A short note on the India-Pakistan thaw

Over the past couple of months, both India and Pakistan have been trying to lower the temperatures through some good gestures and reconciliatory statements, while both sides have reiterated their commitment to amicably resolve the issue of harassment of diplomats. India and Pakistan have also agreed to some humanitarian gestures with regard to prisoners languishing, on both sides, in jails.

There have also been indicators that the two neighbors are keen to revive economic ties and give a boost to bilateral trade, which is way below potential.

In the month of March, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, while addressing the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spoke about the need for greater bilateral trade:

We should not talk about negative and positive lists rather we should work on the windows of opportunities. At present, over $5 billion trade is being done through third country but after removal of non-tariff barriers, liberalisation of visa and normalisation of mutual relations, the two-way trade could touch a high $30 billion.

Bisaria, while addressing the Employers Federation of Pakistan and the South Asian Forum of Employers, reiterated the need to increase the level of trade, and also said that if South Korea and North Korea could work towards resolving their serious differences, there is no reason why India and Pakistan could not.

Interestingly, in the month of April, Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Sohail Mahmood, met with the Chief Minister of Punjab (India), Captain Amarinder Singh, and discussed possible areas where both countries can cooperate. Not only was there an emphasis on reviving people-to-people contact between the two Punjab’s, but also to give a boost to trade through the Wagah-Attari land route. In the two phases (2004-2007 and then 2011-2014), when India and Pakistan made headway in terms of connectivity and economic linkages, the two Punjab’s played a pivotal role. The area of Punjab, of course, was split by the British Partition of 1947.

Change in mindset of Pakistan Army and RUSI report

What is interesting is a commentary, authored by Kamal Alam, published by premier British think-tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institution), which emphatically argues that there is a paradigm shift in the mindset of the Pakistani military, under the leadership of current Chief of Army Staff, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, and a genuine realization for the need to move away from a zero-sum approach.

Alam’s commentary refers to an address by Bajwa last year, where he made a case for India being part of the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Pakistan army chief stated:

The Pakistan army is now no more insecure and feels confident of its future and that he welcomes Indian participation in Pakistan’s flagship infrastructure project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Alam, to strengthen his argument, also points to some other instances, such as Bajwa’s speech at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, where the Pakistan Army Chief referred to the necessity of dialogue between both countries, and an invite to the Indian Military attache, Sanjay Vishwasrao, and other senior diplomats posted at the Indian High Commission, for the military parade to mark Pakistan’s National Day. The diplomats attended the parade alongside Vishwasrao.

Another interesting development flagged by Alam is the military drill (conducted under the umbrella of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) in September 2018, where both India and Pakistan along with other member nations will participate.

Alam’s commentary has quoted a number of other high level members of the Pakistan army who have spoken in favor of mending ties, and also argues that a change in the Pakistan army’s mindset has been visible since 2013.

In December 2016, Pakistan’s Southern Command Lt General, Amir Riaz, while speaking at an awards distribution ceremony at Balochistan FC Headquarters, invited India to join CPEC and ‘share the fruits of future development by shelving the anti-Pakistan activities and subversion.’ Riaz, as Director General of Military Operations in 2013, had met his counterpart at Wagah to reduce tensions across the Line of Control.

According to Alam, Major General Ahmed Hayat, the Director-General-Analysis of the Inter-Services-Intelligence for Pakistan, had authored, in 2013, what was dubbed as the India Plan. While agreeing that engagement and not conflict was the answer, the report sought to identify the appropriate time to reach out to India from a position of strength.

Points of contention moving forward

While Alam’s report has generated a lot of interest, a few facts need to be borne.

First, the recent meeting between Modi and Xi, where China, without making a mention of Pakistan, committed to flag terrorism as a key concern. In recent months, China has given some indicators that it may be willing to re-think its approach towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Pakistan is now likely to be put on the watchlist of an international financial watchdog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Beijing was initially opposed to this move, but relented after India lent its support to Beijing for the Vice Presidency of FATF.

China has of course been pitching for a better relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad for some time, keeping in mind its own economic interests, and has even asked New Delhi to be part of CPEC. New Delhi has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, given the fact that CPEC passes through disputed territory, but with the changing dynamics in the New Delhi-Beijing relationship, it is likely that Bajwa and the upper echelons of India’s diplomatic corps are making the right noises to look good to the international community, especially China.

