Subcontinental Drift: South China Sea Is Heating Up; Will Pakistan Move On To Army Rule?

by Ramananda Sengupta - Jul 17, 2016 02:23 PM +05:30 IST
Subcontinental Drift: South China Sea Is Heating Up; Will Pakistan Move On To Army Rule?Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
  • In order to better reflect the situation in the region, we have decided to rename this weekly column from Neighbourhood Watch to Subcontinental Drift. Get the drift?

    In the third installment of this series, Ramananda Sengupta writes on Pakistan’s support of slain militant Burhan Wani—evident glorification of terrorism—and how some are pushing for a stint of Army Rule again.

    Belligerence from China over the South China Sea ruling, and probably enforcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the waters it considers its own, is also discussed

‘Move on Pakistan’

That is apparently the name of a little-known outfit which has been putting up huge posters and banners across the country, demanding that the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif take over the reins in Islamabad.

“Dictatorship is much better than this corrupt government,” Newsweek quoted Ali Hashmi, the chief organiser behind Move on Pakistan, as saying. The way General Raheel Sharif has dealt with terrorism and corruption, there is no guarantee that the next man would be as effective as him.”

The Dawn said that the banners sprang up overnight on all major thoroughfares in 13 cities, ‘including Cantonment areas, despite the presence of several checkpoints and extra security.’

While the army has denied any involvement with the posters, it is seen by some as a trial balloon to gauge the response of Pakistani people to the suggestion that their nation needs another stint of military rule.

General Sharif—whose relationship with his namesake and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is fraying around the edges—is seen as the man who spearheaded Zarb-e-Azb, the offensive against the militants operating with impunity in the country’s western provinces, leading to a decline in terrorist strikes within Pakistan.

The General has been in the news lately for his strident stand on the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a young commander for the Hizbul Mujahedeen, by Indian security forces on 8 July in Kashmir.

‘General Raheel condemns the brutal killing of Kashmiri youth by Indian authorities’ said a headline in the Dawn. But what is more interesting are the reader responses to the article.

Hidden among the usual virulent wrangling between Indian and Pakistani netizens over who really owns Kashmir are gems like this:

Where is Our Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif? Oh he is very busy doing his business empire ... So Pak Army has to do everything... Next time I will vote for them ...” says Sayyid.

Mashallah COAS we really luv you from bottom our are the only one who speak for PAK poor nation and you do feel and share the pain with this nation your remain in our hearts forever. To be honest we trust you 1000% please don’t leave us in the hands of butcher politicians...” pleaded someone who signed off as Faith.

Perhaps to reassert his rapidly eroding authority, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for a plebiscite in ‘occupied’ Jammu and Kashmir to let its people decide if they want to be with India or align with Pakistan. There was no mention of an independent Kashmir.

When that was rejected as too little, too late, he went a step further, describing the slain Kashmiri terrorist as a ‘martyr’ and declaring that 19 July would be observed as a Black Day to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir.

New Delhi promptly responded by asking him to mind his own business, saying continued glorification of terrorists belonging to proscribed terrorist organisations makes it amply clear where Pakistan’s sympathies continue to lie.”

As the Army Chief nears the end of his official tenure in November, it will be interesting to see where the sympathies of the Pakistani people lie.

The extravagant lifestyle of Nawaz Sharif and the recent Panama Papers document leak, which revealed three of his children’s expensive residential properties in London through shell companies, have left him politically vulnerable. General Sharif, on the other hand, is riding a wave of popularity.

If it comes to a vote, however, I’d have probably ditched both the Sharifs in favour of Qandeel Baloch, the ebullient 26-year-old ‘Kim Kardashian of Pakistan,’ whose raunchy music video, Ban, went viral on YouTube.

I can already see the Pakistanis reading this, sniggering and saying I’d probably vote for Sunny Leone for Indian Prime Minister. But Qandeel would have brought a breath of much-needed irreverence to a ultra-conservative nation torn between, and by, the Mosque and the Military. And that might not be such a bad thing.

Sadly, Qandeel was murdered— some say strangled, others say shot— by her own brother on 16 July, apparently for refusing to denounce her wayward ways.

Move on, Pakistan.

Rattle And Hum

To our east, the South China Sea is heating up, and it has nothing to do with global warming.

By showing the middle finger to the 12 July ruling by the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) dismissing China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, Beijing has put the rest of the world on notice.

Despite repeated appeals for peace from most stakeholders, one can expect increased belligerence from China over the issue and probably enforcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the waters it considers its own.

“If our security is being threatened, of course, we have the right to demarcate a zone. This would depend on our overall assessment,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said at a briefing in Beijing. “We hope that other countries will not take this opportunity to threaten China and work with China to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and not let it become the origin of a war.”

China had set up an ADIZ over disputed islands in the East China Sea in 2013, demanding that all aircraft entering the area had to notify Chinese authorities or face ‘emergency military measures.’

Liu, however, also poured some oil over the troubled waters, reiterating that China believes cooperation with the six South China Sea neighbours over fishing, oil and gas exploration could best be achieved by ‘negotiations.’

The United States, which is yet to ratify UNCLOS, urged all parties to “acknowledge the final and binding nature of this tribunal.” While asking the parties involved “not to use the ruling as an opportunity to engage in escalatory or provocative actions,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. seeks a peaceful resolution to disputes in the region, while preserving freedom of navigation and commerce.

India’s reaction was, in diplomatic language, nuanced.

“As a State Party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans,” said an official statement soon after the ruling.

In other words, India respected the law and expected others to do so too.

In 2009, Bangladesh sought the arbitration of UNCLOS over a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal with India. In 2014, the tribunal awarded Bangladesh rights to 19,467 sq km of the 25,602 sq km sea waters under dispute. It also gave Bangladesh a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile economic zone, and access to the open sea, thus, preventing it from turning into a ‘sea-locked country.’ India quietly accepted the verdict.

“This is not our fight,” a senior Navy official told me soon after the UNCLOS verdict against China. “China has never made an issue about commercial shipping through the region, and despite requests, the Indian Navy does not plan unilateral patrols the South China Seas.”

However, he added, “We do participate in joint Naval exercises in the region, like Operation Malabar with the United States, which has been joined by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force since last year, and are also engaged in deepening maritime cooperation with nations like Vietnam.”

This year, Operation Malabar was held near the Japanese port city of Sasebo and in the Pacific Ocean off the South China Sea, between 10 to 17 June.

Days before the exercise, an unnamed Chinese official told journalists in Delhi that Western powers are using the colonial tactics of ‘divide and rule’ in the region. “...when there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course, China will show concern,” he was quoted as saying.

Another Indian official, however, warned that Beijing’s rejection of the UNCLOS ruling was part of a much larger game plan.

“China wants to become a, if not the superpower in the world, and has been quietly building parallel financial and other institutions which rival western outfits like the IMF and the World Bank,” he said. “The heavily funded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the One Belt One Road initiative, as well the huge outreach towards Africa and the Middle East, are all a part of this plan. Obviously, this has the West rattled. The question is, should India be rattled too?”

Ramananda Sengupta moved to the corporate world after 25 years in print and online journalism. He is an editorial consultant with Indian Defence Review, and teaches defence journalism to graduate students in his spare time.
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