The dastardly attack on the personnel of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) of February 14 in Pulwama that killed forty men has already turned a new page in the India-Pakistan ties. The loss of precious human lives caused immense resentment across India against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, for the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which is being supported by the Inter-Service intelligence (ISI), a wing of the Pakistani army, immediately took responsibility for the attack.
In a retaliatory move the Indian air force (IAF) Mirage 2000 jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) on February 26 and ventured to destroy terrorist training camps in Balakot on the Pakistani soil in a swift and meticulously handled “non-military pre-emptive” action. Pakistan, in its turn, responded by crossing the LoC by attacking military installations in India where one F-16 fighter jet of the Pakistan air force was shot down by the IAF while India’s MIG-21fighter aircraft too was brought down by Pakistan on its soil.
The IAF’s wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured by Pakistani forces, was released under growing international pressure within two days of the air skirmish. Immediately after the strikes, India resolved to withdraw the most favoured nation (MFN) treatment offered to Pakistan in its trade ties and has also opted to use the complete share of its river water as per the Indus waters treaty signed between the two countries in 1960.
Moreover, in its diplomatic manoeuvres, India succeeded in isolating Pakistan by getting support from major powers including the USA, France, Britain, Russia and even Pakistan’s all-weather friend China, to an extent, in its bid to fight terrorism. Consequently, Pakistan faced international pressure to take credible action against 22 UN-designated terrorist entities. These speedy developments also witnessed a war-mongering and jingoistic atmosphere in India that was full of a sense of euphoria.
However, if a hard look is taken at most of these developments in a proper perspective, it is obvious that there have been a number of identifiable and net beneficiaries of the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. To start with, the military is the backbone of Pakistan’s political regime. In order to survive, Pakistan, while building a new state, banked on anti-Indianism as one of the important planks to unite its people. The underlying fear that is built behind this form of nationalism has been that being a larger and a more powerful country India has once bifurcated Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh won its freedom and it can even eclipse Pakistan in the long run.
Since its inception, by keeping the fear of India’s ‘expansionism’ alive, Pakistan has always opted to increase its expenditure on defence and even join military alliances. Besides buying arms from the USA for decades, Pakistan had joined the US-sponsored pacts such as the Central Asia Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in the 1950s. Likewise the USA used Pakistan as a frontline state in its battle against the then Soviet Union after the latter country invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
Backed by the US-supplied arms and Saudi Arabian finances, the mujahedeen eventually succeeded in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan by 1988. Within a decade, Pakistan, once again, sprang up as a frontline state when the USA launched its Global War on Terror (GWoT) after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001. Pakistan provided strategic foothold and market for the US arms. After 2002 the USA has poured aid worth $33 billion in Pakistan.
However, with the advent of the Trump administration in 2016, the USA recognised the potential role of Pakistan in promoting global terror. It initiated severe punitive measures against Pakistan like suspension/reduction of aid or putting $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-et Taiba (LeT) and now Jammat-ud Dawa (JuD), as the most wanted terrorist. Such policies drew Pakistan further into China’s embrace. Currently, almost 63 percent of the arms come to Pakistan from China.
Developments such as flow of free arms, nexus between drug-arms trade and gradual Islamic radicalisation have had adverse impact on Pakistan’s state and society. The nexus between the army and radical Islamist outfits has virtually seized control of the state, while Pakistani society is grappling with millions of Afghan refugees and a large number of unemployed, and in many cases radicalised, youth, who are either addicted to drugs or chose to work for terrorist outfits.
The radical Islamic outfits are the second significant beneficiaries of the Indo-Pakistan conflict. In fact, terrorism had already become a lucrative vocation or a career in Pakistan when it had provided a base to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Most of these terrorist outfits, including the JeM and LeT of radical Islamic persuasion, in their turn, have been linked to multinational terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda. They were also linked to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001).
The ISI and Pakistan’s army have consistently supported terrorist attacks of the JeM and LeT or JuD as well as the insurgency in Kashmir. General Musharraf had openly come out with a statement that during his tenure as president (2001-2008) that Pakistan used JeM for terrorist attacks in India. Terrorists thrive on war economy to generate arms and employment. Such outfits are also involved in smuggling of drugs in exchange of arms and revenue from drugs has been used to purchase arms worth billions of dollars since the 1990s.
That Pakistan has been an epicentre of terrorism and has hosted terrorist leaders became obvious when Osama bin Laden, the topmost leader of Al Qaeda, was killed in Abbottabad by US special forces in 2011. In addition, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah, both among the top leaders of Al Qaeda, were staying right in the heartland of Pakistan after September 2001. Apart from India, Pakistan-based terrorist groups have inflicted low intensity asymmetric war on Afghanistan and Iran as well.
Further, Uyghur extremists in China’s restive Xinjiang province are receiving active support from Pakistan-based terrorist groups. Irrespective of the threats from Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, China seems to be the third and perhaps the most significant beneficiary of the Indo-Pakistan tensions. Among the major world powers, China thinks of Pakistan, a strategically located and nuclear armed power, as its enduring friend. Since the 1960s the cooperation between the two countries has grown steadily in diverse spheres.
That is why China has shown reluctance to designate Masood Azhar of JeM and Hafiz Saeed of LeT/JuD, in the list of wanted terrorists and ban the two organisations through the UN. Moreover, since a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) was ceded to China after the Sino-Indian border dispute of 1962, China is very much an integral part of intra- and inter-state politics in South Asia.
It may not be an exaggeration to argue that China is fighting its proxy war with India, through Pakistan, for decades. China helped Pakistan in building its missile nuclear programmes. By now, it has armed Pakistan with a new generation of fighter jets, eight submarines, navigations systems, and radar systems and on-board weapons. Besides, China has moved further to induct Pakistan in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with $62 billion worth of investment.
The BRI is meant to connect landlocked western China to Gwadar port in the troubled region of Baluchistan of Pakistan. The 2,000-mile distance between western China and Gwadar port will be bridged through the BRI which is meant to build infrastructure and road and railway links through PoK. It will give access to Chinese goods to the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Pakistan plays a major role in China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system. Pakistan is the only other country to have been granted access to the system’s military service that allows precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.
At the moment, Pakistan is a debt-ridden country with external debts worth $95 billion. In addition to the loans from USA, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan required monetary aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) worth $12 billion to bail out its economy. Pakistan owes arrears to China alone worth $23 billion. In the BRI project too Pakistan will have to repay debts worth $300 million starting from the next year and $3.2 billion by the year 2026. Thus, an asymmetric relationship of interdependence between China and Pakistan has given a clear upper hand to the former.
In fact, China has emerged as the significant commercial and military power and is influencing politics in South Asia. It is India’s largest trading partner with trade worth $72 billion. Both the countries enjoy relationship that is characterised by limited cooperation and co-existence. China’s trade with other member states of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is $42.59 billion which is double the trade of India with other SAARC countries. In its grand strategy to enter the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), China is building ports such as Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe in Myanmar and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
It has also expressed desire to build port in Maldives. By offering aid for expensive infrastructure development and arms China has befriended India’s neighbours including Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. Strategic analysts often use the term, ‘string of pearls’, to describe the Chinese strategy to establish major bases in the IOR from China to Port of Sudan. Such presence can also make the Chinese commercial and political ventures in the IOR more viable.
Unlike China, India has had past baggage of tense relations with practically all its neighbours. Apart from the perennial conflict with Pakistan, India’s military interventions in the then East Pakistan (1971), Maldives (1988) and Sri Lanka (1987-90), abrogation of trade and transit treaty with Nepal in 1989 and unofficial blockade of Nepal’s southern borders owing to intra-state conflict caused over the issue of identity of the Madhesi ethnic community (2015) have alienated it from its immediate neighbours. These countries often try to counter-balance India’s perceived dominance over the region by befriending China.
To conclude, by getting over the euphoria of India’s latest attack on Balakot, India will have to take a hard look at its policies to come to terms with how the nexus between military-terrorist outfits Pakistan, on the one hand, and the major powers including the USA and China, on the other hand, have gained from the conflict. If such a nexus is not destroyed, the terrorist forces can as well succeed in gaining access to nuclear weapons. Moreover, if India is keen to follow a policy of ‘neighbourhood first’ in South Asia, it needs to take cognisance of China’s growing presence in its neighbourhood and find ways to woo the neighbouring states.
Rajen Harshé is former vice chancellor of the Central University of Allahabad and president of the GB Pant Social Science Institute.