Second, the incumbent PML-N civilian government in Pakistan, which has been completely overwhelmed in the past two years with the weakening of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The fall of Sharif began with the joint Tahir Ul Qadri-Imran Khan protests (backed by the Pakistan army) in 2014, and ever since the Panama Case leaks in April 2016, things have spiraled downhill for Sharif. In July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding any public office, and had to resign as Prime Minister of Pakistan. In April 2018, he was disqualified from holding any position for life.

Sharif, who has on more than one occasion dubbed political rival and former cricket star Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan-Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) as ‘laadla’ (favorite) of the army, has also argued that the judiciary and military are jointly conspiring against him. One of the points of divergence between Sharif and the army were relations with India, as Sharif has always batted for better relations with New Delhi.

There is absolutely no doubt that Imran’s relations with the army have improved considerably according to some. Imran has also publicly praised the army chief, recently calling Bajwa “probably the most pro-democratic man [Pakistan] has ever seen.” There is a good chance that PTI, backed by the military establishment, may win in the upcoming elections of 2018. The commentary, and Bajwa’s statements, could be a message to India that New Delhi will have to engage with the military in case PTI were to come to power.

In this context, Bajwa has been trying to cultivate the image of a pragmatist not opposed to peace. A few months ago in an article written for The News, the prominent left-leaning Pakistani journalist Sohail Warraich wrote:

The Bajwa doctrine stands for regional peace and, like China, wants to make peace with India while keeping our differences on core issues. The doctrine is ready for peaceful negotiations but without compromising on the Kashmir issue. The doctrine is fully aware of the Chinese advice to Pakistan that instead of war, other peaceful measure be negotiated for Kashmir issue.

Conclusion

It is important for New Delhi to wait and watch, while engaging with the business community and Pakistan’s vibrant civil society is absolutely essential. Not much should be read into Bajwa’s remarks. They should be taken note of, and not dismissed, but it is a bit premature to be optimistic. After all, the army has been backing the Milli Muslim League (MML), a civil front of the JuD, headed by the Mumbai terror attack mastermind, Hafiz Saeed.

It will also be interesting to see the ultimate outcome of the upcoming election in July.

New Delhi needs to deal with whoever is in power in Pakistan, and the army is an important power center there. A civilian government (possibly PTI) beholden to the establishment will not address India’s concerns the way a firm civilian government which has the fervent backing of the people (this may not happen in the imminent future, but is a reality) would. The Pakistan Army Chief’s words would have had more meaning if he had backed Nawaz Sharif’s attempts towards improving ties with India, and not joined hands with the judiciary to plot his downfall.

The Indo-Pacific narrative, US insularity, and China’s increasing influence

Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump, during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific’). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State Richard Tillerson, while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC), explicitly mentioned a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, an official statement from the US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier, too, the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. This was discussed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018, and between representatives of Japan, the US, and India in April 2018 when the three sides met in New Delhi, committing themselves to furthering connectivity between the countries.

China Factor

While members of the Quad have continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific concept is specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India, Australia, and France to work together in order to ensure a rules-based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President stated:

What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.

Evolving relationship between China-India and China-Japan

While it is good to talk about a rules-based order, and a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second, the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of the Malabar exercises last June (Japan, US, and India participated). Australia is a member of the Quad alliance and has been one of the vocal protagonists of the Free and Fair Indo-Pacific narrative. Canberra has also expressed vocally the need for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has on more than one occasion expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations, though India has been dismissive of this argument.

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said such a possibility was discussed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to improve ties with China, recently reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly, the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) projected to be components of the Indo-Pacific strategy, has even gone to the extent of stating that it does not perceive the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, the President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao, stated that “AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does the Indo-Pacific move from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not an unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang, had stated that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, especially in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important for the Indo-Pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.

Beijing and the India-Pakistan conundrum

During the course of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in China, and days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in China for his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an editorial in Pakistan’s premier English-language daily (Daily Times) titled ‘China’s re-assurance on CPEC‘ made an interesting point:

If anything Beijing has been asking Islamabad to engage with New Delhi and keep tensions to a minimum. Such an environment is also conducive to timely completion of various projects under CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] and transforming South and Western Asia into a high economic growth zone. Keeping the economy first is a lesson that our state has yet to learn from its big brother in the hood.

Zardari’s recommendation in 2012

Interestingly, during his meeting with former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, in April 2012, former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan People’s Party — PPP) had also stated that Pakistan and India should seek to follow the Pakistan-China model of engagement. Zardari meant that, like India and China, India and Pakistan too should follow an incremental approach, with more frequent high level interactions and a heavy focus on economic cooperation.

