Spearhead Opinion – 02.01.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
This week marks the end of one of the toughest years for Pakistan with several important developments in the domain of foreign affairs. 2016 has experienced its fair share of highs and lows: strained civil military relations and natural calamities on the one hand, and the successful take-off of some of CPEC’s major projects, a decline in terrorist attacks and marginal improvement in economic indicators on the other. Steps were taken this year to tackle issues such as terrorism, and the energy crisis.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, that is not all 2016 will be remembered for. The year will also be recalled as one where there was a significant deterioration in Indo-Pak relations as both countries adopted rigid postures.
There were some fleeting moments in the last two years when ‘cautious optimism’ was voiced because bilateral ties seemed to be improving despite simmering tensions at the LOC: PM Narendera Modi’s surprise December 25th visit to Pakistan on PM Sharif’s birthday, Modi inviting Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad that ended with both sides agreeing to hold comprehensive dialogue—these seemed to be precursors for a possible change in momentum.
However before it could take off, the process of positive engagement was stopped short; a string of brazen terror attacks on Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota, and the killing of freedom fighter Burhan Wani in Kashmir followed by Indian atrocities against locals in Indian occupied Kashmir significantly dented any attempts to improve ties. A complete deadlock persists with regards to any reconciliation or normalization in Indo-Pak relations.
Modi mounted a strategy to browbeat Pakistan by isolating it globally and raised the spectre of a water-war after he vowed to revisit the 1960 Indus Water treaty. In December, the World Bank paused separate processes initiated by India and Pakistan under the Indus Waters Treaty to allow both countries to consider alternative ways to resolve individual disagreements.
The critical bone of contention between India and Pakistan however remains Kashmir, and neither country being willing to renounce its claim over the state. The Kashmir issue continues to cast a prominent shadow on Indo-Pak relations. As 2016 came to a close, the LOC grew increasingly volatile. Meanwhile, Pakistan also got vocal against India’s human rights violations in Kashmir and PM Modi voiced rights violations in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
India has adopted a strict policy of avoiding engagement even on multilateral forums with Pakistan. This is why when Commander Southern Command Lt General Amir Riaz invited India to join CPEC, the suggestion seemed odd to say the least. Days after a senior Pakistani General said that India should shun its animosity with Pakistan and join the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, the Chinese foreign ministry pronouncing the offer a “goodwill gesture”, encouraged India to take the offer up.
Indo-China relations were damaged considerably when President Xi Jinping’s visited Pakistan to announce CPEC in April 2015. On the foreign policy front, CPEC has become the central point of cooperation and goodwill shared between China and Pakistan. Pakistan has benefited immensely from CPEC’s role as a game changer for the region and a symbol of Pak-China’s blossoming friendship. CPEC has taken shape rapidly; bringing China and Pakistan closer together, as Pakistan invested considerable resources in securing Chinese officials working on CPEC, and China reviewed its plans for the One Belt One Road to Central Asia in order to accommodate Pakistan’s interests.
India has opposed CPEC, at the “highest level” and forums including the UN. At first, India sought to play down CPEC’s significance, and the government hoped to talk Beijing out of pushing some of its more objectionable projects that run through disputed territory.
The General’s proposition then may be understood as merely rhetorical, since it was also followed by allegations of India’s “anti-Pakistan activities and subversion” in Balochistan. It is also crucial to note the offer to India was made alongside offers to other “neighboring countries”.
Iran wants Gwadar to be a “sister” port to Chabahar. Turkmenistan and Central Asian republics have expressed interest in the warm-water port that can be a central point for goods through Pakistan to the Chinese city of Kashgar.
Afghanistan is also becoming a crucial point for China’s connectivity projects to Iran.
The meeting between officials from Russia, China and Pakistan on Afghanistan, and Russia’s public recognition of the Taliban as a national military-political movement means significant change can be expected in the region in the coming years- changes that would stretch for far more than just the arrangement of highways and tunnels.
India’s plan to isolate Pakistan has failed. A way forward for the two will have to come from comprehensive dialogue. India cannot afford to be blindsided by the involvement of strategically significant players with CPEC, or projects like the One Belt One Road.
The scope of CPEC is not limited to Pakistan, but the project is part of a much larger scheme that will link 64 countries. As a strategically significant state, Pakistan has the potential to act as a hub for connectivity. Any progress the country exhibits in tackling domestic terrorism and overcoming challenges will only help improve its profile, regionally and internationally. Pakistan has been emboldened by the exceptional economic and political support it is getting from China. It is likely that with the unprecedented level of investment flowing in from Beijing, Pakistan will feel less susceptible to international pressures to act against terrorism. India and Afghanistan should partake and reap the benefits from transformation and development opportunities CPEC is offering to the international community. While any immediate agreement on restarting dialogue can be baffling at this point, considering the heightened tensions in bilateral relations, there is space for India to at least step back and observe where China and Pakistan plan to go with CPEC. Completely turning down all that CPEC has to offer will not be in the country’s interest.