The strikingly silly hoo-ha on Indian television over the non-event of the quip-a-second cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu – a rank made-for-television entertainer and Punjab government minister, embracing the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the swearing-in ceremony of a fellow cricketer, Imran Khan, as Prime Minister – only reveals how easily something so trivial can be transformed into jingoistic excess.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a letter to his incoming Pakistani counterpart, has welcomed Khan’s assuming power as an opportunity to reset bilateral ties.
The operative parts of Imran Khan’s optimistic messages are his hinting at trade as the ‘Open Sesame’ to a genuine rapprochement between the two countries of the subcontinent, and the need to resume dialogue to resolve the Kashmir dispute.
What exactly is so offensive or untoward about this? Surely, it is nobody’s case that ramping up bilateral growth and economic and investment interlinks won’t improve the chances of peace, and ensure it becomes the new normal in South Asia.
In fact, it was the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad Ajay Bisaria who in May this year talked of potential annual trade of $30 billion if only the Pakistan government eased up on its regime of restrictions.
A good part of this trade would involve the formalisation of the indirect ‘switch trade’ that presently takes place with Indian consumer goods of all kinds – marked for export to Dubai on merchant ship manifests, offloaded with the same ships anchoring outside the immediate Karachi waters.
The annual loss of revenue to the Pakistan exchequer from this informal channel is in billions of dollars. It is money the Tehreek-e-Insaf party government can use to fulfil its election promises in the social welfare sector. After all, Pakistan’s hard currency reserves dwindling to less than $9 billion cannot but worry Imran Khan to conniptions.
So, there’s every incentive for Islamabad to accept the formalisation of the informal Indo-Pak trade. And here is the new Pakistan PM talking about just this, and generally about open trade tempering a needlessly rancorous relationship.
It is a promising opening that the Bharatiya Janata Party government, if it has any strategic sense, should jump at widening by:
- adopting a facilitative mindset,
- initiating enabling measures,
- clearing lines of credit and approving banking channels, and
- preemptively easing the processes of encouraging commerce.
That said, it is also clear that General Headquarters in Rawalpindi is no more likely to terminate its terrorism leverage it can utilise to keep the Indian armed forces and government distracted, than India giving up on supporting Baluch freedom fighters to keep the Pakistan army committed and unsettled – as revealed by Prime Minister Modi in his 2016 Independence Day address from the Red Fort.
Covert options will be nursed by both sides until such time as they both decide that their favoured jihadis/freedom fighters are more trouble than they are worth.
This won’t happen any time soon, however.
In any case, which country does what first before the dialogue caravan begins rolling becomes moot once both capitals seriously assess what’s at stake.
The chief beneficiaries of a squabbling India and Pakistan are China and the United States.
They are able to play off the South Asian states against each other, egging on one and then the other, to serve their distinct national interests.
For instance, the US has been vocal about its anti-terrorism stance but Washington has time and again made plain—and this has not been paid attention to by Delhi—that their concern is mainly with Pakistan assisting the Afghan Taliban factions fighting the NATO forces in that country, and not with Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, or Hafiz Saeed.
Consider China: The so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is increasingly recognised by Pakistanis as a debt trap that would permit the Chinese to put down roots and redo the ‘East India Company’ scene from some 300 years ago.
An exclusive, heavily guarded, colony to house the 50,000 strong Chinese labour force working on CPEC is coming up in Gwadar, and resembles the small fortified trading post the British set up in Surat with a firman secured by the British ambassador Sir Thomas Roe from Emperor Jehangir some four centuries ago.
What may transpire in the years to come cannot be anything but disastrous for Pakistan.
What is certain, however, is that the Belt and Road Initiative, of which CPEC is part, will load Pakistan with debt amounting to over $90 billion on the original $46 billion credit funding by Chinese banks.
While Imran Khan has no choice other than to assure Beijing about his government’s commitment to CPEC, he can’t be unmindful of how Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and related infrastructure project has panned out. In lieu of Colombo’s inability to service the debt, China has secured a 99-year lease for it.
Other Asian states are awakening to the danger that easily available Chinese credit portends. The prospect of unpayable debt and subsequent Chinese takeover has motivated Myanmar, for instance, to limit its risk and financial exposure by reducing the Chinese stake in its Kyakpau seaport multi-nodal project from $7.6 billion to $1.3 billion, and Malaysia to simply terminate two Chinese-funded projects worth $22 billion.
