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.

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

John Bolton: the view from India

On March 23, 2018, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he was removing H.R. Mcmaster as his National Security Advisor, and that John Bolton would take over on April 9, 2018.

Bolton, the US Ambassador to the UN during George W Bush’s Presidency, has evoked strong domestic reactions in the US, with both Democrats and certain Republicans being skeptical of him because of his mercurial nature and outlandish views on complex foreign policy issues. Bob Menendez, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly commented on his appointment:

While the President may see in Mr Bolton a sympathetic sycophant, I would remind him that Mr Bolton has a reckless approach to advancing the safety and security of Americans – far outside any political party.

One significant point, which is being made by a number of analysts who have watched Bolton closely, is that while Trump is a pure isolationist, Bolton, according to conservatives, believes in ‘preventive war.’ While the US President was a critic of the Iraq war, Bolton has defended it. In a tweet in 2013, Trump had stated:

All former Bush administration officials should have zero standing on Syria. Iraq was a waste of blood & treasure.

How is Bolton’s appointment viewed in South Asia Continue reading

India’s near-abroad: Iran’s regional moves

Close attention was paid by sections of India’s strategic community (and understandably so) to the statement of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Javad Zarif, during his visit to Pakistan, in which he extended an invitation to Pakistan to join the ambitious Chabahar Project (about 70 kilometres from China’s ambitious Gwadar Project).

Zarif, while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), stated:

We offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chahbahar

He further went on to state that Iran’s ties with India were not in any way targeted at Pakistan, just as Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh were not against Iran.

Surprise in India

This invitation surprised many in India, given the fact that it has provided financial assistance for Phase 1 of the project and will operate two berths. During Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in February 2018, one of the tangible outcomes was the lease contract signed by IPGL (Indian Port Global Limited) and Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization, for operating Phase 1 (Shahid Beheshti Port) over an 18-month period. The joint statement also made a clear reference to India’s unwavering commitment to the Chabahar-Zahedan Rail Line, which will enable transportation of goods all the way up to the Afghan border. The Indian side also stated that it would like to see Chabahar as part of the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor). The INSTC will help in connecting India to Russia and Europe, via Iran.

Chabahar as India’s answer to Gwadar

Many in India have looked at Chabahar as India’s answer to the Gwadar Project, and of course its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The project is especially important to New Delhi because it enables India to bypass Pakistan, which has flatly refused to give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2016, during Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Iran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan had signed a three nation transport and transit corridor pact to enhance connecitivity. While leaders of all three countries spoke about the relevance of this agreement in the context of connectivity, the Iranian President had made it clear that it was not targeted at anyone. Said Rouhani:

[This pact is] not against any other country […] it is beneficial to the entire region.

India also sent a consignment of wheat (15,000 tonnes) to Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port in 2017. The shipment was dispatched from Kandla (Gujarat, India) and reached Chabahar in Iran. From Chabahar it was transported by road to Nimroz Province in Afghanistan.

India’s response

Replying to Zarif’s statements in a press briefing, India’s Spokesman Raveesh Kumar stated that:

[It is the] prerogative of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to choose its partners for the development of infrastructure facilities there.

Kumar also explained the strategic relevance of the project given its geo-political importance.

India-Iran ties beyond the Chabahar Port

Ever since the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries, business linkages – and not just the Chabahar Project – between Iran and India have gotten a fillip. In 2017, India’s oil imports from Iran went up to 4.37 million barrel per day, even though there was a dip between April-December 2017 due to tensions between both countries on the Farzand B gas field. (Iran was supposed to award the gas field to India, but there have been differences on terms and conditions.) During Rouhani’s visit, both countries decided to address the obstacles related to banking and taxation, in order to bring about closer economic linkages.

Iran has thus emerged as an important strategic and trade partner for India.

What may have surprised sections of Indian government, along with its strategic thinkers, would be the Iranian invitation given to Pakistan, in spite of bilateral tensions between the two. In May 2017, for example, the Iranian Army Chief, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, had threatened to strike terror camps in Baluchistan (Pakistan) after the killing of ten Iranian guards by Jaish-Al-Adl in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Said Baqeri:

[…] unless Pakistan control[s] the borders, arrest[s] the terrorist[s] and shut[s] down their bases […] we will hit their safe havens and cells wherever they are.

Since then tensions between the United States and Iran have also risen, and the latter has a close relationship with China. This has reshaped the Pakistan-Iran dynamic.

New Delhi’s real challenge

The real challenge for India in the near future is the hawkish stand of US President Donald Trump’s most recent appointee: Michael Pompeo (who was earlier head of the CIA, a main American intelligence agency). Trump is also likely to replace his current National Security Advisor, HR Mcmaster, and one possible replacement is John Bolton (former US Ambassador to the United Nations), a known hawk on Iran.

Pompeo would go along with Trump, and have no qualms in scrapping the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, the next date when the issue comes up for consideration.

Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had differed with Trump on this issue on more than one occasion. During the election campaign, Trump had criticized the Nuclear Agreement. He had dubbed the agreement a ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. In an address to a Pro-Israel Lobby group, AIPAC, the US President had gone to the extent of stating that dismantling the deal would be his first priority.

Tillerson, no dove on Iran by any stretch of imagination, had categorically stated that dismantling the deal was not in US interests, though the US President disagreed. Commenting on their disagreements about Iran, Trump had stated:

When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible […] it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.

Tillerson was closely working with European countries to rework the deal, and address some of the Trump administration’s concerns.

The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, has also predicted that Trump will walk out of the Deal: “The Iran deal will be another issue that’s coming up in May, and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.”

More aggressive Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is likely to become more aggressive after the exit of Tillerson. In fact, on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s arrival in the US, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, criticized the Iran Nuclear deal. Said the Saudi Foreign Minister:

Our view of the nuclear deal is that it’s a flawed agreement.

During the Saudi Prince’s visit, Trump too did not miss out on an opportunity to lambast the Iran nuclear agreement. While commenting on the future of the deal, the US President stated:

The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen […] Iran hasn’t been treating that part of the world, or the world appropriately.

According to the Arab News it was also decided that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US would set up a trilateral security forum which would look not just at issues pertaining to Middle East and Iran, but also South Asia.

Conclusion

India would be advised to be cautious, and while some sections the Right have been ecstatic with Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan (not to mention China), New Delhi needs to be prepared for some turbulence as a consequence of the recent changes within the Trump Administration. New Delhi needs to articulate its strategic and economic interests in Iran, not just to the US, but also to Saudi Arabia. In the past, the US has not objected to Iran’s close ties with India, but it remains to be seen whether or not Trump and his team will exhibit flexibility and pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran.

New Delhi has a myriad of foreign policy challenges, and Trump’s rigidity towards Iran is likely to be a major one in the near future.