By Imtiaz Gul
Express Tribune, June 30, 2016
Battle lines in the Asia Pivot have probably never been more pronounced. The Obama Administration went out of its way to in its bid to get India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) confirmed. China and several other countries, on the other hand, stood in the way, urging a merit-based approach. Similarly, Beijing and Moscow facilitated the entry of both India and Pakistan into the security-focused Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Surprisingly, the US advocacy for India prompted Senator Ed Markey to warn the administration at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on US-India relations in May: “What you are doing is creating an action-reaction that is leading to a never-ending escalation cycle that ultimately leads to development of nuclear weapons, including battlefield nuclear weapons.” Markey stated this while addressing the Indian-origin US Assistant Secretary for South Asia Nisha Biswal.
What should still be a cause for incessant pro-active Pakistani diplomacy is the statement by a senior US official who told the Press Trust of India that India would get full membership of the NSG by the end of the year, despite the majority of the 48 members supporting the Chinese-led opinion that intending members must first sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Almost at the same time, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson delivered a near warning to all in the region. At the Atlantic Council he said that the strike that killed Mullah Mansoor “should make clear to all parties in the region that the US is fully prepared to protect its interests”, underlining that continued military presence and participation in combat operations in Afghanistan were tied to “US interests”.
A couple of weeks earlier, the US administration had defaulted on its promise of providing eight “subsidised” F-16s to Pakistan because of Congressional refusal.
The controversy around India’s NSG membership illustrates the new geo-political battle lines drawn by the US and the China-Russia duo. The former fully behind India, and the latter trying to keep a balance, much more empathetic to Pakistan than many others. At the same time, the US position over new members of the NSG and Olson’s statement on his country’s Afghan mission promise turbulence ahead. The quest for influence and territory in southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean region marks the lines between Indo-Afghan-US axis on the one hand and Pakistan-China-Russia on the other. This represents a formidable challenge for Pakistan’s diplomacy. An energetic, flamboyant and confident Narendra Modi is steering the ship of the new strategic partnership and is relishing the attention of corporate America and Europe.
Unlike India, Pakistan remains beset with political polarisation and is lorded over by a semi-fit premier. At a recent briefing, the Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz brushed aside “cynical criticism” of the country’s foreign policy, giving an “all well, feel good” impression. He also dismissed the widely-held perceptions of “Pakistan’s isolation and encirclement”, and showcased the SCO membership as well as denial of India’s entry into the NSG as the hard work of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Yet, doubts continue to abound. Its’ sheer good luck for Pakistan that besides China, Russia too is eager to reach out to it because of its own compulsions. President Vladimir Putin’s hope to “work closely” on ensuring Pakistan and India are integrated into the SCO’s cooperation mechanisms augur well indeed.
Herein lies a priceless chance for Pakistan. Through a proactive, candid conversation with Moscow and Beijing on its current limitations and difficulties, Islamabad can build on the support of these two countries. Both have faced insurgencies as well as adversarial relations with the West. Both have survived because they set the own house right, with an undiluted focus on national interests. The SCO membership offers Pakistan a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate that it is undergoing a foreign policy shift and is casting it in an economic development and regional cooperation paradigm. Both Moscow and Beijing understand the challenges that Pakistan faces because of its geo-politics. Through this forum, Islamabad can certainly at least attempt to refocus the global conversation on Pakistan away from the security-only paradigm. The CPEC provides the entry point for such a dialogue with other nations. Let’s not allow others to insinuate that the CPEC represents China’s needs. Which country, by the way, stitches partnerships for the sake of others? We must emphatically present it as a mutually beneficial, win-win venture. Its realisation as well as possible spin-off (non-Chinese foreign investment), nevertheless, depends entirely on whether leaders here can take it forward as a project owned by the entire Pakistani nation.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies