Changes in the Neighbourhood

Sub Title : India must take appropriate steps so that it can hold its own

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2021

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 35

Category : Geostrategy

: December 2, 2021

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has given a fillip to Pakistan’s anti India stance and consequent manifestations thereof and the Chinese continue to be relentless in their aggressive posturing against us. India must take appropriate steps  so that it can hold its own against the belligerent attitude of the two

The Neighbourhood

India has largely peaceful relations with most of her neighbours. However, we have had an almost permanently hostile relationship with Pakistan and a strained one with China – which has now turned adversarial. Changes have taken place in our near neighbourhood – Afghanistan – that have suddenly shifted regional equations in favour of Pakistan and China. It is quite likely that relations are likely to get even more volatile as both China and Pakistan are going through a period of churn, which could have long term implications. It is essential to understand the changes and the impact they could have on India and the region.

Perhaps the greatest geo-political shift has been in the manner in which Afghanistan has come back under Taliban sway. That has replaced a friendly regime in Afghanistan with a potentially hostile one which will not be favourably disposed to India’s interests. But after having taken over power, the Taliban are realising that governing a nation is far different from taking it over. With the cessation of Western aid (which contributed a whopping 35% of its GDP) and the blocking of $9 Billion worth of Afghan funds in overseas banks, the poverty stricken nation is faced with a situation where an estimated 8.7 million people could face acute starvation in the coming winter. India, like most of the world, has adopted a ‘wait and watch’ policy. But at the same time we have managed to keep our lines of communication with the Taliban open. We have also tried ensure that our reservoir of goodwill remains intact by sending in humanitarian aid – such as much needed wheat and grain to alleviate the shortages of the beleaguered people . Pakistan has continued it shenanigans to assert influence in Afghanistan. But the effects of what is happening there is slowly finding echo on its own soil. A similar wave of fundamentalism is arising in Pakistan, which coupled with its political and economic travails,  once again threatens to derail it.

Pakistan in churn – Again

While Pakistan has been celebrating its ‘victory’ in Afghanistan (One paper called it, ‘Pakistan’s 1971 Moment’) its repercussions  are coming to the fore. The victory of the Taliban has regalvanised the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which launched 24 strikes in the month of October alone. This off shoot of the Taliban could replicate the same reign of terror it had unleashed in Pakistan during 2004 – 13,unless it is checked. The governmental response to this wavers between promising to crush it and then offering general amnesty for its members.

But then religious and political fundamentalism is already on the rise, and as has happened so often before, the state has succumbed to it. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik, Pakistan , a hard-line fundamentalist party marched to Lahore and held the city in a state of siege demanding the release of their leader Saad Rizvi and other jailed  activists. They also demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador in protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s defence of the magazine Charlie Hebdo which had published ‘blasphemous’ anti-Islamic caricatures. Over 50000 TLP supporters blocked Lahore, and even killed four policemen with sub-machine guns.  The government first vowed not to budge, then got into talks with them through clerics, and after just twenty days, capitulated  altogether. Saad Rizvi and 2000 of his supporters were released. They also lifted the ban on the party and unfroze their accounts, while vaguely agreeing to let the French envoy remain. In return the TLP called off its march to Islamabad.

The wheel seems to have come a full circle. The Tehreek -e-Labbaik had been used by Imran Khan in 2017 to weaken the Nawaz Sharif government – with active connivance from the army. The fundamentalist party had also supported Imran Khan’s party Tehreek-e-Insaf Pakistan, to stich a majority in the Punjab Assembly and the National Assembly. Imran Khan’s government is now realising the cost it would have to pay for flirting with these groups. This time the army seems to have given tacit support to the TLP to weaken Imran Khan, as another fault line in Pakistan – Army-Government relations – seem to be getting strained.

Relations between Imran Khan, “The Selected PM” and the Army, have been under strain for a while, which came out in the open with the latest furore on the appointment of the new ISI Chief. The Army Chief, Gen Bajwa, moved out the Director General ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, and replaced him with Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum. Traditionally, the ISI appointment is made by the Army in consultation with the Prime Minister and ratified by him. In this case the Army Chief replaced Gen Hadeem, (who was reportedly getting close to Imran Khan) with Gen Anjum and merely sent the file for notification. After a month of pique, Imran Khan backed down and finally signed the file, but his relationship with the Army has been badly damaged.

Pakistani media is now speculating how long Imran Khan’s government will last without the Army’s protective umbrella. Will the Army replace him with a more pliant ‘selected’ Prime Minister – perhaps within his own party, or through the PML (N), which under Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam is making a comeback. Or will they continue weakening the government by supporting groups like the TLP to create civil unrest. The rift between Army-Civil relations will add to Pakistan’s political instability and its delicate internal situation.

