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The trade of barbs

By Tariq Mahmud

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s latest statement that the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) wasunacceptable to India has evoked a sharp response in Pakistan, but it should not surprise many considering the broader objective of the BJP government to needle Pakistan whenever possible. Her salvo coincides with a heightened wave of terrorism and ethnic killings in Baluohistan, a province which is likely to reap maximum economic benefits should the corridor come to fruition. Ms Swaraj is reported to have quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in his recent trip to Beijing took up the matter with the Chinese leadership conveying his country’s serious reservations on the CPEC. India has upped the ante on the pretext that the corridor passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) which is disputed territory. Pakistan’s reaction, rather being upfront, has been bland and placating. National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz has explained things in terms of the economic connectivity the corridor will promote in the region. In my view there are far more convincing historical reasons that rubbish the Indian argument.

India’s intentions are far too obvious. It is to scuttle a move which brings economic opportunities to Pakistan in general and peace and stability in the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in particular. These are the regions where an existential war against terrorism is raging. At the same time, India is anxious about the growing role that China is going to play with a vast opening in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf through the deep sea port of Gwadar and land linkages. It will have close access to the Middle East and African markets where it is making sizeable investments. The Indian move is a reminder to China to forget about playing a greater strategic and political role on the fringes of the Indian Ocean. India, thus, is missing no opportunity to undermine Chinese efforts southwards or even eastwards where the former, by aligning with the US and Japan, is underpinning China through the Asia Pacific pivot.

Coming to the worth and substance of India’s objection to the CPEC, it is interesting to note that it is the same old road network known as the Karakoram Highway built in the 1970s. Work on the Karakoram Highway started way back in 1959 before the 1962 Indian military debacle against China. It took 20 arduous years to complete the project connecting the Xinjiang region in China with Pakistan through G-B, one of the highest road alignments in the world. In this rare feat of engineering over a thousand Pakistanis and Chinese engineers and workers lost their lives due to landslides and other occupational hazards. Interestingly, despite the state of denial by India, this connectivity is internationally recognised and is part of the Asian Highway network, which is spread over 32 countries from Japan to destinations in Europe with a total length of 140,000km. The Karakoram Highway link is known as Asian Highway 4 or AH 4.

On a personal note, this scribe was elected as chairman of the Asian Highway network at its biannual conference in Bangkok in 2005 held under the UNESCAP. Delegates from 26 countries, including India were present at the moot. The conference resolved that there was a need to upgrade and improve the whole network and strengthen its multi-modal linkages to promote and expand trade all along the region. India has been a signatory to intergovernmental agreements and has ratified the same nearly a decade ago. Therefore, it is strange to see the latest Indian stand.

Coming to AH 4, the only thing that is going to happen is that the link will be widened with an improved gradient to increase the capacity of transportation by more than three times. The BJP government’s move to encircle Pakistan through psychological ploys is understandable as muscle-flexing along the Line of Control has not borne much result. The BJP government, in all likelihood, wishes to deflect international attention from Kashmir where its desperate moves to undo Article 370 of the Indian Constitution giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir and efforts to create separate enclaves for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits are at a critical stage. These moves are facing stiff resistance by Kashmiri Muslims of the Valley. India’s constant refrain of accusing Pakistan of fomenting cross-border terror in Jammu and Kashmir is losing its steam as facts on ground speak to the contrary as there has been a distinct fall in acts of militancy. Pakistan has no time and energy to support cross-border incursions with a full- scale war on terrorism raging in the country.

However, there are some Indian concerns that need serious consideration. The main one is regarding the slow trial of the Mumbai attack culprits. What India tends to forget is that Pakistan’s criminal justice system is as snail-paced as the Indian one, as the latter has failed in bringing the culprits of the Samjhauta Express tragedy to justice. India’s insistence on pre-conditions to resume talks is not going to help the two countries either. Coercive diplomacy only succeeds when there is multilateral back-up and that too for good reasons. However, we do need to improve our symmetrical response. The Foreign Office’s articulation has been far from desirable without a well thought-out brief. Our sports organisations are showing pathetic indulgence knocking at the doors of Indian sports bodies for bilateral series. They should call it a day for a while and gauge the public mood which demands a respectable demeanour based on reciprocity of intent and proper public posturing.

Prime Minister Modi, during his recent visit to Bangladesh while addressing a select gathering in Dhaka, lashed out at Pakistan for his country’s woes while in the same breath he extolled India’s role in breaking up Pakistan in 1971. Criticising a neighbouring country by name from a third country’s soil is something rare in diplomatic history. It is a pity that Bangladesh as a sovereign country allowed this to happen from its soil. Waving a photograph showing the signing of the surrender document by Indian and Pakistani commanders has given credence to the belief that there were only two actors in the 1971 war, India and Pakistan. This is indeed belittling the valour and spirit of Bengalis who fought a war of liberation for their homeland. It gives an impression that Prime Minister Hasina’s Wajed’s government is still under the shadows of a powerful India.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th,  2015.

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