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Winds of Change in South Asia

By   /  January 24, 2020  /  No Comments

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Three weeks ago, Bangladesh shut off all mobile services along its 4,156 km long border with India. Such a drastic step for a nation that is for all intents and purposes a client state of India is quite reflective of a change in mood in the Awami League’s camp. The reason for this? Security reasons due to the ongoing widespread protests taking place in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). For those unaware, this new law will pave the way for Muslims in India to be left stateless if used in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Bangladesh has officially conveyed to India that it wants a written assurance that any so-called illegal immigrants in India will not be sent back across the border. This is a far cry from the trusting relationship that both nations have normally had. Thus, for Bangladesh to take such a drastic step along its historically peaceful border with India is indicative of a larger geopolitical shift taking place in the continent, primarily due to the policies of the Modi-led Indian government.

Pakistan and Bangladesh do not have warm relations per se, in large part due to the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government’s anti-Pakistan stance and the scars from 1971, however opinions among the general populace vary greatly from outright contempt to a feeling of brotherhood. In this vein, Pakistan has looked to make inroads into the Bangladeshi social consciousness. An example of this can be seen through the sporadic but passionate protests against the ongoing lockdown in Kashmir as well as the CAA and NRC bills. While Khaleda Zia’s BNP has historically been closer to Pakistan than the Awami league, the latter has had to temper its open support to the current government in India due to fears of domestic backlash.

Let’s take a look at Nepal. In November, India released a map depicting a 35-square kilometer swathe of land as belonging to India which was instantly rejected by Nepal. The Nepali government claimed that the Kalapani region under question has always been under their sovereignty. Widespread protests in Kathmandu followed. Due to this, Nepal has further moved towards the Chinese sphere of influence. Secondly, in 2015 India blockaded the much smaller nation because they disagreed with several clauses in the amended Nepali constitution that was published that year. Regional observers have commented that this flies in the face of Indian assertions that neighboring countries should not interfere in the domestic affairs of others; a nod towards their narrative on Kashmir. Due to Nepal being a landlocked country and having to import 90% of their fuel from India, there were widespread shortages of essential goods such as fuel, medicines and more importantly relief goods that were paramount in aiding the nation after the devastating 2015 earthquake. This left inedible scars in the minds of the Nepali populace. Hence, they too have looked towards China as a counter-balance to the aggressive diplomacy being conducted by the leaders in Delhi.

Further westwards, Pakistan and Iran are busy trying to balance their relations in the face of renewed American hostility towards the latter. Due to Trumpian sanctions that have severely impacted Iran’s economy, Iran is amenable to any sort of help they can get. While Pakistan has to walk a tight-rope due to their close ties with Saudi Arabia, India has greater leeway in dealing with Iran. However, they proverbially stabbed them in the back by stopping all Iranian oil imports (at the behest of the US) and causing a severe downturn in revenue. Even so, the fledgling Pakistani efforts to mediate between Iran and KSA have yet to bear fruit. While the results may not be as apparent, this is indicative of the Imran Khan-led PTI government’s strategy of placing Pakistan as a regional bridge-builder. This is reminiscent of the days when Pakistan was instrumental in opening Chinese-American political back-channels during the 1972 era of Nixon and Mao. More relevant is the fact the the Iran desk (embassy) is located in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. Remnants of an era when Pakistan held more international clout due to a stronger economy as compared to today.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now Prime Minister. The sibling duo have undeniably been deeper in the China camp than their more pro-India political rivals thereby sending jitters down the halls of the Indian Foreign Office. Pakistan’s close ties with the Sri Lankan military, under the previous rule of M. Rajapaksa , was a significant factor in the defeat of the LTTE (colloquially call the Tamil Tigers) due to the transfer of high tech military equipment to the island nation. Additionally, China has heavily invested in Sri Lanka as part of their larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The oft-repeated concerns by anti-Chinese quarters in Delhi and Washington that China is eroding the sovereignty of nations that are a part of the BRI was bolstered when the port of Hambantota was handed over to China for 99 years. However, with renewed Chinese investment, Sri Lankan tourism has increased tenfold, leaving the blemishes of their civil war far behind.

Finally, Afghanistan. A land used as a battleground for regional and global powers to pit their proxies against one another. The hostile relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has not abated as of yet however under Trump’s presidency, the US has once again courted the Pakistani leadership in trying to find an end to the war across the border. Trump’s single-minded focus on achieving a peace deal with the Taliban has resulted in Pakistan re-gaining a significant amount of political capital that they had lost during the Obama years. China’s inroads into Pakistan have also alarmed American policymakers hence the sweetened rhetoric from Washington. The biggest takeaway from the current peace process in Afghanistan is the removal of India from any discussions involving the future of the country. This has up-ended years of diplomatic initiatives that India took during the last decade to ensure they would hold some sort of influence in a post- war Afghanistan. The recent statements from Trump and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Davos are a testament to these shifting regional dynamics.

With this entire context in mind, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC is even more important in the larger scheme of things. The “string of pearls” argument that Sinophobes tout may be more of a reality than previously thought. With the CPEC, Nepali inroads, Hambantota handover and a cooling of Bangladeshi-Indian relations, China seems to have surrounded India thus greatly eroding the latter’s geopolitical muscle. One could argue that the removal of India as a regional hegemon will pave the way for an environment where the balance of power isn’t tilted towards a specific country, rather towards a potential South Asian bloc as a whole. This can only take place with increased trade, cross-border travel and ease of doing business in the region. With the BJP adamant on doing the exact opposite, an inter-connected South Asia will remain a pipe-dream. However, if the current trend of India becoming increasingly isolated continues, then Chinese influenced diplomacy can allow a new South Asian order to be formed.

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  • Published: 2 months ago on January 24, 2020
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  • Last Modified: January 29, 2020 @ 2:51 am
  • Filed Under: Commentary

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