to the IS rather than the Taliban and LeT as the next big challenge for his country.
As of now Afghanistan is poised to benefit enormously by joining CPEC. While in India, Ghani said: “Our vision today is to be guided by that potential where the energy of Central Asia will flow to South Asia where pipelines, fiber optics, railways, and connectivity, air, ground and virtual will connect us.” And this is what CPEC offers.
India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, but the contour of the relationship has changed. Ashraf Ghani has visited China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (twice) and the US before coming to India. In China he frankly spoke of Afghanistan’s new external priorities indicating relegation of India to the outermost circle. He has also decided not to pursue the request for defence equipment from India that has given a jolt to the relationship politically.
Afghan president feels that he must engage Pakistan vigorously and obtain its cooperation. Ghani has also started sending officer cadets for training at the Pakistani military academy to offset the earlier pattern of Afghan officers being trained exclusively in India. He is also counting on China- Pakistan synergy to actively promote the reconciliation process, and providing economic and other requisite support to help transition Afghan economy from war to corporate economy. He has concluded that India’s capacity to help is limited and Pakistani and China could be more productive partners. China has expressed its willingness to help in the reconciliation process. The CPEC project indicates far-reaching Chinese plans to bring this region into its economic integration, from which Afghanistan would benefit substantially.
However, Afghan polity is not unanimous on Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan and the Taliban. There is a suspicion that Ghani is seeking to strengthen the Pashtun elements in the polity at the expense of other ethnic groups. Accommodating the Taliban in political structure of Afghanistan is likely to meet resistance from other ethnic groups, especially the idea of giving them governorships and ministerial appointments outside any electoral process.
Despite setback, India is not likely to reconcile with its relatively lower profile in Afghanistan, even if it has to take-on a spoiler’s role. Hence, India may take the trajectories like: coax Iran and paly repeat role of 1980s and 90s for destabilizing central government by provoking ethnic minorities especially Uzbeks and Tajiks; support Iran in playing its sectarian card; go solo and reactivate Dostum card; crate fissures between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. India is likely to follow a composite strategy drawing from all these options.
London based newspaper The Economist in its article “Pakistan’s economy Fuel injection: Lower oil prices prove to be a boon”, on Apr 30, has released very promising data about Pakistan’s economy, indicating a growth rate of 4.7 percent. Moreover, negative media projection of Pakistan at international level is on decline, though two Pakistanis, Hussain Haqqani and Pervez Hoodbhoy are doing their best to fill the void.
A stronger Pakistan is emerging, and now it can take stock of regional dynamics from a position of enhanced confidence. Pakistan needs to follow a prudent policy to capitalize on the advantages that are visible now. Some of these are transient and or slippery; while some others are fragile. A time bound effort is required to benefit from transient ones and comprehensive strategy should be evolved to secure the fragile ones.

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