Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, while issuing a statement with regard to India’s air strikes on a training camp of the dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad (JeM) in Pakistan on February 26, 2019, dubbed these as pre-emptive ‘non-military strikes’. The Foreign Secretary stated that the Indian Air Force hit the largest training camp of the JeM, which is in Balakot, Pakistan, and a large number of JeM terrorists were killed in the strike.
The rising tensions between both countries have understandably caught the world’s attention.
JeM had claimed responsibility for the dastardly terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14, 2019 in which over 40 CRPF soldiers were killed. While efforts have been made to designate JeM chief a ‘global terrorist’ at the UN, China has blocked such moves.
The Indian side also made it clear that these air strikes were neither targeted at civilians nor at the Pakistani military. This served two purposes; one it would prevent further escalation and second, it could give some space to Imran Khan’s civilian government.
The international community was quick to react to the attacks by the Indian Air Force (IAF), and asked both sides to de-escalate. The US, while asking Pakistan to take action against terror groups on their soil, also stated that both sides should de-escalate. In a statement issued on February 26, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also asked Foreign Ministers of both countries to resume direct communication and avoid any ‘further military activity’.
A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also spoke in favour of India and Pakistan exercising ‘restraint’ and the need for peace and stability in South Asia. Even during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing, a day after the strikes, China, while condemning terrorism, emphasized on the need for reduction of tensions. It did not change.
Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received full support from the opposition, including the Congress Party. The President of the Congress Party was quick to tweet and congratulated the Indian Air Force. Even other prominent political leaders supported the IAF.
The Indian PM did not miss the opportunity to mention the IAF’s action at a political rally. While speaking at a rally in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Modi paid homage to the para-military troops who died in the February 14 terrorist attack, and also made a reference to the action of the Indian Air Force:
…I want to assure you that the country is in safe hands.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also met with opposition leaders from different political parties on February 26, 2019. This was in stark contrast to the surgical strikes in 2016 on terror camps in Uri (located in PoK).
Some BJP spokespersons also made unnecessary uncalled for statements. (The BJP did issue instructions to its spokespersons to not issue any uncalled for statements).
Risks of escalation and Indian media
Sections of the Indian electronic media went overboard as usual, something which has been witnessed post 26/11.
While media channels may believe they are raising patriotic fervour, pushing the PTI government led by Imran Khan and the Pakistani army into a wall may not be a very smart move. As mentioned earlier, the usage of the word ‘non-military’ strike was meant to give space to the Pakistan government.
Post the attack, Imran Khan was criticised by the opposition and will be under pressure. His immediate reaction was that Pakistan would respond at a time and place of its choice and also asked the Pakistani nation to be prepared for all eventualities.
Post the Pulwama attack, a well-known Indian strategic analyst had made an important point:
The Pakistani army might be more likely to start a war if its image takes too hard a beating in the eyes of the Pakistani people, than if it suffers physical damage outside the limelight.
It is not just the electronic media, but the narrative on social media which further raises tempers.
Bobby Ghosh, a prominent journalist, made an interesting comment on Twitter:
People keep saying the India-Pakistan conflict is more dangerous now because both have nukes. But other new weapons greatly increase the risk: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp… and hyper-nationalistic TV networks.
Not just the international community, but even sane minds in India and Pakistan realise the costs of conflict, and have been pitching for de-escalation. Apart from the role of the international community, a lot will also depend upon domestic narratives in both countries. While the Modi government received the support of the opposition post the Pulwama terror attack, it needs to focus now on not just taking all political players along but also ensuring that tensions do not rise further as things could go out of control. The media on its part needs to be more responsible, and as for the social media, a lot of it is driven by the views of the political leadership. The political leadership will thus need to change the direction of the narrative, so that tempers are calmed down.
Thousands of Islamists have pressured the Pakistani government to keep in jail a woman who was just acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Two European countries have offered to take her in.
Her lawyer has fled the country in fear for his life.