It might be mentioned that between 2012 and 2013 some important leaps were made in the economic sphere between both countries, with the most noteworthy development being the setting up of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari (Amritsar, India). The ICP’s motive was to accelerate bilateral trade through the only land crossing (Attari-Wagah) between India and Pakistan. During this period, a number of high level delegations interacted, including the Commerce Ministers of both countries.

Pakistan also seemed prepared to grant India MFN status, but a change of government (along with domestic opposition from certain business lobbies as well as hardliners) in Islamabad (2013) and then New Delhi (2014) meant that this decision could not go ahead. Since then, relations have been tense, and there has been no opportunity to make any progress on this.

Tensions in the past 4 years: CPEC and terrorism emanating from Pakistan Continue reading

Bolton’s Iran policy: could it strengthen the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan axis?

John Bolton, who took over as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser on April 8, has had significant differences with India on a number of issues in the past. As US Ambassador to the UN, he opposed India’s elevation to the United National Security Council (UNSC), even at a time when relations were at a high during the Manmohan Singh-Bush era. Bolton had initially opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, though later he lent his support. While the Trump administration has sought to elevate India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, Bolton has expressed the view that there are some fundamental differences between India and the US. In the short term, though, there is no serious divergence.

Bolton and Iran

What would really be of concern to India however is Bolton’s hawkish approach towards Iran. Bolton’s views are not very different from those of US President Donald Trump and recently appointed Secretary of State John Pompeo. Bolton is opposed to the Iran Nuclear Agreement signed between Iran and P5+1 countries in 2015. In 2015, the NSA designate called for bombing Iran, last year he had criticized the deal, and last year he had called for scrapping the deal.

The Iranian response to Bolton’s appointment was understandably skeptical. Commenting on Bolton’s appointment, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said: Continue reading

Recent developments in the context of Indo-Pacific

At a time when a massive churn is taking place in the Donald Trump Administration (HR Mcmaster was replaced as head of the NSA by John Bolton, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced with the more hawkish Mike Pompeo), Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave a briefing with regard to the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, on April 3, 2018 (a day before a trilateral dialogue took place between senior officials from India, Japan and US). Wong outlined the contours of the strategy, and spoke not just about the strategic vision, but also the economic vision of the US, with regard to the Indo-Pacific.

A backgrounder to the Indo-Pacific, Quad, and the China Factor

For a long time, the US referred to the region as ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which China prefers), but the current Trump Administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. During his visit to East Asia and South East Asia, in November 2017, the US President had used the term more than once (much to the discomfort of China) giving a brief overview of what he meant by a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. While speaking to a business delegation at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Trump spoke about ‘rule of law’ and playing by the rules. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had referred to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad Alliance (consisting of US, India, Japan, and Australia) in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a Washington think tank)  in October 2017, a week before his India visit.

In order to give a further thrust to the Quad, representatives of all four countries met on the eve of East Asia Summit in Manila. A statement of the Indian Foreign Ministry said: Continue reading

Can Elizabeth Warren help turn the populist tide?

During her recent visit to China, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (perceived by many as a potential Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020), came down heavily on US President Donald Trump’s approach towards foreign policy, arguing that it lacks substance, is unpredictable, and does not pay much attention to liberal values and human rights, which according to her has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.

Trump’s unpredictability

Commenting on Trump’s unpredictable approach towards Asia, Warren stated:

This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in.

Critical of US approach towards China

Warren met with senior Chinese officials including Liu He, vice-premier for economic policy, Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat, and the minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, and discussed a number of important issues including trade and the North Korea issue.

Warren criticised China for being relatively closed, and stated that the US needed to have a more realistic approach towards Beijing. She also spoke of the need for the US to remain committed to raising Human Rights issues, and not skirt the issue, while dealing with China.

Said the Democratic Senator: Continue reading

An update on the federalist debate in India

In recent days, numerous leaders in India’s South have spoken in one voice against the 15th Finance Commission — arguing that it is unfair to South Indian states. The bone of contention is a directive in the terms of reference given to the Finance Commission, which states that the distribution of revenues amongst states should be based on the 2011 census, as opposed to the 1971 census. During this period, South Indian states have fared well in controlling their population, while Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – all northern states – have been unsuccessful. South Indian states have put forth the argument that they have been penalized for controlling their population, while states which have not fared particularly well have been rewarded.

Some leaders have also objected to the commission dubbing important welfare schemes as ‘populist’ without understanding the economic and social dynamics of different states.

Non-Economic Issues Continue reading