India’s problem with the economic corridor
At a press conference on May 31 held to highlight the Modi government’s foreign policy achievements during its first year in power, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj spelled out India’s well-known conditions for holding dialogue with Pakistan. She also reiterated India’s strong opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and stressed that Modi had raised the matter “very strongly” in his talks with Chinese leaders last month and conveyed to them that it is not “acceptable” to India. Two days later, the Indian foreign ministry issued a statement strongly criticising Pakistan for holding elections in Gilgit-Baltistan and restating Delhi’s claim to the territory through which the corridor will pass.
With regard to dialogue with Pakistan, Swaraj said that “from the first day” the Modi government had been adhering to three “principles” which had been conveyed by the Indian prime minister to Nawaz Sharif at their meeting in New Delhi in May last year on the occasion of the inauguration of the newly elected Indian government. According to these principles, Swaraj said, all issues will be discussed in a peaceful manner, discussions will only be between the two countries without any involvement of a third party, and talks will be held only “in an environment free of terror”.
Swaraj also gave a peculiar reason for India’s decision to call off foreign secretary-level talks last August. On previous occasions when Pakistani leaders had met the Hurriyat representatives, she said, the request for a meeting had come from the Kashmiri side but this time the Pakistan high commissioner had invited them.
The response of Sartaj Aziz to India’s restatement of its conditions for a bilateral dialogue differs in one nuance from the Nawaz government’s earlier pleas for talks. Instead of appealing for a dialogue, the adviser said this time that Pakistan remains committed to a dialogue “provided India is ready”. In other words, the ball is in India’s court. This is to be welcomed. If India is not interested in dialogue, Pakistan can live with it. Besides, the holding of talks is not the objective. The goal is to resolve disputes through mutual give and take. If there is no willingness to accommodate each other’s concerns and interests, talks cannot be fruitful. This is the unhappy experience not only of Pakistan but of India’s other neighbours.
The Nawaz government must do two more things. First, it must make full use of the UN and other international fora to raise the Kashmir question both with regard to India’s breach of its obligations under the UN Security Council resolutions and its human rights abuses in the state. Besides the UN General Assembly and the OIC, there are also other international forums like the Human Rights Council at which Pakistan can draw the international community’s attention to the Kashmir issue. The Nawaz government should not hesitate to do so.
Second, Pakistan must not shy away from naming India as the country that is behind much of the terrorist violence in Pakistan. While the military has directly held RAW responsible, the civilian government including the prime minister have been quite circumspect. This suggests that the military and civilian authorities are not quite on the same page on the issue. It is very important that the two use the same language when talking about the Indian hand in terrorist violence in Pakistan.
One reason why India is digging in its heels on the question of talks with Pakistan is that Delhi’s strategic calculus has been completely upset by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. When Nawaz met Modi last year in Delhi, the Indian prime minister was hopeful that Pakistan’s “recalcitrance” could be softened up by the prospect of economic cooperation and business profit.
Nawaz gave every impression of being willing to take the bait. He broke with long-standing tradition by not meeting Kashmiri leaders during his visit and cravenly avoided mentioning Kashmir in his public utterances. He also found the time to hold unpublicised meeting with some Indian business tycoons and Bollywood stars. Modi can surely be forgiven for thinking that Nawaz was coming around and he tried to speed up the process by offering to sell gas and electricity to Pakistan that would have benefited the business and industrial class of central Punjab that forms Nawaz’s core constituency. There were also indications that Pakistan would before long grant MFN status to India.
Then, the economic corridor project intervened. Nawaz’s business allies who were hoping to earn big profits from trade and economic ties with India found that the corridor offered much bigger gains. As a result, they lost much of their enthusiasm for opening up the country to Indian trade and investment. Instead of joining with Indian business magnates, they are now hoping to partner with Chinese companies.
India now considers the corridor project, together with the border question, as one of the two core issues with China. According to reports in the Indian media, President Xi Jinping sought to assuage Indian concerns by pointing out that the corridor was a commercial project. The Hindustan Times reported that in his talks with Premier Li Keqiang, Modi expressed “serious concern” over the corridor. Li tried to assure Modi that China was only carrying out development projects in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir and “rather condescendingly” said India should not be worried. According to the newspaper, Modi asked Li how Beijing would feel if New Delhi allowed Pakistan to build a hospital in Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing regards as Chinese territory. We do not know if the Chinese leader responded to this inane argument.
India of course has several good reasons to be deeply worried over the corridor. According to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, India’s “outburst on the CPEC project [is] clear proof that the current Indian leadership is not happy to see Pakistan prosper and finds our progress and development unacceptable.” This is true but it is not the principal reason.
There are three main reasons why India is so angry at the project.
First, it signals the end for India’s long-cherished dream of bringing Pakistan under its hegemonic sway. With the development of nuclear weapons by the two countries, India lost the advantage of its conventional superiority over Pakistan. Now, India must also give up the hope of bringing Pakistan under its economic influence by virtue of the larger size of its economy.
Second, the corridor, whose western alignment will run close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, is expected to promote greater economic integration and interdependence between the two countries and with Central Asian countries. The corridor will thus serve as a barrier to the expansion of Indian influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s much-cherished hope of a sphere of influence will have to be cut down and restricted to a few small states on its periphery at best.
Third, once the port of Gwadar is fully developed with Chinese assistance under the corridor project, India’s ability to become the foremost naval power in the western Indian Ocean at a future date will be considerably reduced.
In short, India fears – quite rightly – that the corridor will make it more difficult for it to achieve its ambition to dominate South Asia and the Indian Ocean. But since India does not for the present want to admit openly that it harbours these ambitions, it has been objecting to the corridor project corridor mainly on the ground that it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan which it claims as Indian territory under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. This was also the argument that Modi used with the Chinese leaders.
This ploy will not fool anyone. Nevertheless, India has already stepped up its claim to Gilgit-Baltistan in order to give credibility to its objections to the corridor. Last month India’s National Security Adviser repeated India’s claim that it shares a 106-km border with Afghanistan, which is actually the border between Gilgit-Baltistan and Afghanistan. Then last week the Indian foreign ministry issued a statement objecting to elections in Gilgit-Baltistan. More mischief from India is expected in Gilgit-Baltistan and it may not be limited to words alone. Pakistan must therefore prepare itself for appropriate counter-measures.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
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