South Asian conundrum- strategies and statesmanship

By K N Pandita

China made a grave miscalculation in opening front against India in the Eastern Ladakh. It shows that PLA has turned into a typecast unable to keep pace with the dynamics of changing world order. Her intrusive economic ventures globally have induced many developed countries in the West to look for the protection and perpetuation of their commercial wellbeing.

Beijing’s miscalculations are twofold. It towed with its outmoded and unrealistic calculation of India’s ability to defend her borders competently, and secondly, it wrongly overestimated the effectiveness of Indian opposition. Both of these miscalculations stem from lack of democratic experience.

The Eastern Ladakh Sino-Indian standoff has not only unfolded PM Modi’s laudable strategic grasp of the ground situation but has also shown his resoluteness in dealing with threats and intimidations. Western leaders have acknowledged India’s ability and farsightedness to row through the rough waters.

The significant take from China’s misadventure is that India has blunted China’s old habit of expansionism along its long Himalayan border by intimidating smaller states and regions lying in the outskirts. India is reaping the consequence of allowing Beijing to occupy the vast Tibetan plateau without demur.

The standoff in Eastern Ladakh demeaned China for her lust for territorial expansion. The way it was expressed made China look a minion and not the world power. The world watched with open eyes that China’s status was receding in the face of India’s will to meet the challenge. This is for the first time in her history that India has successfully stonewalled inflow of a northern predator.

The significant take from the Himalayan heights’ standoff for China is that in dealing with India she must forget the narrative of her 1962 intrusion into the Indian Territory in the Arunachal Pradesh. If pragmatism rules China’s Himalayan strategy, she must change the goalpost and lookout for a new phase of parity in the Sino-Indian relationship. China’s has to understand that her strength lies not in behaving not like a blood-sucking leech but a large-hearted benevolent state showing due respect to the borders with her neighbours.

By pragmatism in the strategy we mean bringing into focus the ramifications of the Himalayan high altitude conflict which China believes would be a booster to Pakistan’s belligerence along Indo-Pak LoC in J&K. China has to understand that the Sino-Indian battle over the frozen Himalayas will be practically and ultimately fought in warm waters of the Indo-Pacific maritime channels with lasting consequences. Such is the dynamics of ever-changing strategies in the region.

Although the pace of mega projects like the CPEC and B&R has slowed down owing to Covid-19 and other undisclosed reasons, yet these remain the flagship projects with China and there seems no volte-face now. However, for quite some time China has been voicing its unease on the actual status of Gilgit and Baltistan, a region which India claims as its rightful territory and holds China as an illegal occupant.

For quite some time Beijing has been insisting on Islamabad to bring about sort of a meaningful change in the legal, constitutional and administrative status of Gilgit Baltistan that would indirectly reinforce China’s position as the pioneering investor in the economic and logistic development of the region. Some constitutional reforms that were introduced in Gilgit Baltistan in the recent past were no more than eyewash. These reforms generated more antagonism than reconciliation within the region.

Secondly, China is conscious of the fact that the presence of PLA and Chinese workers in Gilgit Baltistan is vehemently resented by the local population as in Baluchistan. In either case, the real irritant is neither China nor the PLA but Pakistan, which has not given the people of these regions their legitimate civil and political rights and powers. The demographic change brought about in the region by Lt. Gen Parvez Musharraf then the Corpse Commander of 11th Corps of Pak army and stationed in Northern Areas is eating into the vitals of Pakistan politics.

China is convinced that Pakistan will never be able to take an inch of the territory of Kashmir under the control of India. She also understands that intensified border clashes and repeated attempts of infiltration into Indian part by the terrorist legions based in Pakistan and PoK may prompt India for a wider, deeper and more effective Balakot-like surgical strike or something bigger on terror-infested locales in Pakistan mainland supplemented by a plan that India had conceived following the shooting down of Wing Commander Abhinandan’s jet aircraft somewhere over the PoK. In a prospect of India-Pakistan armed clash, China will be the loser because she can neither come to the rescue of Pakistan nor can she safeguard her onshore interests in the India-Pacific region if it turns into a war zone.

Considering all these assumptions, astute statesmanship would prompt China to come out of its stereotype phantasm and meet the challenge in a way that security of the region and peace and tranquillity are ensured. She has to play a role of friendly adviser to Pakistan – a country she has been grooming for decades – and a well-meaning country with strong credentials of an astute player on the international chessboard.

China should also realize that since the restoration of normalcy and peaceful coexistence among the nations in South Asian region is the pre-requisite of just and equitable trade and commerce, the fundamental principle which will help bring about such a conducive atmosphere is that the stakeholders should be prompted to say goodbye to hard-line politics and demonstrate the more resilient approach to the seven-plus decades-old Kashmir issue.

Pakistan has finally responded to China’s exhortation of integrating Gilgit Baltistan into Pakistan as its fifth province. As expected, India has lodged a strong protest against any step of that sort arguing that it will be contrary to the Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir. Even if Pakistan integrates Gilgit Baltistan as its fifth province, that does not give real relief to China. India has a strong case not only in GB but also in Shaksgam Valley as well which Pakistan has ceded to China.

Assuming that China with the potential of making use of high-level statesmanship can bring about an understanding between India and Pakistan about conversion of existing LoC into IB, the question is what is she going to do with Shaksgam and Aksaichin areas that originally belong to India? India will not accept that Beijing brings about a deal between India and Pakistan but runs away with the chunk of land it has already grabbed illegally to be retained till Kashmir issue is decided between the two warring nations. If a deal does happen between India and Pakistan, the question that pops up naturally is what is to be done with the Shaksgam Valley when Pakistan and China have agreed to review it if the light of the resolution of Kashmir conflict between India and China.

For injecting blood into the veins of this hypothetical solution of Kashmir and other issues, perhaps it might be possible to initiate primary spadework on the subject and proceed cautiously. Perhaps it would not be out of place to suggest that the UN constitutes a working group of legal advisers to help the stakeholders to discuss the issue after receiving the broad outline of a compromise formula from the actual stakeholders.

It has to be remembered that Kashmir is a very complicated issue and no hasty or emotional solution should be thought of. Any viable deal on which attention is focused has to be internationalized. Aspirations of the people cannot be conceded in a vacuum but have to be taken into account along with geostrategic compulsions and oddities. Without the participation of the accredited world body like the UN, no real disengagement of the logjam is possible.

Likewise the issue of displacement of populations, their resettlement and security, the future of relationship among the countries in the region, trade, commerce and overland road and air connectivity etc. all these issues have to be sorted out one by one.

It has to be remembered that a just and reasonable formula to be cobbled after a free and full exchange of views would always mean to give and take. Beijing knows the vision and capacity of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.

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