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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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Blasphemy issue needs a permanent solution

The good sense has prevailed, an imminent catastrophe has receded. In a written statement issued on August 30, Geert Wilders announced "not to let the cartoon contest go ahead.” The contest was to be held at the tightly guarded offices of his Party for Freedom in the Dutch parliament building. Meanwhile, the Netherlands government had been at pains to distance itself from the contest. Prime Minister Mark Rutte questioned Wilders' motive for organising the contest. Pakistan’s foreign minister congratulated the nation and Muslim Ummah on their moral victory and termed the cancellation of the contest a victory for Pakistan on the diplomatic front. Cancellation announcement came within days after Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a statement saying the act was hurting the sentiments of Muslims living all around the world. Condemning the blasphemous cartoon competition in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Imran Khan had blamed the recurrence of such incidents a collective failure of the Muslim world, saying he would take up the matter at the United Nations General Assembly’s upcoming session. After the publication of Salman Rushdi’s blasphemous book ‘Satanic Verses’, it has become very easy to malign Muslims in the West, the prime minister said. “And they have been successfully doing it.” If they [Western countries] feel pained discussing the Holocaust, why haven’t we been able to convey to the West how much we feel pained when they do blasphemous things against Islam and our beloved Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)?” Pakistan’s foreign office is undertaking a hectic diplomatic campaign to avert the exhibition of profane cartoons in November. Hopefully the good sense would prevail. Time and again, Western Christian countries purposefully hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims through public display of profane audio-visual and print material about Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), under the pretext of their so called doctrine of freedom of expression. In a stark contradiction, same very European States immediately imprison anyone questioning the veracity of ‘Holocaust’, while Muslims and their religion don’t get the similar preferential treatment. While earlier such incidents in Netherlands were an act of non-state actors, this time parliamentary permission to hold the forthcoming exhibition inside parliament premises had made the government of Netherlands a party to this nefarious act of religious extremism. Opposition leader Greet Wilders has a track history of airing anti-Muslim sentiment. In December 2017, he proposed that European countries should adopt Donald Trump-style travel bans to counter a wave of Islamisation, according to him, sweeping the continent. Wilders also urged Europe to adopt Australia’s tactics in turning back migrant boats and to build new border walls, as Trump had vowed to do along the US frontier with Mexico. Wilders is the parliamentary leader of his party in the House of Representatives. During his election campaign, Wilders had published a one-page election manifesto calling for a ban on all asylum seekers and migrants from Islamic nations, and urged his country to leave the European Union. Wilders also stands for banning the Quran and closing all mosques and Islamic schools. Political environment in Netherlands is quite murky and thoroughly mired in populist rhetoric, where both the government and the opposition are, more often than not, competing to appear more racist and exclusionist. Wilders was defeated in March 2017 elections by Mark Rutte. According to Guardian “cost of latter’s victory against Geert Wilders’ anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-Islam Freedom PVV party was a pyrrhic victory”. Mark Rutte’s VVD party had adopted the very rhetoric of Wilders to beat him. Rutte had said: “something wrong with our country” and claimed “the silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who come and “abuse our freedom”. Close to end of his previous tenure as Prime Minster, Rutte thought that being tough on Turkey would fetch him more votes, therefore he “happily sparked a mini-international crisis for the sake of votes”. While during the electoral campaign, Rutte said stopping Wilders was about stopping the “wrong sort of populism”. Situation is akin to India where both BJP and Congress compete to articulate more pro Hindu rhetoric to encash Hindu vote bank. Pakistan had approached Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to lodge a protest against this planned cartoon competition in Netherlands. Former caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Haroon had set the dice rolling by writing a letter to the OIC Secretary General seeking his leadership for a collective action to register a protest of OIC countries with the Dutch authorities, who in turn had written to the Dutch foreign minister, on behalf of 57 Muslim countries, protesting against this abominable event. It is not the first time that the Netherlands is holding such competition. In the past also such acts have frequently been committed by this country with a malicious intent to target the noblest personality of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh). Pakistan has called upon the Dutch Ambassador to Pakistan and the EU Ambassador, who represents 28 European countries, to register the protest. “We have conveyed our condemnation of this deliberate attempt to vilify Islam. Such incidents should not go unpunished,” Foreign office spokesperson said. Pakistan’s new government had taken forth the process. During its first meeting, cabinet decided to take up the matter at bilateral level. Pakistan lodged a strong protest with the Netherlands over an announcement of holding a competition of blasphemous caricatures. “The charge d’affaires of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was summoned to the Foreign Office on August 13, and a strong protest was lodged”, Foreign office stated. Deep concern was conveyed at this deliberate and malicious attempt to defame Islam. “Pakistan’s ambassador in Hague has been instructed to forcefully raise the issue with the Dutch government along with ambassadors of OIC member states,” the Foreign Office went on to add. Foreign minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi also spoke to his Dutch counterpart. Pakistan’s permanent representatives to the United Nations in New York and Geneva were directed to take up the matter with the UN Secretary General, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN bodies and procedures. The issue would also be discussed in the forthcoming meeting of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers, scheduled to be held on the side-lines of forthcoming 73rd ministerial session of the UNGA. Though the triggering issue is behind us, OIC should not lower its guards, it should firm up an action plan if any individual or government attempts such a misadventure in future. During this meeting the Muslim countries should send a loud and clear message that the despoliation of Muslim holy personalities is not acceptable to them. The silver lining is that there have been saner voices from within Dutch civil society. Demonstrations were held by Dutch nationals to show solidarity with Muslims. During March 2017, Dutch citizens gathered at a mosque in Amsterdam, to show solidarity with the country’s Muslim population. People representing a broad coalition against racism gathered at the central Al-Kabir mosque to show opposition to anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. “We as a Muslim community pose no danger whatsoever to society,” said Najem Ouladali while addressing the gathering. “We believe that what Wilders is doing is very dangerous to our society,” Ouladali added. Najem was one of the organizers of the gathering. Pakistan should continue to work closely with all the OIC member states to find a permanent solution to this recurring issue. Matter should be persistently raised at the relevant international fora until a sustainable way is found by the international community for preventing such abhorrent acts.

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