She was acquitted of blasphemy. Yes, speaking ill of the Prophet… or something. In Pakistan, they kill you for this.
The woman is a frail mother of several in her fifties. She is a landless agricultural worker by trade. She is a Christian in a country that is 98% Muslim.
If she did anything resembling blasphemy, she should be released for reason of insanity anyway. How could such a person so provoke her bloodthirsty neighbors and not be mad?
The silence of “moderate Muslims” on this case is making me deaf.
Yes, much of Western public opinion is Islamophobic. Perhaps the spectacle of thousands of bearded adult males demanding that a slight woman who has been declared not guilty of this grotesque “crime” be hanged, perhaps, it does not help.
On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.
It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.
Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.
The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading
Abdul Razak Dawood, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Adviser on Commerce, Textile, Industry & Production and Investment, told the Financial Times that the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz ) government did not get a good deal for Pakistan in CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and that Pakistan has lost out as a result of poor negotiations.
Dawood also made the point that some of the CPEC projects could be put on hold for a year, and CPEC can be stretched up to five years. Said Dawood: ‘Perhaps we can stretch CPEC out over another five years or so.’
Interestingly, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent Pakistan visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, assured the former that Pakistan would accord high priority to CPEC — which was of immense economic and strategic importance for Pakistan. Qureshi also stated that projects would be implemented at the earliest outset. Even the normally outspoken Pakistan Finance Minister, Asad Umar, was cautious, and categorically said that ‘We don’t intend to handle this process like Mahathir.’ Imran Khan also met with Wang Yi, and a statement from the Pakistani side read as follows:
‘The Prime Minister reiterated that the Government is committed to the implementation of the CPEC.’
Wang Yi on his part emphasized on the fact that CPEC was not responsible for Pakistan’s debts. He also stated that Beijing was willing to re-negotiate a Free Trade Agreement which, according to many in Pakistan, was heavily skewed in favour of China and has faced domestic opposition.
During the course of a meeting between the Planning, Development and Reforms Commission of Pakistan and the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC) of China, two interesting aspects were added to the existing agreement. The first, that third countries would be allowed to invest in the upcoming 9 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of CPEC. The Chinese delegation during the meeting is supposed to have conveyed the point that it was open to investment from countries which were friendly to both Pakistan and China to invest in the SEZs. Some of the potential countries discussed were Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia
Second, ‘social sector’ schemes and regional development schemes were added to the existing CPEC projects. Social sector schemes include drinking water, health, education, and technical training. The inclusion of these areas was done keeping in mind the priorities of the current government.
Is a significant re-think towards CPEC possible?
There is no doubt that Islamabad’s dependence upon China would have increased as a consequence of its current economic situation and it’s deteriorating ties with Washington (days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Islamabad, military aid to the tune of $300 million was withdrawn). Yet, some re-think vis-à-vis CPEC can not be ruled out because a number of Pakistani politicians have expressed discomfort with the lack of transparency regarding the project.
Transparency with regard to the CPEC project
When in opposition, Imran had himself spoken about the need for greater transparency and openness with regard to the project. Before the elections in July 2018, many analysts argued that the Chinese would be far more comfortable with parties like the PPP and the PML-N as opposed to Imran Khan.
The protests of Khan and his party (PTI) against the previous PML-N government were also viewed with skepticism by the Chinese who believed that these protests would be detrimental to the progress of the project. Khan during his meeting, in 2016, with the Chinese Envoy to Pakistan tried to address the apprehensions of the Chinese by saying he was all for the project.
One of the objections of Pakistani politicians from Non-Punjabi provinces (across parties), as well as analysts, was that the project was Punjab Centric. In November 2017, members from the Senate, including the then-ruling party, PML-N, had spoken about the lack of transparency of CPEC, and had also alluded to the fact that China was benefitting at Pakistan’s expense.
