Wednesday, March 29, 2017

OP-ED: Business as Usual

Published in Global Affairs / March 2017. Written / Sep 2016.

Third world nations that remain daggers drawn have yet to ascend to that stage of nirvana marked by regional cooperation and economic reforms; the kind that defines Sino - US relations for instance. Former US ambassador to China described their emerging relationship as “controlled enmity.” It had remained on course despite Washington’s concerns over the militarization of South China Sea, or indictment of Chinese hackers by a US court. The world’s biggest economy and the largest US foreign creditor and the superpower had learnt to prioritize and steer their relations towards a semblance of normality.

No one really knows which direction they will take under a Donald Trump Presidency. But economic considerations trumped personal differences at the time. And now judging from the list of banned nations devised by the White House where some obvious names have been pointedly left out – at least for the time being, it still appears to take precedence over security concerns.

South Asian nations operate differently. Common grounds they have aplenty - common foes too. Yet, Kabul bickers over trade routes and refugee repatriation while India threatens to renege on water treaties (which would be an open declaration of war) amid dubious declarations of ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistani territory. And Islamabad’s misgivings about the ever expanding Indian footprint remain in place especially after India ratcheted up the propaganda against Pakistan and war hysteria in the region. They have spent seven decades stoking the flames of resentment while keeping old flashpoints in place. Here fronts multiply on a dizzying scale, followed by attempts to reach for the nearest nuclear arsenal to resolve differences. It has never been a healthy relationship.

Such conflicts color their policies and keep them in a negative holding pattern. While Pakistan and Afghanistan were embroiled in yet another feud over the transportation of consumer goods, India went on the warpath after the 18 September 2016 attack on its army base. No evidence had been provided that tied Pakistan to the terrorists before their relations went south. The subsequent war of words between Pakistan and India over the Uri attack quickly escalated, leading to an exchange of fire across the line of control. Trade talk took backseat. Nuclear war became the lead headline.

The ties binding Islamabad, Kabul and Delhi are flimsy, and break easily. The Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement – APTTA was signed in 2010 and meant to regulate bilateral trade between a landlocked Afghanistan and its Pakistani neighbor. It gave Kabul access to Pakistan based seaports and dry ports including the Wagah border to import duty free goods. The wordings that allow one-sided trade from Afghanistan to India via Pakistan and prevent Indian goods from reaching Afghanistan created a fresh unpleasantness.

Afghan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani threatened to return the favor by blocking trade routes to Central Asian nations for Pakistan. Afghanistan does not have much leverage at the moment so the loss of these Central Asian transit routes may not register on an economic level. But the loss of goodwill manifests itself in Kabul’s pivot towards India through the establishment of an air corridor proposed by Afghanistan and India – the acrimonious language by its President and the general air of suspicion that clouds the Af-Pak relationship.

The eastern front is no better. The retaliatory firing across the LOC (Line of Control) and failed attempts to breach the parameter from Indian side had been presented as surgical strike on Pakistani militant camps by Modi to mirror the OBL raid, which is a stretch, even for India. The collateral damage as a result of a firefight was the only sign that something was afoot.

Their respective stock market plummeted in the wake of the stand-off. They then attempted to stifle the few avenues left standing by banning each other’s cinema and actors. Cable TV’s came under pressure to follow suit. And celebrities were shamed for not taking sides.

Pakistan - India trade accounts for less than half percent of India’s global trade. Their economies will not be crippled given that trade stands at $ 2.61 billion dollars as of (2015-2016). But the commotion at the border that allows India to sweep its human rights record under the mat distracts from more pressing matters – that includes regional economic uplift and counter terrorism efforts.

There is no easy fix for the endless provocations emanating from the neighborhood. Economic and security cooperation between Pakistan - Afghanistan appears to be a pipedream under the circumstances. India wants a slice of the APTTA/ PTTTA pie and there had been suggestions of a trilateral transit trade.

But India by its own admission is also playing the long game. It seeks a higher power differential outgunning Pakistan in military, economic and diplomacy by 2025. All its energies are therefore directed at isolating Pakistan. But a few interesting developments have happened since then that put Islamabad on surer ground. Namely, the BRICS summit where China and Russia refused to denounce Pakistan; Pak-Russian rapprochement and joint military exercises by former Cold War adversaries on Pakistani soil.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan remain deadlocked. What would the landscape be like should these three nations ever decide to partner up for commerce instead of finding themselves engaged in a zero sum game? Perhaps they are then less likely to think sabotage, with major investments on the line. Or burn cultural bridges that took years to build and devise strategies to undercut the opposing players in the bid for the brass ring. China, despite the relationship woes with its neighbor happens to be India’s ‘largest trading partner.’ The Indo-China trade is reportedly $100 billion dollars (2015).

The region that had been reverberating with the drumbeats of war has no safeguards in place to check neighbors with hegemonic designs or encourage conflict resolution. An economic stake may assure that both nuclear nations would perhaps think twice before dusting off war slogans to appease national honor and push each other to the brink of an Armageddon to assuage wounded pride or imagined slights.



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