The recent statement by India’s National Investigation Agency chief Sharad Kumar exempting the Pakistani state from responsibility in the January attack on the Pathankot airbase by terrorists from across the border has thrown the Pakistani media on the wrong scent of reminding India that all its accusations against Pakistan in the past were also wrong. It is unforgivable that in South Asia even television newsreaders abandon their put-on objectivity by tilting into sarcasm against the neighbouring state.
Indian retired military officers are writing against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) seeing all kinds of evil conspiracies to harm India. According to them, this must be part of a plan to encircle India, already partly done by the Chinese troop deployment in Kashmir. Gwadar is being seen as the next Chinese naval base from where to challenge, and ultimately blockade, India. On the other hand, Pakistani retired officers view India’s Chabahar venture as aimed against Pakistan, a stepping stone to an encircling move in Afghanistan with Iran’s help.
Two retired Pakistani generals, both former defence secretaries, spoke at the Strategic Vision Institute workshop condemning the three-state trade hub at Chabahar in Iran as a threat to Pakistan’s security. They declared that the CPEC was no threat to India: “The alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan and Pakistan is going into isolation”, said one while the other described it as, “falling into an abyss of isolation”. Their recommendation was Pakistan should approach China for a written military pact that would commit China to come to Pakistan’s defence in case there was an India-Pakistan war over the Chabahar corridor. They should have known that China doesn’t sign such treaties.
Pakistan is small and comparatively weak, so it seeks extra-regional alliances before facing up to the Indian threat. Fear drives action more often than anger: Pakistan attacks but doesn’t win. And so far China has shown no interest in attacking India to save Pakistan from hurting itself. It didn’t budge when the Pakistan army was getting a drubbing in East Pakistan in 1971. And military experts in Islamabad must have been put off by a recent statement from the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang: “The projects (Chabahar and CPEC) have the potential to complement each other in boosting the otherwise sluggish economies of the region.” Lower down, Chinese officials have hinted at this earlier and even recommended thinking about making CPEC available for Chinese trade with India and Central Asia.
It is tragic that high-strung India and Pakistan have taken the opening of trading routes as a threat to their security, growling at each other while pretending to reach for their nukes. Pakistan, committed to SAARC pledges of “connectivity”, refused to allow SAARC-members India and Afghanistan to transit their goods through its territory. Normally the median state gains through transit duties, but in this case “security” is threatened if Indian goods pass through and the median state gains nothing. If there was some political advantage from allowing Afghan transit trade from Karachi it has already been nullified: 40 per cent of it is gone to Chabahar already and the rest is undermined by poor law and order in Pakistan.
Pakistan has become riled with Iran because of the latter’s connection with India. (It ignores its own heavy leaning in favour of Saudi Arabia in the Arab-Iran contest in the Gulf.) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran has raised hackles in India-centric Islamabad, and Chabahar has been held up as a “security risk”. And India’s own China-centricism should have been jolted by the fact that China is Iran’s biggest trading partner. India and Pakistan should both sit back and take another look at their security projections. China is easily Iran’s post-sanctions best friend after the January visit by Xi Jinping to Tehran and signing with President Hassan Rouhani a 25-year economic, political and military cooperation pact. There are 17 bilateral deals — agreements on oil drilling, nuclear energy and a vast infrastructure project linking China to the Mediterranean, known as One Belt, One Road. By the next decade, Rouhani predicted the bilateral trade climbing tenfold to $600 billion!
Pakistan has erred by imagining Afghanistan as the next battleground for an Indo-Pak confrontation, a kind of East Pakistan-in-reverse in which India is defeated by Pakistan. It should, in fact, see Afghanistan as a neighbour whose security is essential to Pakistan’s own. If there is trouble there, half the Pakhtun population shifts to Pakistan and doesn’t return home ever. It should allow Indo-Afghan connectivity for trade to get Afghanistan to jell as a state within its borders and not inflict population spillovers on its neighbours. Just as China needs regional outreach, India too needs it as the big China-like population behemoth no one would like to tangle with. Just as Pakistan should worry about Afghanistan, India should worry about an imploding Pakistan. Pakistan will remain the median state, Chabahar or no Chabahar; and it is in Pakistan’s interest — and India’s — to work with Afghanistan to allow the Turkmen gas pipeline to go to Pakistan and India. There is a need, now that the sanctions are gone, to revive the Iranian gas pipeline to Pakistan and extend it to India. This is the time to intermesh, not mess around.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Partners in paranoia’)