Is South Asia Losing the Plot?
As though the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the epicentre of terror – was not enough, the South Asian world finds itself increasingly involved in coups, attempted coups and interference from regional and global powers to redefine the regional power balance. This Brahma Chellaney article, though not comprehensive, explains the broad contours of internal dynamics of the region.
South Asia is traditionally defined as the region ensconced between Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The eight countries that comprise the geographical area were British colonies and still largely behave as same. The poverty, corruption, lack of governance, social and regional apartheid still drive the political discourse of the region. The fact that the countries of the region have the worst possible relations with each other accentuates the lack of trust leading to animosity and all round despair.
The regional diatribe notwithstanding, South Asia has experienced extreme external pressures due to the west sponsored war on terror. For the last three decades, the region has seen external forces led military expeditions to further their interests in Afghanistan – Soviet and American. Something that has enabled Pakistan to spread its terror module to ensure control of a pliant Afghanistan regime once the Americans depart, ie if they do. India finds its interests in Afghanistan severely degraded because of Pakistan’s intransigence and now the growing isolation of Iran in the international arena. Iran’s energy-driven economy is suffering badly from Western sanctions – now expanding to block its lucrative oil exports – imposed over its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear activity and give unfettered access to U.N. nuclear inspectors. Should Israel or America chose to attack Iran before Iran reaches a “Zone of Immunity” in which outside military influence may no longer yield the desired results, the South Asian region would be permanently scarred – oil or no oil.
Syria impinges on the international discourse in the region as Russia and China ramp up a unified support base against the West and Saudi Arabia in ousting Assad. Experts argue that Syria is the last secular regime in the region and must be nudged on the path of democracy. There is no need for a revolutionary change that may usher in fundamentalist regime in an extremely pluralistic society. It is ironical that the international community is urging Syria to reform at the behest of Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes. The diplomatic minefield gets complicated as India and other countries flip-flop on their stands on Syria. The Syrian imbroglio has also forced countries in the region to be castigated by Russia for supporting the West blindly.
In his recent book, The Future of Pakistan, Stephen P Cohen argues that with each passing day, Pakistan is becoming an even more crucial player in world affairs. Home of the world’s second largest Muslim population, epicenter of the global jihad, location of perhaps the planet’s most dangerous borderlands, and armed with nuclear weapons, this South Asian nation will go a long way toward determining what the world looks like ten years from now.
China, the rising giant, has deepened its political and economic engagement with the countries of the region, filling a gap left by India. South Asia is about the least integrated part of the world. Neighbours supply just 0.5% of India’s imports, and consume less than 4% of its exports. India and Pakistan, mutually antagonistic, account for a fifth of all living humans, yet their bilateral trade is puny, at less than $3 billion a year.
Chinese diplomatic and economic footprint has expanded to an extent where it is reportedly being handed over Gilgit – Baltistan by Pakistan on a lease for 50 years. Senge Hasnan Sering ,the president of the Institute of Gilgit-Baltistan Studies in Washington articulates that constitutionally and legally, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are still being claimed by New Delhi. And this claim has been recognised by the international community. With Pakistan allegedly ready to swap its role to take the backseat as China exerts itself as a major player in the Kashmir issue, India can’t afford to miss the Gilgit-Baltistan bus this time.
Pakistan’s military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has recently said that the two countries are starting a strategic programme — the Pakistan-China Strategic Programme for Gilgit-Baltistan — in June this year. Eventually it will enable China to have more military presence in the region.
China does understand that having control over Gilgit-Baltistan is important to safeguard its economic and military interests in east Turkistan and Tibet, besides having more access to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. And, of course, this will help tighten noose over India.
Obama’s strategic pivot to the East has added to South Asian woes as the region is now forced to make choices between China and US. This has muddied the waters some more. China is economically engaged with each of the countries of the region while US is the new entrant. A race between the two in the Indo Pacific would suck in countries of South Asia. Depending on the choices made by the countries, this may be a zero sum game adding fuel to the now emerging cold war between US and China in the region.
The countries of the region have to take a call on the larger picture – sail or sink together or be fragmented and status quoists propelling the region towards greater darkness.
Next… Looking East.
- Pak considering leasing Gilgit-Baltistan to China (ibnlive.in.com)
- A false spring in South Asia (japantimes.co.jp)
- The Future of Pakistan By Stephen P Cohen (bookcentreorg.wordpress.com)
- China Pakistan Relations and India (southasianidea.com)