Ladakh and new opportunities

July 14, 2020

The recent developments in Ladakh offer Pakistan new foreign policy opportunities. India's induction into the quad, a four-nation Asia Pacific counterweight against China – comprising the US,...

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The recent developments in Ladakh offer Pakistan new foreign policy opportunities. India's induction into the quad, a four-nation Asia Pacific counterweight against China – comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia – has given it illusions of grandeur.

Modi tried flexing his newly acquired muscle in three misadventures, which have all backfired. The first was his ill-fated air strike against Pakistan which got a befitting and powerful response, denting the myth of military superiority claimed by India. The second was the abrogation of Kashmir‘s special status which led to a strong reaction within IOK and forced Kashmir back as an issue on the international agenda. The third was the recent attempt to provoke China in the Galwan valley in Ladakh, which too has received a stinging slap in the face.

India’s stand-off with China in Ladakh has re-introduced China as a party in the disputed area of Kashmir, to which Ladakh historically belonged. Pakistan can now project the Kashmir issue as a tripartite dispute, where any comprehensive settlement of the problem must also involve China. As China’s strongest ally in the region, Pakistan can count on Chinese support for its Kashmir stance, but must remember that China’s position is influenced by its own regional concerns. China disputes Indian occupation of Ladakh but has accepted a Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the functional boundary with India in much the same way that Pakistan and India have agreed to respect the LOC in Kashmir.

Though disturbed by India’s move to deprive Ladakh of it’s special status and declare it as a separate Union Territory, China’s prime concern in the area is Aksai Chin which it had reclaimed from India in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. The highway connecting the Chinese province of Xinxiang to Tibet passes through Aksai Chin which is therefore of vital interest to China. The recent skirmish in Ladakh has sent a strong Chinese message to India that it will not tolerate any Indian intrusion into Aksai Chin and will be willing to cross the LAC in Ladakh to ensure this.

Pakistan’s relationship with China is multifaceted. CPEC is a central part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China needs this corridor for access to the Arabian Sea. The US and Japan are posing problems for Chinese navigation in the South China Sea and India can be disruptive in the Indian Ocean waters. A direct route to the Arabian Sea is a big bonus for China and hence the Indian and US clamour against it. China’s western provinces are land-locked and generate only six percent of China’s GDP. Access to the Arabian Sea via Gwadar will provide a major boost to the development of this large Chinese sector.

The only catch is that this area includes the Xinxiang Autonomous Region, the home of millions of Uyghurs who represent China’s Muslim population. China fears them as a potential source of Islamic radicalism and has adopted tough policies in this region. Pakistan has to tread carefully, showing sympathy for the genuine concerns of this ethnic Muslim minority but ensuring that the Uyghurs don’t receive any support for radicalization from hardline religious groups based in Pakistan. CPEC must proceed at a rapid pace as it will bring huge economic and trade opportunities for Pakistan. If handled correctly, it will attract foreign investment, promote industrial and agricultural development in the area and create large-scale employment prospects.

CPEC will also interest Russia and the landlocked Central Asian Republics. They too need access to a warm water port that is navigable all year. Gwadar fits the bill admirably. The alternate is Chabahar in Iran which is being built with Indian support but is significantly inferior to Gwadar as a natural port. Though Afghanistan has shown interest in using Chabahar, Iran is anathema to the Saudis and the Gulf states. Despite its strong anti-Iran policy, the US continues to tacitly support Chabahar as a counterweight to CPEC backed Gwadar.

Politics is indeed a convoluted game. Pakistan can use Gwadar to enhance collaboration with Russia and the Central Asian Republics. Indeed, if we approach the situation intelligently Gwadar can even be used to draw Afghanistan into CPEC, thus effectively creating CAPEC. Such a move will completely outflank India in the region, confining it to it’s western national boundaries.

US withdrawal from Afghanistan will need to be followed by intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and the different factions of the present Afghan government. Here Pakistan can be a facilitator. Traditionally, Pakistan has been viewed as the Taliban’s main supporter and if our stance continues to be perceived as one-sided then the Afghan government will look to India to counterbalance that. To keep Afghanistan free of Indian influence Pakistan needs to befriend all it’s political factions. It should facilitate cross-border trade, transit facilities for Afghan goods, educational and cultural exchanges, and perhaps incorporation of Afghanistan into CPEC. Assurances must be obtained from Afghanistan to respect the Durand Line as the international border between the two countries, along with guarantees that the Taliban will not develop or support offshoots within Pakistan.

With India we should continue to try and make them realize the futility of war. India can never subdue Pakistan militarily and should abandon this delusion. The Kashmir dispute should be resolved as per the wishes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, respecting the just interests of all stakeholders. Other thorny issues like water sharing and dam construction on the Indus River network also need an amicable resolution. India keeps accusing Pakistan of instigating cross-border terrorism while it continues to arm and support secessionist groups in Balochistan, a recent example being the BLA’s attack on the Karachi stock exchange. This too must cease.

Peace between Pakistan and India would bring huge economic benefits to both. Trade and business opportunities would be substantial, and funds spent on preparation for potential war with each other could be used to create financial prosperity and social progress in both countries.

The 21st century is going to be Asia’s century. It houses 60 percent of the world’s population and accounts for almost 50 percent of global trade. These numbers will grow substantially, restoring Asia to its premier place on the world stage. We have the opportunity to be major players in this new global structure: our success will depend on our ability to create new paradigms of peaceful co-existence and develop strong and robust economies allied to human development initiatives.

The writer is a senior surgeon, poet and sports aficionado.

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