The Baluchistan Gambit: Permanent Interests Trump Permanent Ideas 

by V Anantha Nageswaran - Sep 3, 2016 10:53 AM +05:30 IST
The Baluchistan Gambit: Permanent Interests Trump Permanent Ideas Narendra Modi (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • It is clichéd but it is often said that there are no permanent enemies or friends but only permanent interests in international diplomacy.

    This is the main thought that comes to mind when the Prime Minister’s remarks regarding Baluchistan and Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir are being discussed.

In his Independence Day address, on 15 August 2016, the Indian Prime Minister spoke about the expressions of gratitude and appreciation that he had received from the people of Baluchistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This is from the English translation of his Independence Day Speech, provided by the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India:

“For the past few days the people of Baluchistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, the way their citizens have heartily thanked me, the way they have acknowledged me, the goodwill they have shown towards me, the people settled far across, the land which I have not seen, the people I have not met ever, but people settled at far across acknowledge the Prime Minister of India, they honour him, so it is an honour of my 125 crores countrymen, it is respect of my 125 crores countrymen and that is why owing to the feeling of this honour, I want to heartily thank the people of Baluchistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan occupied Kashmir for having an expression of thankfulness.”

These expressions of gratitude were for the Prime Minister’s remarks at the conclusion of the All-Party Meeting he had called on Kashmir. Here are some of his key observations:

“The fundamental reason for disturbances in Kashmir is cross-border terrorism promoted by our neighbouring country….Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes. The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Baluchistan and PoK….It is also a fact that Kashmiri Pandits have been displaced from their centuries-old ancestral dwellings in Kashmir Valley….Ministry of External Affairs should make efforts to approach the people of PoK residing in different parts of world and collect information about the miserable conditions in PoK and bring them to the knowledge of the world community.”

His remarks have provided a lot of food for analysis. Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls the decision a gambit, delusional and truth all at once. It was easy to follow him on why he called the Prime Minister’s remarks a gambit. This writer agrees with it. He calls it delusional that India would receive the support or understanding of other great powers for its move to bring up the issue of the suffering of the people in Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan.

It is too soon to tell, although we would do well to remember that the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on Baluchistan in 2012. It is quite possible that India has informally sounded out one or some of the powers that matter as to what it proposes to do. Bangladesh had come out in support of the Prime Minister’s (or, India’s, if you will) observations. So has the former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.

It was difficult for me to follow Mehta’s argument that the Indian Prime Minister’s recent pronouncements hyphenated India and Pakistan. Pakistan owes its existence and survival to being unreasonable. India is now taking baby steps at being assertive. Surely that does not amount to hyphenation? Surely there are risks in what India has embarked on? The other side is a master in the art of being unreasonable. It is easy to define reasonable behaviour but not unreasonable behaviour. There is no telling where it would stop— just as there are no limits to insanity or bubbles in stock markets, the latter being an example of the former.

For example, Pratap Bhanu Mehta is right to point out the risk that the involvement of an external power could elicit more repression from the status quo power. For now, the people of Baluchistan do not seem to think that conditions could get more repressive. They have welcomed the Prime Minister’s statements. We should let them make those calculations.

China came in the way of India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and, lest we forget, it put a “technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad leader, as a terrorist at the United Nations. For Pakistan, unreasonableness towards India and, indeed, the world at large, is its raison d’etre. From terrorists crossings on a regular basis to the Pathankot incident, to its visiting ministers and officials meeting leaders banned by India— the list is long and endless. That said, the Prime Minister is quite right to begin a re-examination and a re-calibration of India’s past approach to these two nations.

C. Raja Mohan, prominent security and foreign policy analyst and experienced observer of Indian diplomacy over many decades, has made many valid points in his last two op-eds in The Indian Express.

First, he noted that while Beijing was free to develop its ties with Washington D.C., it frowns upon India’s attempts to do so and is often petulant in its response to India’s growing ties with America.

Second, he pointed out that the Indian Prime Minister’s positive overtures to China have not been reciprocated and that it was impossible for anyone to clap with one hand. Earlier in June, on China’s objection to India’s pursuit of membership to the NSG (on the grounds of principles), Raja Mohan did well to put it on record that none had violated the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more than China has, over the years.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jingping (Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)
Narendra Modi and Xi Jingping (Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)

Raja Mohan is right when he says that, as China became more powerful (or, felt that it has become more powerful), it became impossible for India to get Beijing to empathise with issues of concern to India— the bilateral trade deficit, India’s membership to the NSG and exerting pressure on Pakistan for its state sponsorship of terrorism. Raja Mohan is not alone in observing China’s insouciance on matters of interest to India.

In his essay in the collection titled China’s Core Executive, published in June 2016 by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Richard McGregor dismisses the fond but naïve belief that a prosperous and successful China would be magnanimous. This is what he wrote:

“There is nothing in the party’s DNA, nor in the public’s, as far as one can tell, that suggests China would be more accommodating if it were more powerful and better armed.”

He should know. He was the Bureau Chief for The Financial Times in Beijing and wrote a much acclaimed book, The Party, on the Chinese Communist Party.

In their concluding essay for the Mercator collection mentioned above, Sebastian Heilmann, Björn Conrad and Mikko Huotari came up with four scenarios for the evolution of China in the next five years. None of the four scenarios holds out the prospect of China co-existing peacefully and harmoniously with the rest of the world.

The Chinese themselves proved the essay right: they threatened the United Kingdom that it would face consequences if it did not go ahead with the Hinckley nuclear plant; they warned Japan that it would face military action if its self-defence forces joined U.S. naval ships in the “Freedom of Navigation” passage in the South China Sea and they called Australia “paper cats” for daring to applaud the judgement of the International Court of Justice at the Hague for its verdict on the disputed islands in the South China Sea. For good measure, China’s Global Times warned Japan that its plans to place land-to-sea missiles in the Miyako islands would prompt China to limit Japan’s waterways in the South China Sea.

When individuals, institutions or sovereigns decide to pursue deliberate unreasonableness, arising out of a correct or mistaken assessment of one’s strengths, there are very few good options for other individuals and nations with self-respect to deal with them. Therefore, the Indian Prime Minister is right to try a different approach. But, like any good chess player, he must at least have thought through the next two moves at least, based on a clear understanding of the range of likely responses from both Pakistan and China.

That is what Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, alluded to in his op-ed for The Hindu. He argues that China remained neutral in the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1965. But, given the strategic importance of Pakistan to China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, they may not remain so. China may not have directly intervened militarily in 1965 but he is clearly wrong to suggest that China remained neutral in the India-Pakistan war of 1965.

China issued an ultimatum to India and moved troops closer to the border. They demanded that India dismantle military installations in Sikkim (then an independent protectorate) and gave India a three day deadline for compliance. These were serious enough moves to cause Shri Lal Bahadur Sastri, the Prime Minister, to write to the U.S. President and seek authorisation of American personnel to consult with Indian military planners on a contingent basis. So, China was far from neutral then. Hence, they are far less likely to be neutral now. Therefore, Mr Saran is right that their recent aggressive blocking of India’s preferences on fighting Pakistan-originating terrorism and NSG membership are signals of overt backing for Pakistan. If so, is India prepared for it adequately— militarily and diplomatically?

For instance, it has been reported that the Indian Prime Minister might skip attending the United Nations General Assembly later in the year. Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan, is travelling to New York and has pledged to raise the Kashmir issue in the General Assembly. What if China tabled a resolution, in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) on the Kashmir issue, in support of its ally or, more likely, persuaded one of the other members of UNSC to do so? From the Indian point of view, how would or should other permanent members of the Security Council react? Has India thought through this and prepared itself and them for it? The nation should want to know this.

Nawaz Sharif at the UN in 2015 (Andrew Burton/Getty Images) 
Nawaz Sharif at the UN in 2015 (Andrew Burton/Getty Images) 

While it is right to stress the need to do the homework and stay ahead in the game, it is wrong to assume that China’s supposed economic and other advantages over India would continue to widen. That is not necessarily an intelligent forecast, let alone being pre-ordained. The gap between India’s per capita GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity, and that of China’s has begun to narrow. India’s banking sector problems have probably peaked. China’s have been barely acknowledged. China’s “augmented” fiscal deficit is close to 10 percent of its GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Conference Board in the United States so distrusts China’s official national income statistics that it relies on its own estimate of China’s GDP. India’s statistics are far from accurate but they are not deliberately so. India’s national debt ratio and the size of the balance sheet of its central bank are far healthier than that of China’s. Finally, China’s GDP, post-2008 crisis, is more an accumulation of quicksand than real output growth. In that sense, its relative economic strength may be vastly overstated. Just as there is no need to gloat that India’s official GDP growth estimate has exceeded China’s in recent years, there is no reason to crown defeatism as a permanent working assumption in any assessment of relative economic strength— now or in the future—of the two nations.

It is clichéd but it is often said that there are no permanent enemies or friends but only permanent interests in international diplomacy. More aptly, it could be added that, in diplomacy, there are no permanent policies because one can only have permanent ideas or permanent interests but not both.

India has made an interesting move. It is a good start. Policy shifts always entail risks. That said, it is churlish to be too critical of the abandonment of policies and methods that have left India vulnerable to the machinations and methods of failed nations.

Surely, that is unreasonable.

V. Anantha Nageswaran has jointly authored, ‘Can India grow?’ and ‘The Rise of Finance:Causes, Consequences and Cures’

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