China can manipulate Islamabad’s instability to heighten Indo-Pak border tension
By Mohan Das Menon | Published: 05th August 2017 10:00 PM |
India, Pakistan and China share numerous links, including merging borders, legal and illicit trade along those and differing degrees of exposure to the vagaries of British colonial rule. But, ideologically, the three have distinct political characteristics. While India is largely a people-driven democracy open to the world, Pakistan tends to be a democracy under the thumb of the military establishment that overshadows popular mandates, and thereby calls the shots in governance and formulation of national strategy. On another plane, China’s distinct political culture makes it a long-standing communistic state with perennially inward-looking Chinese characteristics. Historically, Beijing looks outward only for the certitude of profit. While the three countries do not constitute any Asian triumvirate, the impact of a sudden political transformation in one does often affect the other two distinctly if not materially or in similar proportion.
The recent developments in Pakistan also do so quite profoundly, impacting its intimate neighborhood. Commenting on the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ‘for life’ by the Supreme Court, the New York Times has underlined that the country’s apex court had on earlier occasions ‘legalised each one of Pakistan’s three successive military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, under the doctrine of necessity’. While the existential evidence in the corruption case against Sharif in the so-called Panama Papers was reportedly weak and non-substantive, a parallel has been drawn with a near similar disqualification of another prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani in 2012 for contempt of court for disallowing a judicial order with a distinct political intonation.
It remains to be seen whether Sharif, a successful business magnet of Pakistan and a popular political figure with a fairly noticeable base amidst Pakistan’s emerging middle-class youth component, will go down into oblivion or re-emerge on the unpredictably slippery surfaces of democratic experimentation to convey a message to his detractors in times ahead. The attempt to designate and place Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif as the political successor, once the latter enters the National Assembly, could be the first step in such a process. But the uncertainties latent in the fluid waters of Islamabad’s political arena—wherein military, judicial, political and human emotive currents coalesce—could throw up surprises. Apart from these overriding forces, Sharif has to confront the political opposition on ground spearheaded, among others, by Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the domineering radical voices of more fundamentalist denominations in the run-up to the elections polls next year.
With Pakistan’s ties with Washington no longer on a sturdy even keel, as they once were, the main beneficiary of such immanent political instability would invariably be Beijing—often referred to, with a tinge of humour in certain higher diplomatic planes of the United Nations, as Islamabad’s AVM or the ‘automated veto machine’. Beijing and Rawalpindi, the military nerve centre of Pakistan over past years, have been minutely synergising their national energies and strategies to target India within the United Nations over matters linked to the classification of international terrorists and a likely placement of Delhi in the Nuclear Supplies Group. If ever Pakistan’s cardinal interests get impinged in the global fora, including the UN, India has to contend more with China, a constituent of the Permanent Five in the UN Security Council, than the affected party itself. India’s decision to keep out of the Chinese landmark programming of OBOR has visibly unnerved Beijing, while Pakistan’s plan to allow itself to be strategically surrounded by a series of futuristic Chinese schemes has shocked a prudent constituency within itself.
In this backdrop, it is surprising that Beijing did not extend even a fig leaf of assistance to the former prime minister, who played a major role in the conception of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).While Sharif was being cornered through highly-motivated selective leaks of documents and the trial processes, the ruling circles in Beijing were aware of Pak military’s subterranean agencies being used for mobilisation of evidence from numerous world capitals. It is noteworthy that Beijing, after Sharif’s sudden ouster, has already announced that the $50 billion CPEC trade-corridor-pathway would have an uninterrupted run-up, marking an additional $4 billion provision over the initial cost estimate of $46 billion.
With Sino-Indian military stand-off along the Tri-junction area of Doklam showing no imminent sign of abating, a formally leaderless Islamabad could be exploited by interested quarters to heighten instability along the sensitive Indo-Pak border segments. Delhi has no other option but to reinforce its multi-dimensional border stolidity under such difficult circumstances.
Mohan Das Menon
Former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat