Decoding India-Pakistan-China relations
There has been a flurry recently of diplomatic activity in South Asia. On Sunday Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left for Havana where he is expected to meet President Musharraf on the sidelines.
Last week President Musharraf signed an agreement with the Taliban located in Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. According to the agreement the militants agreed to stop attacks on Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. In return Pakistan would release their prisoners, return their weapons, and allow them to live in peace. This set the mood for the President’s two day visit to Afghanistan where he conferred with President Hamid Karzai. Both leaders agreed to fight terrorism. President Musharraf reiterated that he would never allow foreign troops to enter the tribal belt or any other part of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, just after Pakistan’s peace deal with the Taliban, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telephoned President Ahmadinejad of Iran and spoke with him for fifteen minutes. According to the PMO, the two leaders discussed the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and resolved to accelerate it. The projected oil pipeline would have to pass through Baluchistan. Would the two leaders not have referred also to the crisis in Baluchistan?
For meaningful inference from all this, certain trends that could have a bearing on coming events in the region deserve attention. Consider the Pakistan-Taliban deal. A section of the Taliban is located in Baluchistan. Its members are anti-US, pro-China and unsympathetic to the local Baluch insurgents. President Musharraf has shown no sign of accommodating Baluch demands. On the contrary he has reiterated his resolve to crush the rebellion. His deal with the Taliban will therefore strengthen his hand in Baluchistan. Through concessions, he has bought peace with Taliban to secure NWFP’s tribal belt.
This should please Beijing. China has a huge stake in Baluchistan where it develops Gwadar port and carries on mining operations. Presence in Gwadar will allow China to control the Straits of Hormuz to ensure smooth energy supplies from West Asia. An independent Baluchistan on the other hand would not only remove Chinese control of Gwadar, it would also jeopardize a future oil pipeline from Iran to Xingjian. President Musharraf’s deal with the Taliban could indicate therefore a decisive Pakistani shift from the US to China. The US too has vital interests in Baluchistan. Baluchistan provides the best route for gas pipelines from Central Asia.
President Musharraf’s promise to help America capture Osama has little value. The capture of Osama most likely does not depend on Pakistan’s cooperation. There have been persistent reports of Osama-sightings in areas close to Xingjian. Osama’s safest sanctuary is in China. It should be recalled that representatives of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) had met and struck a deal with Osama. Osama was to restrain an Uighur uprising in Xingjian. In return, PLA had agreed to build the communication network in Afghanistan which was then ruled by the pro-Osama Taliban. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed on the 9/11 day itself. Nothing has happened subsequently to suggest a weakening of ties between Osama, Taliban and PLA.
Debka File, an Israeli intelligence website, reported the entrenchment of Al Qaeda in Little Pamir, which is Osama’s safest sanctuary. It also reported a strong Al Qaeda presence in Xingjian’s border town of Kushi, where Al Qaeda cadres have been absorbed by Uighur Muslim extremist cells.
How would Iran view developments in Baluchistan? Iran’s own Baluch population would make Tehran averse to any demand for Baluch independence. But if China consolidates in Gwadar via a compliant President Musharraf, Iran’s own leverage through its port Bandar Abbas – which controls the Straits of Hormuz – would diminish. Would Iran countenance that? Paradoxically, American and Iranian interests might coincide in Baluchistan.
President Musharraf may have secured peace with home-grown Taliban. But what of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Is it not a matter of time before Pushtuns on both sides of the border make common cause to undo a division bequeathed by imperialism?
It should be noted that the Taliban commitment to Osama and to Al Qaeda is not binding. After 9/11, Kabul’s Taliban government was prepared to hand over Osama to a third country outside the US. America rejected the offer. The Pushtuns originally welcomed Al Qaeda not because it was a friend but because it was an enemy’s enemy. The Taliban would honor its ties to ensure safe passage to Osama. It would not jeopardize its own future. And what could be its future?
The key to this lies in the Durand Line Treaty which lapsed in 1993. According to it, whenever the Treaty lapsed the tribal belt areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province were to return to Afghanistan. Because this was not done the Afghan government refused to renew the Treaty. Will not the Taliban get around to implementing that clause of the Treaty? And would not Pushtuns of Pakistan seeking reunification with their blood brothers support them? And would not even the Hamid Karzai government be compelled to support this demand if it gathered momentum?
As for Baluchistan – the borders of the province tended almost entirely to coincide with those of Kalat State – it remained independent for a full year after Partition. Only after that was it forcibly annexed through a treaty signed under coercion of Pakistan’s army. Why did this happen? Because in 1946, when Britain’s departure appeared imminent, the Khan of Kalat represented to the British government that Baluchistan was not part of British India. The lawyer who forcefully argued his case was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. As long as Jinnah lived Baluchistan remained independent. Only after his death did Pakistan annex it.
How will all these pulls and pressures resolve themselves? Much depends on the role of China. In November President Hu Jintao is expected in India. He remains an enigma. Either he is diabolically duplicitous or he has yet not consolidated power. He seems unable to control North Korea which survives on Chinese largesse and which derived its nuclear programme from China. So, is President Hu posturing before the world or can North Korean leader Kim Jong look for support from others in China?
Former president Jiang Zemin’s loyalists continue to occupy powerful positions in the government. Their policies run counter to the policies of President Hu. President Hu wants to contain the rapacious economics of the Shanghai group and to help China’s peasantry. But to keep Chinese economy afloat he must depend heavily on expanding exports. That’s why he needs India, a potentially huge export market. Keeping these trends in mind, the government should dispassionately assess how much, and at what price, does India really need China?