Apart from domestic politics, the firm stance taken by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad with regard to some Chinese projects (the Malaysian PM scrapped projects worth $20 billion) is also important and has forced a rethink in Pakistan . An editorial in Dawn titled ‘Rearranging CPEC’ also cited Mahathir’s stance against Chinese projects. While it is unlikely that Pakistan may follow suit as was stated by the Finance Minister, Asad Umar, as well as by Abdul Razak Dawood himself (Dawood in fact had to clarify that his remarks with regard to CPEC had been quoted out of context), there will be groups in Pakistan (especially members of the business community) who could nudge the current government towards tweaking the CPEC agreement further as well as resetting the Pakistan-China economic relationship to some extent.
China itself can not afford to ignore Mahathir’s stance, as well as his statement about the rise of a ‘new colonialism’. The address of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Africa-China Summit, as well as Wang Yi’s statements during his Pakistan visit, are clear indicators that China is not taking Mahathir’s statements lightly. Whether Imran Khan can be a Mahathir of course is a different issue.
Lack of options and GHQ
While there may be certain personalities within the current government who are making the right noises with regard to the CPEC project, Islamabad’s economic situation has reduced its options.
Apart from this, the Pakistan army (which runs the show when it comes to complex foreign policy issues) has robust ties with Beijing, and will prevent any drastic changes to the CPEC agreement. During his meeting with Wang Yi, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, assured the visiting Chinese Minister of full support. The Chinese also had a robust relationship with former Pakistan Army Chief, Raheel Sharif.
A re-think on CPEC, as well as Pakistan-China economic relations (highly unlikely in the short run), would benefit not just Pakistan, but could have broader ramifications, and may compel more countries to rethink their ties with China.
Mahathir Mohammad deserves credit for highlighting the shortcoming of China’s infrastructural projects as well as its economic ties with certain countries. This debate is not likely to die down soon, though not every country is in a position to take a bold stand like Mahathir. Imran Khan, in private, may be supporting Mahathir’s approach towards China, but can not afford to do so publicly.
The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”
The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:
[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.
“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.
“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.
“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”
Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.
So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).
That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.
All eyes are on how Imran Khan will fulfill the ambitious promises which he and his party (Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaaf, or PTI) have made for creating a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan). Khan, who will take his oath as Prime Minister on August 11, 2018, needs to hit the ground running given the myriad of economic (Pakistan’s external debt is well over $90 billion, and accounts for over 30 percent of the country’s GDP) and geopolitical challenges. As Pakistani senior officials were drawing up plans to approach the IMF for a loan (estimated at $12 billion), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the IMF that there is absolutely no justification for ‘IMF Dollars’ to bail out ‘Chinese bond holders’ or China.
Given the high expectations as well as the impatience amongst the youth, Khan is not likely to have a very long honeymoon period.
Pakistan-China relationship under PTI government
It will be interesting to see how the crucial Beijing-Islamabad relationship pans out under Imran Khan. During his first address (after his party’s victory) to the Pakistani nation, he dubbed the Pakistan-China relationship as the most important for Pakistan. Khan also emphasized the point that Pakistan had a lot to learn from China in the context of poverty alleviation, as well as the latter’s anti-corruption campaign.
China’s relationship with Imran Khan
In the past, Khan, while supporting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in principle, had expressed certain apprehensions during his meetings with Chinese diplomats. Khan had also stated that the government of Pakistan needs to be more transparent with regard to the contours of the project, and that each province should get it’s rightful due.
The Chinese in turn were uncomfortable with Khan’s dharna (protests) of 2014 (it was as a consequence of these protests that the inauguration of the CPEC Project had to be delayed). Khan’s 2016 protests against the Nawaz Sharif government (after the names of three of Sharif’s family members, who held offshore accounts, appeared in the Panama leaks) were also watched with skepticism by the Chinese.
It would be pertinent to point out that the PTI manifesto, while praising the project, has pointed to some of CPEC’s short comings, including investments as a consequence of ‘insufficient transfer of knowledge and capabilities, fewer partnerships with local businesses and Pakistan’s high dependence on imports of goods and services from China’.
