Indian PM Modi’s address was, on one level, directed towards Pakistan at a deeper level, it also targeted China’s attitude to India, writes LINDSAY HUGHES Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the seventieth anniversary of India’s declaration of independence along with his country on 15 August. In keeping with the tradition established by the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Modi addressed the country from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi, the seat of the Mughal dynasty. In keeping with his own ways, Mr Modi provided a “report card” on the functioning of his administration to the people of India. His speech, which ran for over an hour and a half, touched upon issues such as economic progress, keeping inflation in check, ensuring financial inclusion, education drives, health and the provision of electricity to villages.
It is interesting, to say the least, that he did not expend much time or effort on elaborating on the issue that could possibly become one of his greater accomplishments: the Goods and Services Tax that, for the first time, could see India become a single, unified market of 1.25 billion people and a US$2 trillion economy. The backers of the new tax system believe that it could see India’s growth rate increase by a further two per cent and create employment opportunities. It would not be cynical to state that the benefits that the GST can bring to India could see Mr Modi and his party re-elected to office in 2019.
These issues notwithstanding, Modi’s speech was most notable for his allusions to human rights abuses in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Pakistani-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan that borders Kashmir. Whereas previously Pakistani leaders had spoken of “freeing” Kashmir from India, their Indian counterparts would, at most, refer to Kashmir as remaining Indian. Modi broke with that stand, surprising Pakistan and leading its political leaders to declare that he had “crossed a red line”. Pakistan’s leaders have, since independence in 1948, called on India to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir to allow the people there to decide if they wish to accede to Pakistan or to remain with India. As a previous FDI analysis has shown, this is a very one-sided argument that, if India were to agree to it, would require all Pakistani troops to be withdrawn from Kashmir before a plebiscite could be held. Mr Modi said that after he previously mentioned the issue of human rights abuses in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, the people of those regions thanked him. As he stated, ‘I am grateful to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] who have thanked me in the past few days. If the people of Balochistan thank me, they are thanking the 125 crore Indians.’ It appears that has initiated a new, hardened attitude towards Pakistan.
Reports of human rights abuses in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (also here) have caused a considerable degree of discomfort in Islamabad. While the publicity that these reports generate adds to the negative perceptions that Pakistan faces internationally, the greater risk they pose could be in influencing international perceptions of the China-Pakistan Economic and Defence Co-operation (CPEC) project. Pakistan has reportedly spared nothing and no one to ensure that the project is implemented.
The CPEC project aims to pipe gas from Iran through Pakistan’s restive Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan regions to China’s western Xinjiang region which, incidentally, is itself not as settled as Beijing would like. To facilitate this project, China is said to be investing around US$46 billion in it. Apart from the welcome energy and economic boost that this would provide, Pakistan sees the project further cementing strategic ties between the two countries. This is especially welcome at a time when the US, until recently a strong ally, is rapidly cutting its ties with Pakistan. In Islamabad’s perception, strong strategic ties with China would enable it to counter arch-rival India. China, moreover, is reported to have agreed to supply Pakistan with modern submarines, which could make India’s task of blockading Karachi port in times of conflict, as India did during its 1971 war with Pakistan, more dangerous.
China sees the CPEC as an important asset because India could, with its own rapidly modernising navy, blockade the Strait of Malacca in any conflict between the two countries, thus depriving China of the major part of its energy imports. There appears to be some validity to this judgement. Although China decidedly won a border war against India in 1962, it is likely that any future war between the two on land would either end in a stalemate or be protracted, outcomes that neither country would wish to see. A conflict between the two would, therefore, be more likely to take place at sea, which would place Chinese oil supplies at risk.
The CPEC, however, more likely faces internal, rather than external, dangers. For a start, its pipelines run for a good fifty per cent of their length through Balochistan, which makes it a prime target for insurgent groups there. It is in this context that the statement of Indian Security Adviser Ajit Doval, to the effect that if Pakistan were to encourage one more attack akin to the one that Pakistan-based fighters launched on Mumbai in 2011, it would lose Balochistan indicate a change in strategy. Speaking at a public event in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in January 2015, Mr Doval decried India’s defensive attitude in regard to Pakistan’s use of non-conventional tactics, saying, ‘We want to deal with Pakistan in a way that is fair, correct and transparent.’ He also spoke, however, of standing up to Pakistan and “not bending” to its pressure tactics. In April of the same year he adopted a harder stand, saying, ‘We would like to solve problems with Pakistan through negotiations… But, on the other hand, India would like to have an effective deterrent to deal with terrorism.’ It was, however, his statement on Balochistan that created a degree of anxiety. Mr Doval warned Pakistan directly, ‘If you do one Mumbai [26/11], you may lose Balochistan.’