Wouldn’t a desperate Pakistan, if offered half a chance, grasp eagerly at an alternative?
How India Benefits from Open Trade
The vast and cascading benefits of open trade with India are:
- The multiplying revenues generated by allowing India’s Central Asia and Afghanistan trade to access the Karachi-Peshawar highway.
- The royalty on gas piped through the 1,814 kilometre long, north-south Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline that India has signed up for and expected to transfer 33 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
- The $7 billion plus 2,135 kilometre long, west-east Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline terminating in Barmer, which will shift 30 million standard cubic meters each of natural gas per day to India and to Pakistan.
This is the scale of energy that both India and Pakistan desperately require to fuel their economic progress.
The supreme tragedy is that the strategically handicapped and permanently shortsighted Indian governments, particularly in the new century, have sacrificed the greater strategic good for the trivial satisfaction of discomfiting Pakistan and in the process pushing the latter more seriously into the China orbit.
It is an endless action-reaction sequence with Pakistan, in turn, always ready to cut off its nose to spite India’s face. So China gains.
Apparently, the Indian government is quite sanguine about Pakistan emerging, in the decades ahead, as a full-fledged Chinese colony and a Chinese People’s Liberation Army military base, and does not care to do anything positive to head off this eventuality.
Who Did PM Hug in China Alongside?
The irony couldn’t be missed: Just as the Siddhu-Bajwa hug was unnecessarily creating heat and fogging up the Indo-Pak picture, prime minister Modi was meeting with General Wei Fenghe, Chinese defence minister and former commander of the PLA Rocket Force, and saying soothing things, like “Maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas is indicative of the sensitivity and maturity with which India and China handle their differences, not allowing them to become disputes” and referring to Sino-Indian relations as “a factor of stability in the world”.
He went on to praise the “increased momentum” of high-level contacts, including in the defence sphere.
What must Wei make of this except that Modi, like previous PMs, is a sap?
Have any Chinese leaders ever gone dreamily overboard in their rhetoric the way their Indian counterparts routinely do?
And this when, in reality, China is the gravest security challenge that India faces but, ostrich-like with its head buried in the sand, it refuses to even acknowledge. It is seemingly convinced, in the manner Nehru was vis-a-vis Mao’s China, that to act adversarially towards China is to make an enemy of it.
It is a line, incidentally, that Mandarin-speaking Indian diplomats continue to profess, and which Modi, to his great demerit, has bought into.
So, let’s set the scene: There is an unresolved border with China that the PLA periodically violates at will with small incursions that number in the hundreds every year and, occasionally in more conspicuous actions such as at Dok La in the summer of 2017 or previously in Demchok. Secret Chinese military documents mention the need to once again “teach India a lesson”.
On the world stage, China consistently trips India up diplomatically and undermines Indian interests, and because Delhi has put a premium on it, prevents the possibility of this country becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Further, it exploits India’s open market to exacerbate India’s balance of payments problem in excess of $70 billion annually owing to unbalanced trade.
And China has initiated a ‘hybrid war’ with India (using persistent cyber attacks), bulked up its military capabilities on the 4,000 kilometre-long Line of Actual Control and formed the secret ‘Fourth Fleet’ specifically to counter this country's control of the Indian Ocean with permanent bases in Djibouti and Gwadar.
And still, the Indian government agrees to military exchanges and joint war exercises with the PLA and is committed to interminable talks concerning the undelineated border!
What Modi Govt Can Do
Why doesn’t the Modi government then adopt the same approach to Pakistan, which has problems with India that are similar to those China does but on a far smaller scale that can do this country less harm, when dealing with China can do India no end of harm?
Why not restart a dialogue on an open-ended basis with Islamabad to:
- resolve the Kashmir issue,
- open the Indian markets to Pakistani trade, and
- have high-level military exchanges and joint war games with the Pakistan military.
Meanwhile, Indian and Pakistani troops on the LoC can continue gunning it out if they must, and ISI and RAW can keep at their covert operations.
The returns for India from having a more catholic and multi-pronged Pakistan policy of talks at the government level, unhindered two-way trade and cultural and sports exchanges, and small arms duels on the LoC will beat by miles any good that being pals with China will ever do.
Modiji, Ajit Dovalji, keep your eyes on the strategic ball – worry about the China threat bearing down on this country. But first, stop jumping on to the table every time the Pakistani mouse squeaks.
Bharat Karnad is Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, and author most recently of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
(This story was first published on BloombergQuint and has been republished with permission.)
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