Its travails are compounded by its economic situation. Pakistan is $100 Billion in debt and even behind Bangladesh in its parameters of growth. With the US no longer dependent on it for Afghanistan, US aid will reduce. Chinese aid comes with strings attached and hidden costs – as Pakistan is realising now. The much vaunted CPEC has placed Pakistan heavily indebted to China, and not produced the economic benefits that were expected. In fact, it has caused internal resentment and riots have erupted in Gwadar  with locals protesting the siphoning of jobs and resources by the Chinese.

The IMF has released $750 million in Special Drawing Rights and Saudi has given a bail out of $1.2 billion, to keep Pakistan afloat. But it is only an interim measure for the aid dependent economy. With Pakistan continuing to remain on the FATF Grey List, further aid will be even more difficult. But all that is unlikely to make Pakistan or its Generals change their ways. It will continue to limp on, continue its policy of India baiting – and turn more and more towards China, which incidentally is in its own moment of decision.

China – Consolidation and Confrontation

China is going through a period which will determine its future course – one that seems dangerous for India and the rest of the world. In a closed door meeting at Beijing, the Communist Party of China passed a ‘landmark resolution’ that enshrined Xi Jinping in the firmament of era defining leaders – along with Mao and Deng Xiaoping. This paves the way for a third term in power for Xi, (which he had already put in place by removing the embargo of only two terms)  when the party leadership decides on the Presidency in 2022.

With this, Xi has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades – even more powerful than Mao. And it is something to be wary of. China had shaken off its ‘peaceful rise’ after he came into power in 2013, and adopted an openly aggressive stance, pushing the envelope in the China Seas and Ladakh. To consolidate his hold on power, Xi has clamped down on big business – with drastic consequences for the economy. The Chinese economy grew at just 4.9% in 2021 and is expected to slow down even further to 3.5%. The economic agenda pursued by Deng has now been replaced by a political one under Xi.

His actions now show a greater thrust towards the formation of what can be loosely called Akhand China – a China regaining all the areas they stake claim to. Topping the agenda is the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.  Air and naval incursions over Taiwan have increased, perhaps to probe the defences and gauge the response. An invasion of Taiwan is a scenario that many analysts foresee in the near future. How far the USA will go to safeguard Taiwan is anybody’s guess. Already China sees itself as a near peer, and its naval strength of 350 vessels exceeds the US (in quantity, if not  in quality). It is significant that in the first virtual meeting between Xi and Biden, China virtually issued a warning to the USA to stop support to Taiwan. The signs are all there for an aggressive push towards reunification, and that could also lead to greater aggression towards India.

The talks between India and China to resolve the border stand-off seem to be going nowhere. China shows no intention of moving back. In fact, its newly passed Land Laws for protection of the country’s land borders makes China’s borders ‘sacred and inviolable’ and places the border areas under the PLA. They have developed 628 ‘Xiaokang’ – model border villages along the border thus strengthening their claim lines. This means that they are unlikely to move back from the areas they claim, their position will only harden, and a confrontation could well be on the cards.

And in the far beyond, China has been assiduously developing its bases to project power in the Indian Ocean. Beginning with Djibouti in 2017, it has de facto acquired Humbantota and Gwadar. Recently, the US succeeded in stalling China from contracting a secret military facility in Abu Dhabi (and reportedly also in Ream, Cambodia). The development of infrastructure all around the Indian Ocean speaks of a long term plan that will bring the PLAN dangerously close to Indian waters.

Yet, China’s overt aggression has produced a push-back. The US seems to have taken the lead with a string of alliances like QUAD and AUKUS which  show that its tilt to the Indo-Pacific is finally coming about. The US has also unveiled Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, which can provide an alternative to China’s BRI. The ‘coalition of democracies’ is also gaining momentum with a planned ‘Summit of Democracies’ to be held in December (which has also raised Chinese hackles by the invitation to Taiwan). This grouping could  provide a viable counter balance to China, both ideologically and politically.  Murmurs are rising against its treatment of Uighurs and human rights record. In fact, the disappearance of the their tennis star Peng Shuai, after she levelled charges of sexual harassment against a top party functionary – raised an uproar across the globe. The US is also contemplating a boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics in protest of China’s human rights. All these are signs that the world has awoken to the dangers and is closing ranks to counter the threat. Perhaps Xi might have just overplayed his cards.

The internal turmoil along the Western flank in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the signals emanating from China are ominous for India. Pakistan’s political and economic travails will continue, but it will continue to limp on as they have been doing for decades. Afghanistan’s instability is of greater concern since it will spill over to Kashmir and the Indian hinterland – with active support from Pakistan. But in the long term, it will be China that poses the greater threat. They will use Pakistan and Afghanistan to occupy us and distract us from our economic growth. They may also drum up support for Kashmir to push their own agenda in Ladakh. India has a delicate period ahead. We have to counter it by alliances and strategic partnerships with the Quad nations, the European Union and Russia. At the same time we have to develop our economic and military strength to cater for the long term threats that are emerging so that we could counter the challenges ahead from a position of strength.