While many in Pakistan were quick to point out that this demonstrated that India was working with Balochi insurgents, just as Pakistan claimed, it was equally clear that Mr Doval was reflecting the hard line that his employer, Mr Modi, was rapidly adopting on Pakistan. The direct threat to the Sino-Pakistani CPEC through the tacit use of Balochi insurgents saw Pakistan set fifteen thousand troops in place to protect it and the Chinese personnel who are working on it.
This issue aside, it has been reported that the project has stalled because of infighting among the various government departments in Pakistan, each one wanting to manage parts of it. While on the one hand, it is reported that progress is indeed being made (although the images that the report refers to do not show any), other reports state unequivocally that no progress is being made. The latter report makes the point, in fact, that China has requested that the Pakistani army, which has personnel with the requisite skills and experience, be placed in charge of the project. Apart from the obvious danger of a heavy-handed military response to any threat to the project, which could lead to more calls for Balochi independence, there is the equally obvious danger of the Pakistani army having even more influence on Pakistani policy.
There are, furthermore, other internal pressures that Pakistan faces relating to the CPEC. Balochi leaders have claimed, for instance, that the pipeline’s route was changed so as to benefit provinces like the Punjab, which dominates Pakistani politics. As one report observes:
Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest and least populous province, has waged a separatist insurgency since 1947. Islamabad sent the army into Balochistan in 2005 to quell the insurgency, which only further aggravated the situation. It is telling that Baloch insurgents, allegedly, targeted and killed Chinese personnel in the province in 2006. China chooses not to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and, apart from pressuring Islamabad to react to the killings and providing it with some military hardware, did little else. If, however, Chinese personnel are now killed in larger numbers by insurgents or the Taliban, Beijing will be hard pressed not to take a more active stance. It will be interesting to see how far the Pakistani military will go towards quelling such violence without causing all-out domestic strife, which can only distract from the economic progress it has to make.
It must be noted, however, that Mr Modi’s remarks were also directed at China. This is likely in response to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s mishandling of the situation during his visit to India recently. China is due to chair the G-20 summit in Hangzhou later this year. In the aftermath of its legal loss over its claims to territory in the South China Sea, Beijing is trying to ensure that it gives the perception to an international audience that it remains a rules-based power. It is worried, therefore, that states such as the US and India could raise that issue and highlight the fact that China has refused to accept to the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, thus negating any claim to being a follower of international law. Any such moves by these countries could embarrass the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders, including President Xi, internationally and, arguably more importantly, domestically.
It was against this backdrop that Foreign Minister Wang visited India recently. The objective of his visit was, ostensibly, to preview the measures being taken for President Xi’s visit to India for the BRICS summit to be held in Goa. Wang’s comments during his visit led observers to believe that he was intrinsically linking India’s attitude towards China during the G-20 Summit with China’s response towards India during the BRICS meeting. Effectively, what Wang was saying was that if India raised the South China Sea issue in Beijing, China would work to embarrass India in Goa. This approach appears to have backfired. China needs to be seen to be a responsible player not just at the G-20 but at virtually every other summit it attends. On the other hand, the partial promise that Wang held out to India – that of reconsidering India’s accession to membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which China blocked at that group’s last plenary in Seoul – is not sufficiently concrete enough to persuade India to desist from criticising China during the G-20 or, worse, working with regional countries and the US towards forming a coalition of some kind to counter Xi’s legacy: the “One Belt, One Road” project. New Delhi will more than likely play upon this tactic to obtain concrete assurances from Beijing that it will not impede India’s membership to the NSG.
China will have noted, furthermore, that Mr Modi feels sufficiently confident in his ability to balance China by raising the issue of Balochistan and tacitly threatening the CPEC. At a time when its economy is slowing rapidly, employment opportunities dwindling and foreign investment diminishing, China can ill-afford to ignore the collective anger of its citizens. It needs to ensure that India will not do anything to damage the CPEC project.
Again, at a time when China itself faces negative perceptions internationally due to its aggressive bid for territory in the South China Sea, it can ill-afford to generate similar perceptions among locals in Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and further afield. Beijing is likely, therefore, to insist that Islamabad take measures to ensure that the project remains secure and that the people in these regions see the benefits that the CPEC can provide in terms of jobs and wealth. If Islamabad is to do that, however, it will need to rein in the excesses of its military and adopt a completely new tack with the people who live there.
Whether the Pakistani leaders have the political will to do so is debatable. They will, moreover, realise there is a major danger in doing so: Mr Modi could claim the credit for making it happen.
This post originally published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd. Visit: www.futuredirections.org.au