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.
On October 25, 2018 Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended Parliament (till November 16, 2018) and sacked his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with Mahindra Rajapaksa (who served as President of Sri Lanka for a decade, from 2005 till 2015). Sirisena had wrested power from Rajapaksa in 2015. Wickremesinghe decided to battle it out, saying that Sirisena’s decision was illegal since none of the conditions under which a Prime Minister can be removed, under provisions 46(2) and 48 of parliament were applicable to the current situation. Rajapaksa announced that the President will reconvene Parliament on November 5, 2018.
Rajapaksa has been gaining ground in recent months
First, Rajapaksa, who had been written off totally, set up a new political outfit, SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna), which performed well in the local elections of February 2018.
More recently, Sirisena, who was initially considered Pro-China, accused Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) of meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs and plotting his assassination. He supposed to have denied this in a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As President, Rajapaksa had a close relationship with China (there were allegations of a Chinese company even providing financial assistance for his campaign) and New Delhi was relieved to see his back.
The strategically important Hambantota Port Project was awarded to the Chinese during Rajapaksa’s presidency. China provided assistance to the tune of $190 million, and Sri Lanka had to lease out the project for a period of 99 years to Beijing in 2017, since debts to Beijing are mounting (total Sri Lankan debts to China are estimated at $13 billion). The Hambantota Project is now presented as a symbol of what has been referred to on more than one occasion as China’s debt trap diplomacy.
It would be pertinent to point out that the project had first been offered to New Delhi in 2010, but India declined stating that the project was not economically sustainable.
It would also be pertinent to point out here that, after his removal, Rajapaksa has made some statements in favor of close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. Indian PM Narendra Modi has met him on both his visits to Sri Lanka. In September 2018 Rajapaksa was himself in New Delhi.
How to approach the China factor
While there is no clarity as to how long this new arrangement will last in Sri Lanka, there are some broader issues which need to be dealt with.
The first question which arises is: should New Delhi view China’s involvement with suspicion or work jointly? While there is absolutely no doubt that, in recent years, India too has tried to come up with its own responses to the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia. This includes promoting greater connectivity within South Asian countries through the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) framework on the one hand, while also exploring synergies with Japan in order to check Beijing’s growing clout on the other. This includes not just cooperation under the umbrella of Japan’s PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) initiative, but also in areas like infrastructure and energy (two key instances being the metro project in Dhaka, where India’s Larsen & Toubro and Japanese companies are working jointly for developing Line 6, as well as an LNG terminal in Sri Lanka where Petronet and Japanese companies are making a joint investment to the tune of $300 million).
During Wuhan Summit one of the important issues discussed was that India and China will work together in Afghanistan (only recently both countries set up a joint training program for Afghan Diplomats). Pakistan has been trying to obstruct any big ticket cooperation between both countries, and that is cited as one of the main reasons why Beijing is shying away from any big ticket investments into a joint project in Afghanistan.
If Japan and China can work together in connectivity projects (Japan has even expressed its willingness to join the BRI), as was discussed during Abe’s recent China visit, New Delhi and Beijing too can explore certain instances where they work together. It would be pertinent to point out that the Global Times made an interesting argument in favor of New Delhi and Beijing working in tandem for Sri Lanka’s infrastructural development. While this may appear to be a pipedream currently, in the long run it can not be ruled out given the changing geopolitical equations.
Apart from this, there are clear lessons for New Delhi: that it should not put all eggs in one basket, and realize that certain leaders will have good relations with China. A former Diplomat, Ashok Kantha, who was India’s envoy to Sri Lanka, made the point that India needed to stop looking at domestic politics from a lens of ‘Pro-India and Pro-China’, as this is too simplistic.
While India was apprehensive about the election of K.P. Oli as Nepalese Prime Minister, he has been speaking about close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. During his visit to China in June 2018, Oli spoke about the possibility of Nepal emerging as a bridge between China and India.
In conclusion, New Delhi has to watch out for it’s own interests in South Asia, and should certainly ensure that no country has a stranglehold, but paranoia will be of no use. India needs to come up with viable alternatives to the BRI, while also being open to cooperation, as and when feasible. Apart from this, New Delhi needs to realize that countries in the neighborhood will give precedence to their own interests and even if they do maintain close economic linkages with China, it is not always targeted at India.
