Kaleidoscope changes in South Asia
The month of March, 2021 brought cautious optimism in many areas, particularly South Asia. After Trump, the Biden administration in the U.S is re-thinking its strategy in all spheres. Talks between the Chinese and the U.S Government were held. Trade disputes were inaugurated and both sides are willing to engage. On the South China Sea dispute, Biden commented that he is not anti-China but the world democracies will ensure the China plays by the rules. On 14th March, a grand summit of the “Quad” was held; U.S, India, Australia and Japan where mutual interests and strategies to contain Chinese expansion were put in open display. It is a new kind of Cold War. By a stark difference, the Cold War with the Soviets was based on a group of nations who were blocked out by an iron curtain of Moscow under the Communist Soviet regime, this time the Western world faces China, which is in itself, a champion of open market capitalism and economy. China is determined to be the most powerful and the wealthiest. The American alliances such as NATO and the Quad are being re-invigorated. Unlike Trump, America is re-entering global politics assuming the position of leader, it lost in the previous years. Biden is bolstering a wholistic approach. In the larger perspective, South Asia is suddenly under the microscope and the dynamics of the last five years are rapidly changing.
First and foremost, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and China are forming a new alliance. The 400 Billion Dollar uplift package for Iran by China is a one of its kind. Earlier, China has already entered a historic partnership with Pakistan through the 62 Billion Dollar CPEC and OBOR program, which is in full swing owing to relative political stability. The whole world saw Pakistan and Turkey join hands in multiple cultural, technological and strategic partnerships. The Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict tested the mettle of this relationship. Now, Turkey is joining the bloc. Iran is spearheading the objective, changing the perspective on Turkey. The initiation of Tehran-Istanbul-Islamabad rail network is a living example of this co-operation. Pakistan is central to this alliance. With these diplomatic ties, China is fostering an influence that even Europe and the U.S cannot match. If Azerbaijan joins this team, the Central Asian markets will be dominated by strong influence of these nations.
Secondly, as a surprise revelation, India and Pakistan issued joint statements in March confirming to abide by ceasefire agreement of 2003. Out of nowhere, the UAE Government revealed that a secret peace roadmap has been put in place between Pakistan and India. Following the announcement, the heads of Military Operations scheduled meetings and ceasefire regulations were assured. When Imran Khan contracted Covid-19, Narendra Modi issued a letter wishing him well. Next, both sides showed commitments to promote peace and mutual respect. Talks on Indus water treaty are also on the table. Further, it has been signaled that resuming Trade and diplomatic negotiations on Kashmir is the next agenda for Islamabad and New Delhi. The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah made visits to both countries and the achievement was congratulated by the King Sheikh Mohammad. It begs the question, what is in it for UAE? For starters, UAE intends to emerge as a leading nation in the Middle East replacing Saudi Arabia and its hardline approach towards diplomacy. In recent times, UAE has moved closer to United States than any other country especially after its ties with Israel. Momentous military and technology assistance programs have been signed between UAE, U.S and Israel. UAE has even exhorted smaller countries like Bahrain to recognize Israel, something Netanyahu could not achieve for many years. Also, the recognition of Israel has sent waves of betrayal and negativity in the Muslim world against UAE, any effort to improve that image sends a message of responsibility and significance. In addition to that, UAE has championed its tolerance and acceptance of global values. The country promotes negotiation and talks in the region and radicalization and conflict is hurtful in multiple scenarios as 80% of UAE’s workforce is based on foreigners, mainly from South Asia. The Americans have been striving hard to make progress in brokering a peace deal between Pakistan and India so that anti-war efforts in Afghanistan can be bolstered. Yet another area where Biden faces a deadlock.
For many years, Washington repeated the lines “do more” for Pakistan. The Americans considered that the Pakistan Government is in some way supporting the Taliban destabilize the Karzai Government because Kabul was forming deep strategic ties with India. In time, it has been proved that Karzai has been ineffective in managing Afghan Government forces and limiting the influence of the Taliban through development. The key to lasting peace lies with Pakistan and its ability to broker an agreement with people of the Tribal belt. The Biden administration considers diplomacy between Pakistan and India as pre-cursor to Pakistan involvement in withholding peace in Afghanistan. It must be remembered that Biden’s election campaign included bringing back American troops and further decreasing expenditures on war efforts. UAE is acting on behalf of the Americans and bringing Pakistan and India on the table so that Americans are in a better position to solve the Afghanistan paradox. It appears that conflict in South Asia favors no one at the moment, not even the Taliban.
China needs Pakistan to launch its expansion in Asia. Tehran is the second tier in its global program of trade, development and diplomatic ties. On the converse side, the Americans need Pakistan for delivering supplies, support and negotiation for American interests in Afghanistan. After Iraq, the Americans are in no position to engineer another war, or prolonging a war effort that has failed to achieve its objectives after a decade. India is being pressured by the U.S through its allies to consider its position on human rights and ties with Pakistan while offering a closer partnership against China. In careful consideration, China is growing beyond estimates by U.S and Europe, and in a neutral analysis, the world as of today, needs China to spearhead economic growth, trade, commerce and technological exchange. The vision of Xi Jinping to connect the world and lead by example in economic boom through uplifting millions out of poverty, is a truly remarkable idea. China is the largest economy of the world, India is the biggest democracy of the world and America is the still the greatest military might in human history and all these countries are connected to Pakistan and larger South Asia to enhance their most precious national agenda. It is indeed, a historic time. The events that are unfolding now, will have repercussions for decades to come. There is immense potential in these changes. There is a wind of transformation and a zest to alter the old ways. The power struggle between these mighty countries can determine the fate of billions of people. Once again, there is “cautious optimism”, that this time there will be a discourse of mutual respect, trust and co-existence and remembrance of the terrible circumstances and humiliations that were faced in the wake of the Cold War, and there will never be another Vietnam and Bosnia. Overall, the situation in South Asia and the region is similar to a kaleidoscope in transition and new angles emerging with each passing day, and it is expected that this transitional phase will continue till a new equilibrium of power and balance is reached.
The writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation.