By: conn Hallinan
Trump’s Stubbornness and the Changing Face of Asia
“Boxing the compass” is an old nautical term for locating the points on a magnetic compass in order to set a course. With the erratic winds blowing out of Washington these days, countries all over Asia and the Middle East are boxing the compass and re-evaluating traditional foes and old alliances.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past half-century, and both have nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. But the two countries are now part of a security and trade organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with China, Russia and most of the countries of Central Asia. Following the recent elections in Pakistan, Islamabad’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has called for an “uninterrupted continued dialogue” with New Delhi to resolve conflicts and establish “peace and stability” in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is a critic of the US war in Afghanistan and particularly opposed to the use of US drones to kill insurgents in Pakistan.
Russia has reached out to the Taliban, which has accepted an invitation for peace talks in Moscow on Sept. 04 to end the 17-year old war. Three decades ago the Taliban were shooting down Russian helicopters with American-made Stinger missiles.
Turkey and Russia have agreed to increase trade and to seek a political solution to end the war in Syria. Turkey also pledged to ignore Washington’s sanctions on Russia and Iran. Less than three years ago, Turkish warplanes downed a Russian bomber, Ankara was denouncing Iran, and Turkey was arming and supporting Islamic extremists trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad.
After years of tension in the South China Sea between China and a host of Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, on Aug. 02 Beijing announced a “breakthrough” in talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After years of bluster— including ship-to-ship face-offs—China and ASEAN held joint computer naval games on Aug. 02-03. China has also proposed cooperative oil and gas exploration with ASEAN members.
Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, the US has tried to lure India into an alliance with Japan and Australia—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “quad”—to challenge China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. The Americans turned a blind eye to India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dropped the ban on selling arms to New Delhi. The Pentagon even re-named its Pacific Command, “Indo-Pacific Command” to reflect India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. The US is currently training Indian fighter pilots, and this summer held joint naval manoeuvres with Japan and the US—Malabar 18— in the strategic Malacca Straits .
But following an April Wuhan Summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the Quad appears to have cooled. New Delhi vetoed Australia joining the Malabar war games.
At June’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, Modi said “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” and pointedly avoided any criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. Given that Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in shoving matches and fistfights with one another in the Doklam border region, Modi’s silence on the Chinese military was surprising.
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China and India have recently established a military “hot line,” and Beijing has cut tariffs on Indian products.
During the SCO meetings, Modi and Xi met and discussed cooperation on bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan. India, Pakistan and Russia fear that extremism in Afghanistan will spill over their borders, and the three have joined in an effort to shore up the Taliban as a bulwark against the growth of the Islamic State.
There is also a push to build the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline that will eventually terminate in energy-starved India.
India signed the SCO’s “Qingdao Declaration,” which warned that “economic globalization is confronted with the expansion of unilateral protectionist policies,” a statement aimed directly at the Trump administration.
The Modi government also made it clear that New Delhi will not join US sanctions against Iran and will continue to buy gas and oil from Tehran. India’s Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman also said that India would ignore US threats to sanction any country doing business with Russia’s arms industry.
Even such a staunch ally as Australia is having second thoughts on who it wants to align itself with in the Western Pacific. Australia currently hosts US Marines and the huge US intelligence gathering operation at Pine Gap. But China is Canberra’s largest trading partner, and Chinese students and tourists are an important source of income for Australia.
Canberra is currently consumed with arguments over China’s influence on Australia’s politics, and there is a division in the foreign policy establishment over how closely aligned the Australians should be with Washington, given the uncertain policies of the Trump administration. Some—like defence strategist Hugh White—argue that “Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all.”
White’s analysis is an overstatement. The US is the most powerful military force in the region, and the Pacific basin is still Washington’s number one trade partner. In the balance of forces, Canberra doesn’t count for much. But the debate is an interesting one and a reflection that the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” to ring China with US allies has not exactly been a slam-dunk.
Of course, one can make too much of these re-alignments.
There are still tensions between China and India over their borders and competition for the Indian Ocean. Many Indians see the latter as “Mare Nostrum” [“Our Sea”], and New Delhi is acquiring submarines and surface crafts to control it.
However, since some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies transit the Indian Ocean, China is busy building up ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti to guard those routes.
India has recently tested a long-range ICBM—the Agni V—that has the capacity to strike China. The Indians claim the missile has a range of 3000 miles, but the Chinese say it can strike targets 5000 miles away, thus threatening most of China’s population centres. Since Pakistan is already within range of India’s medium range missiles, the Agni V could only have been developed to target China.
India is also one of the few countries in the region that do not endorse China’s immense “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative to link Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe into a vast trading network.
A number of these diplomatic initiatives and re-alignments could easily fail.
Pakistan and India could fall out over Kashmir, and resolving the Afghanistan situation is the diplomatic equivalent of untying the Gordian Knot. The Taliban accepted the Russian invitation, but the Americans dismissed it. So too has the government in Kabul, but that could change, particularly if the Indians push the Afghan government to join the talks. Just the fact that the Taliban agreed to negotiate with Kabul, however, is a breakthrough, and since almost everyone in the region wants this long and terrible war to end, the initiative is hardly a dead letter.
There are other reefs and shoals out there.
Turkey and Russia still don’t trust each other, and while Iran currently finds itself on the same side as Moscow and Ankara, there is no love lost among any of them. But Iran needs a way to block Trump’s sanctions from strangling its economy, and that means shelving its historical suspicions of Turkey and Russia. Both countries say they will not abide by the US sanctions, and the Russians are even considering setting up credit system to bypass using dollars in banking.
The Europeans are already knuckling under to the US sanctions, but the US and the European Union are not the only games in town. Organizations like the SCO, ASEAN, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and Latin America’s Mercosur are creating independent poles of power and influence, and while the US has enormous military power, it no longer can dictate what other countries decide on things like war and trade.
From what direction on the compass rose the winds out of Washington will blow is hardly clear, but increasingly a number of countries are charting a course of their own.
Should Pakistan foster New Alliances?
Pakistan stands on the verge of fundamental foreign policy choices. The changing international environment requires a change in the Pakistani approach. The choices centre on how thoroughgoing an alignment with the United States it should pursue, particularly, when Washington is scraping the military aid and pressurizing Islamabad to do more. The Pakistani ruling elite has to realize its worsening ties with the United States and also understand the limitations of its closest ally China in the Asian strategic environment and inherent deficiencies in its nascent strategic partnership with Russia. The Pakistani rulers and masses ought to be realistic in their expectations from the great powers and regional allies in the prevalent global politics. It’s an established dictum of the international society, no one sacrifice one’s national interests for a partner or an ally. Secondly, strategic and economic interests always surpass moralistic norms. Hence, neither Americans nor their Western allies give importance to the Pakistani law enforcement agencies and people sacrifices in the lingering war on terror. They simply ignore the heroic sacrifices of the Pakistani nation for the sake of their geopolitical and economic interests.
Now, the United States and Pakistan’s geopolitical interests contradict each other, while Moscow and Islamabad geopolitical interests don’t contradict each other; in fact, they tend to coincide, especially in the Afghanistan affairs. Trump administration’s bullish approach towards Pakistan is drifting Pakistan away from the United States. The increasing mistrust between Islamabad and Washington is neither in the interest of the former nor helpful for the Americans Eurasian strategy. But it is profitable for both Russia and China. The tensions with Washington were further aggravated when the US Military Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner announced: “Due to a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy… $300m (actually $323.6m to include non-Pakistan funds) was reprogrammed by the Defense Department in the June/July 2018 time frame for other urgent priorities.” The cutting off the aid announcement just a few days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph F. Dunford scheduled meetings in Islamabad spoiled the situation and also dashed the hopes about the improvement in relations between Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistan and China have common interests that ought to lead to the common endeavour. Both sides are convinced that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road initiative, is an important vista of economic progress and prosperity. China has been investing nearly $62 billion in Pakistan. The CPEC links Western underdeveloped regions of China with the South Asian and West Asian markets. Pakistan’s Gwadar port not only connects but also shortens the distances among the Middle Eastern, European and Chinese markets. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s overriding priority is to synchronize its domestic and foreign policy agendas, which inevitably means featuring economics. Premier Khan expressed his desire to establish good ties with all the neighbouring states, including archrival India. He said in his victory speech, addressing India: “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward,” The government is expected to request the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package. It needs $9 billion for managing its economic crisis. Perhaps, without improving relations with the neighbouring states, resolution of economic problems of country is too cumbersome.
Today, Beijing and New Delhi economics interests don’t challenge each other. In practice, their economic interests overlap. The bilateral trade volume between China and India is more than $100 billion in a year. The Chinese seem confident that the Indians will not jeopardize their economic gains for the sake of the Americans strategic agenda in Asia. Therefore, they have been underplaying the cementing Indo-US strategic partnership. Indeed, the improvement of ties between India and Pakistan is in the interest of China. That’s why; it has been encouraging Pakistan to stabilize its border with India. Without stability in South Asia, Beijing cannot pursue its regional economic ambitions. The relations between Moscow and Islamabad are on a positive trajectory. Russia is ready to sell military hardware to Pakistan despite the strong opposition of India. The important area of convergence is the erasing of radicalized militants sanctuaries located in Afghanistan. Unlike the Americans, the Russians are convinced that Pakistan sincerely endeavours for the political stability in Afghanistan. To conclude, the increasing convergence in Indo-US geopolitical agendas and economic interests enhances suspicion between Islamabad and Washington. Therefore, Islamabad has been struggling to foster new strategic partnerships and alliances.