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
- The Cause and Mechanisms of American De-Industrialization John Mueller, Law & Liberty
- Against moral crusades Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- A test with Imran Khan Nitin Pai, Pragati Express
- The De-Industrialization of the U.S.: A String of Enlightening Fallacies Jacques Delacroix, NOL
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.
Many analysts (internal and external) believed that the 2018 election would be a tough fight with the PTI (Pakistan-Tehreek-I-Insaaf) having a slight edge (as a consequence of support from Pakistan’s deep state). Surveys also predicted a close fight (the importance of undecided voters was highlighted in all of these) with the PTI having a slight edge.
Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan, along with daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, in spite of both facing jail terms, was thought of by many as a gamble which could have been a game changer in Punjab. Sharif returned to Pakistan, leaving his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz in London, and this, many believed, would help PML-N (PTI’s chief rival) in securing sympathy votes.
Ultimately, the PTI actually romped home quite comfortably, and emerged as the single largest party with 119 parliamentary seats, while the PML-N was a distant second with 63 seats (PML-N did emerge as the single largest party in the provincial election) and the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) was at the third position.
Imran Khan’s India Policy
While there has been a lot of focus on the support which PTI has received from the army, there is also curiosity about what sort of policy Imran Khan will follow vis-à-vis India. It has been argued that the Indian establishment is not particularly comfortable with Imran Khan (who, unlike Sharif, may not challenge the Pakistan army’s India policy). The Indian High Commission in Islamabad is supposed to have been in touch with some of his close advisors (every government keeps channels of communications open with all political forces, and there is nothing unusual about this) in the run up to the elections.
At this stage, it is very tough to predict Imran Khan’s precise approach towards India. On the one hand, he has made belligerent statements against India, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being soft on India. While speaking in 2016, Khan had stated:
‘Our premier [Nawaz Sharif], instead of raising voice [for Kashmiris], is busy in making his business flourish there.
On another occasion he had taken a dig at Nawaz Sharif, saying that not every Pakistani is more concerned about his business than his country.
In fact, a day before the polls, Khan stated that Nawaz Sharif was more concerned about India’s interests and was even willing to discredit Pakistan’s army, which is why India preferred him.
How seriously should we take Imran Khan’s rhetoric
In the past few elections, including Nawaz Sharif’s triumphs in 1997 and 2013, anti-India propaganda did not find much traction, and the PML-N itself has indulged in anti-India rhetoric. So Khan’s statements should not be taken seriously.
These statements are very common in Pakistan politics. We have to separate political rhetoric from what he actually does when he is in power.
No substantial headway can be expected over the next few months, between both countries, given the mammoth geopolitical and economic challenges which Imran Khan is facing. On the Indian side too, no grand gesture can be expected, given the fact that elections are to be held in May 2019. Backdoor diplomacy, of course, cannot be ruled out. A meeting between Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is also a possibility.
In the long run however, there could be some movement forward. In his first address to the Pakistani people, Imran Khan spoke in favor of resolving contentious issues through dialogue, while also pitching for closer economic linkages and jointly combating poverty.
In a media interview recently, he stated:
If you have a good relationship with India, it opens up trade, and trade with a huge market. Both countries would benefit.
PTI has made strong inroads into Punjab, and the business community of the province has been in favour of closer economic ties with India for sometime.
Imran’s familiarity with India
During Khan’s address to the Pakistani people, he also spoke about his familiarity with India, as well as personal ties through his cricketing career.
In 2015, during his visit to India, Imran met with PM Modi and backed peace initiatives between both countries. During his visit, Imran also met with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (who he praised) and, in the past, he has had kind words for Nitish Kumar’s governance.
Even some of Khan’s close advisors, like former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and current Vice President of PTI Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who also served as Foreign Minister during the PPP government led by Asif Ali Zardari), are experienced and are familiar with India. Kasuri has numerous personal friendships in India, Qureshi, an agriculturalist, was president of the Farmers Association of Pakistan and has strong links in Indian Punjab.
Pakistan is facing numerous internal challenges and it is virtually impossible to comment on how things will pan out in the context of India-Pakistan ties. A lot will, however, depend upon the intent of the Pakistan army, as well as ties between Imran Khan and the army, and the role which both China and the United States play in South Asia. While Imran Khan’s initial overtures should be welcomed, it is best to wait and watch and not prophesize, as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned.