Pakistan’s Strategic Choices – Abyss Or Albatross

 By Ankur Banga
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While the COVID-19 earlier and China thereafter has kept India occupied along Northern Borders, Pakistan faded out of the prominent and popular domestic narrative despite abrogation of Article 370 and changes being made in the status of Jammu &Kashmir. Even when the entire strategic community and security establishment was expecting a robust response from Pakistan especially as part of collusive scenario in favourable times when Indo-Sino relations are at nadir, the response has been largely cautious and tired. This feeble response has not been by design but forced by its failure to gain any traction in global opinion except with its iron brother China and lesser ones like Turkey and Malaysia. The frustration to do anything significant to contest the changed status of J&K, its raison d’etre and jugular vein since 1947 has clearly shown which way the winds are blowing.

Pakistan statecraft and the strategy has always been held hostage to India’s centrality in continuation of its ‘Two Nation’ theory masquerading as an existential threat post partition. Pakistan has consistently failed to de-hyphenate enmity towards India in matters of statecraft and has pursued all international relationships from India’s prism as part of the larger strategic calculus. Right from courting US led military alliances in cold war era, reliance on China borne from shared animosity towards India and showcasing Islamic Nuclear bomb, Pakistan’s aim all along has been to use all possibilities to embarrass India. While it has sung the tune of its invisible masters over last seven decades, the output slaved to Kashmir problem has been rather monotone in appeal and effect.

The limited relevance of Pakistan in serving United States strategic interests and its all-weather friendship with China has further driven US away who now appears to be gearing up for a bigger and multifaceted battle with the ‘Dragon’ further East[1]. Of late Pakistan’s failure to read and counter the change in the perspective of important and influential Islamic states like the Saudi Arabia & UAE towards India has also been nothing less than an embarrassment to its Deep state. The Arab countries have perhaps belatedly realised Pakistan as an ungrateful cousin who after having lived off their charity for years refused to militarily support them during Yemen civil war, played a fine balancing act between Saudi Arabia–Iran tensions despite being a Sunni brother and simply a case of an investment gone kaput.

The shrill warning to Saudi Arabia in calling an OIC meeting on Kashmir or face implied threat of a split in ranks proved the last straw. The India-Arab world bonhomie has become more endearing with a shared strategic relationship with US amidst geo-political churning. A major reason behind the upswing in mutual ties has also been the increasing economic heft of India, presence of large diaspora as engines of prosperity, third largest Muslim population and its status as one of the biggest oil markets in times of global uncertainty.

However, the elephant in room is China which has taken nuanced strides towards filling vacuum in Islamic Middle-East in consonance with a resurgent Russia post US re-balancing to Indo-Pacific. Iran and Turkey with a sizable influence in the region are suitable conduits to tap into energy rich region with strategically important trade routes and sea lanes which provide new gateways to Europe in form of ambitious BRI projects. China has also openly declared its willingness to play the great game ahead in form of a proposed $400 Bn investment plan for next 25 years that will let not only China access Iran’s huge oil and gas reserves but also gives impetus to Iran’s Eastern tilt. While China may believe that its RMB diplomacy will work in Middle East using Iran on lines of Pakistan/CPEC to achieve shared geo-political ambitions and rid Middle East of its historical biases and differences, it may be dreaming of another planet[2]. With rest of the world busy fighting COVID-19 and watching emerging geo-economic uncertainties amidst an imploding global order, Pakistan is increasingly being pushed towards ‘Abyss’ or ‘Albatross’ as strategic choices especially with respect to its narrative on Kashmir.

In the Islamic world, the Arabs are at the top, the Persians and Turkic people form the second and third rung. Countries like Pakistan and Malaysia are the bureaucratic equivalent of Class IV employees of the Ummah[3]. Pakistan vocal Islamic allies who resonates with unfinished Kashmir agenda are Turkey and to some extent Malaysia. With no sight of any détente on Kashmir with Saudi Arabia controlled OIC Pakistan must understand the limitations of using it as a pre-condition for seeking relationship and affinity with fellow Islamic Arab countries. The UAE invite to Late EAM Smt Sushma Swaraj as ‘Guest of Honour’ for 46th OIC plenary session, highest National awards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year by almost all prominent Arab countries, vibrant trade & people to people relations have shown the mirror to Pakistan. While Pakistan has undertaken maneuvers to carve out a pivotal role for itself in alternate Islamic-political-economic mobilization like Developing -8 organisation and Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019, deep fissures in Muslim World with respect to relations with Israel, irreconcilable sectarian differences between Iran & Saudi Arabia led blocks, Turkish neo-Ottoman aspirations are difficult to manage especially in larger geo-strategic context. Turkey has lately emerged as Pakistan proxy voice over Kashmir and Imran Khan, a huge Erdogan fan purveys pan-Islamism as the panacea, not only for Pakistan but for the entire Ummah[4]. The hope of finding recourse in axis of Iran-Turkey-Malaysia-Qatar to rearticulate Pakistan’s centric views on Kashmir is a bold gamble to brave new odds which may spell trouble for internal dynamics if ties with old well-wisher’s sour. Middle East political-religious turf is like a mine field which warrants even experienced players to walk cautiously while keeping their fingers crossed and Pakistan is no different. A fantasy driven agenda to portray Islamic identity of Kashmir with Arab world divorced from Indian sub-continental lineage and linking of own Turkish lineage with the leadership of ‘Ummah’ has potential to lead Pakistan down a spiral of assured self-destruction and an abyss wherein there may not be any true friends left in the end. Refusal of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to give audience to Gen Bajwa and ISI chief is just an unpleasant message and sign of things in store.

With traditional benefactors like the Saudi Arabia and UAE turning their back away from Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir and left with only Chinese card in deck, Pakistan will be forced into a tighter grip of Chinese albatross across its neck. The same was evident when Pakistan had to borrow 1 Bn $ from China to repay loan to Saudi Arabia forthwith. PM Imran Khan in a television interview has already indicated same by stating “Our future is with China and China is the only friend that has remained politically steadfast with Pakistan during good or bad times’[5]. Growing influence and pervasive Chinese tentacles across all cross sections of its national fiber will further render Pakistan is vulnerable to a sudden squeeze in garb of an unmanageable debt trap, humiliating commitments under CPEC or an abject surrender of its strategic autonomy. Pakistan’s utility to China lies in keeping its Western provinces quiet, a gateway to Persian Gulf and North Arabian Sea, an Islamic agent for deal-making in Middle East and importantly as an albatross across India’s neck to pull it down. While Pakistan sees it as an opportunity to become pivot to emerging geo-strategic alignments and a frontline state, its contribution may be largely attributable to its geography and perhaps more so due to its nuisance potential with Islamic nukes and Jihadi groups. Pakistan also believes that the larger Sino-India rivalry – an extension of Sino-US rivalry and China’s growing power will prevent the Kashmir issue from dying down[6]. However, any further Chinese embrace will meet more determined domestic opposition to CPEC and bring into open murmuring from jihadist fundamentalist lobbies on the Uighur’s extermination being carried out by China on an unprecedented scale. The Pakistan’s ironical silence in neglecting Uighur tragedy and making noises on Kashmir is apparently just a replay of old tried and tested policy of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Taliban. Michael Kugelman, Deputy director of the Asia Program Wilson Centre, Washington DC justifies the criticism of Pakistan as “Pakistan should be held to a higher standard because it accords so much bandwidth and policy space to the plight of Kashmiri & Indian Muslims, while saying nothing about Uighurs”[7]. Later or sooner Pakistan will be forced to take a stand for its Muslim Uighurs brethren lest its commitment and credibility towards ‘Ummah’ is questioned especially in light of its rightful claim of being a pure Nation born on basis of Islam religion.

Uri surgical strikes and Balakot air strikes have induced an element of uncertainty, boldness and risk manipulation in Indian response repertoire leading to Pakistan’s more cautious stance and options limited to diplomacy and narrative building. Considering the global re-alignments in wake of US-Sino tensions and turf war in Muslim world, live borders like LC or LAC shared by India have the possibility of getting engulfed as a collateral damage. The current stalemate along LAC and any future escalation gives Pakistan hope that not only it will be able to highlight Kashmir dispute as a global concern but also pose a two front threat to India[8]. But same would require a broader global sympathy and Jus-ad-bellum, herein the new Islamic block being groomed as part of Chinese geo-political Beidou constellation might prove useful.

Of-late the Kashmir issue has lost some of its salience as more pressing geo-political considerations have intervened[9]. The impossible strategic choices of Abyss or Albatross will continue to challenge Pakistan’s statecraft in near future. The progress achieved by India in restoring governance, rule of law, peace, stability and development in J&K will further suck away oxygen from Pakistan to breathe in/out Kashmiri societyforever. In absence of any worthwhile strategy other than fuelling proxy war and continuous sermonising in stark contrast to its own handling of minorities and voices seeking justice, Pakistan can be expected to continue using Islamism as driver of its Kashmir strategy despite recent setbacks. Its time Pakistan’s policymakers trim the size of their Kashmir narrative to meet space on policy end[10]. Instead Pak would do well to make an enduring peace with India and repair relationships with old Arab friends who are now partners with India. The choices are clear; either prevent further sinking into an abyss of its own making or to unshackle Chinese Albatross across its neck lest it’s too late to survive.

 

End-Notes

[1]https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/pakistan-no-longer-retains-same-strategic-firm-us-gearing-up-for-bigger-battle-with-china-think-tank/articleshow/76907159.cms.

[2]www.theprint, In Iran-China Deal, Pakistan most interested in this clause –Delhi’s alienation from Iran by Ayesha Siddiqa dated 06 Aug 2020

[3]https://theprint.in/opinion/Qureshis-saudi-criticism-on-kashmir-hints-shift-in-pakistans-strategy-for-the-islamic-world/480965/ by Sushant Sareen dated 13 Aug 2020.

[4]https://theprint.in/opinion/bajwa-going-to-saudis-but-imran-khan-dreams-of-neo-ottoman-world/481107/ by Hussain Haqqani dated 14 Aug 20.

[5]www.hindustantimes. Qureshi heads to Beijing after Imran Khan’s ‘Pak future with China’ remark by Shishir Gupta dated 20 Aug 2020.

[6]www.thewire.Pakistan’s Plans for Kashmir Have Become more Quixotic than Ever by Ayesha Siddiqa dated 11 Aug 2020.

[7] www.france24.com   dated 07 Aug 2020

[8]http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/strategic-challenges-from-pakistan-and-its-implications-for-india by Abhinav Dutta dated 21 Jul 2019

[9] www.toi.in As Saudi snubs Pak COAS, its Foreign Minister rushes to China by Indrani Baghchi dated 21 Aug 2020.

[10]www.the diplomat/ Has Kashmir ceased to be Pakistan’s Jugular Vein by Umair Jamal dated 13 Aug 2020.