PTI’s chief rival, the PML-N, often spoke about the need for an independent foreign policy, but never ever alluded to this aspect.
Beijing’s preference for PML-N
It would also be pertinent to point out that while Beijing has had problems with Pakistan, it has had a close relationship with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N. Beijing, which has maintained robust relations with the army, also shared cordial relations with Shehbaz Sharif, the President of PML-N and former Chief Minister of Punjab. China has praised Shehbaz Sharif for his efficiency more than one occasion, even referring to his style of working as ‘Shehbaz Speed’ and Punjab speed. When Shehbaz was appointed President of the PML-N, he received a congratulatory message from senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.
The PML-N also sought to take credit for the CPEC project on more than one occasion. In August 2016, while addressing a meeting of his party’s parliamentary committee, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated:
He [Xi Jinping] said this is a gift to you from China. They were also waiting for the time when our government would be in power so that they could make this investment.
Chinese Media’s comments on Imran Khan and CPEC
Post the election results, Chinese media has sought to be positive, and has been confident that the CPEC project will go ahead as planned. One op-ed published in the Global Times (‘Will Imran Khan pivot Pakistan from US to China’) referred to how the West was creating unnecessary paranoia with regard to the economic ramifications of the CPEC project. The op-ed also said that Imran Khan may take Pakistan further into the ‘Chinese orbit’ and that he had no problem with the CPEC project. The article cites the PTI manifesto to bolster its argument (saying that PTI has dubbed the project as a ‘game changer’). Other sections of the Chinese media have also welcomed Imran Khan’s election. Only one analyst, Tom Hussain, has categorically made the point that PTI had strained ties with China in the past. Said Hussain:
the PTI has been working overtime to repair its relations with the Beijing, which had been damaged by its disparaging remarks and allegations of corruption about CPEC projects in the past.
Likely developments in the short run
Imran Khan doesn’t have too many options, but there could be some re-examination of some of the CPEC projects. While Pakistan is now dependent upon China given Islamabad’s rock bottom ties with the US, the question on many people’s minds is if Khan can do a Mahathir (Malaysia’s Prime Minister), where maintaining good ties with China does not mean shying away from questioning the financial feasibility of certain projects within CPEC.
In the short run, this is impossible, and many would argue that even in the long run this may seem like nothing but a pipe dream. Yet, if Imran Khan can harness relations more effectively with neighbors (as he emphasized in his speech) and build a robust economic relationship with India (something which the Chinese may not mind), we could witness a course correction. One of the reasons why Nawaz Sharif advocated good ties with India was so that Pakistan could develop an independent foreign policy and end its dependence upon the US. One of Sharif’s slogans in 2013 was ‘Trade not Aid’. While Imran himself has spoken about trade ties with India, will the establishment allow him to go ahead.
Changing geopolitical dynamics in South Asia
If one were to look beyond economics, even in the context of Afghanistan, one of the significant developments in South Asia has been a decision by India and China to work jointly in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how Imran Khan’s government perceives this. India and Pakistan are also likely to participate jointly in anti-terror drills in Russia, in August 2018, under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
It is very tough to predict how Imran Khan handles ties with China, but one thing is for sure: Beijing may publicly be welcoming Khan’s election but from the opinion pieces in the Global Times, there is a worry deep down concerning his maverick nature. Imran, unlike the Sharif’s (who were businessmen), may not be as transactional in the economic sphere. His economic ideology is left-of-center (with a strong thrust on welfare). While he needs foreign direct investment, he is not as obsessive about mega projects as the Sharif’s.
Imran on his part will have numerous challenges to contend with, and needs to strike a fine balance. A less hostile relationship with the neighbors will benefit him, and a slightly less hostile relationship with the US would give him space. Given the plethora of challenges he is likely to face, no real changes should be expected in the context of Pakistan-China ties, though over a period of time, recalibration of policies should not be ruled out.