KC Singh | Rising India's challenge: Tackling China, Pakistan

The peace card appears unplayable in both nations due to domestic political compulsions.

The year 2023 opened with interesting developments involving Pakistan and China and their impact on India’s national interests. This was before the public discourse was hijacked by a BBC documentary on the 2002 Godhra riots and the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat. The external affairs ministry dropped all other tasks and commenced to demonise the documentary and its makers. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attempted some damage control with an intervention in Parliament, albeit too measured to be effective.

Preceding it, two events caused intense speculation about India’s relations with Pakistan and China. The first was an interview Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif gave to television the Al-Arabiya channel during his visit to the UAE. He conceded that three wars with India caused unemployment, poverty and economic damage in Pakistan, and added that his nation had “learnt its lesson”. However, while seeking normal relations with India, he added the caveat that this could only happen if “burning issues” were sorted out. He explained that India must roll back the constitutional changes made in August 2019, including the abrogation of the special rights of Jam-mu and Kashmir under Article 370. This was a reiteration of Pakistan’s already known position, which even former Prime Minister Imran Khan had articulated.

The Indian reaction was less than enthusiastic, even verging on scepticism. If any proof was needed that even among the ruling coalition in Pakistan there was no unanimity, Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Zardari Bhutto during his visit to the United States made undiplomatic and scathing remarks about the Indian Prime Minister. More recently his deputy, Hina Rabbani Khar, sharing the stage with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at Davos on January 19, alleged that the statesmanship which India used to display episodically was now completely absent. Sri Sri was left to restate the Indian position that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism was the root cause of mutual distrust.

Meanwhile, it emerged that after China lifted its lock on the process, Abdul Rahman Makki, the deputy leader of dreaded terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was finally listed as a terrorist by the 1267 UN Sanctions Committee. Is there some connection between these random events? Firstly, the context is important. Shehbaz Sharif was in the UAE to solicit financial aid as Pakistan’s financial condition neared meltdown. Pakistan is aware of the personal rapport that Mr Modi has been able to generate with Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed. It has been an old assessment of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family that because of their strong relations with both India and Pakistan and the citizens of both nations being present in UAE in dominant numbers, good India-Pakistan relations benefit their nation. It is possible that the United States had a hand in encouraging the Emiratis to mediate. Relations between the US and Pakistan have also been on the mend of late after the ouster of Mr Imran Khan. The killing by a US drone of Zayman al-Zawaahiri, Al Qaeda’s surviving leader, in Kabul had all the signs of Pakistani intelligence help. The worsened relations between the ruling Taliban in Kabul and Pakistan have been becoming more apparent by the day. This also converges the American and Pakistani assessment of Afghanistan.

Therefore, the Sharif epiphany may have occurred due more than sudden self-realisation. Pakistan’s financial vulnerability would embolden those bailing it out to try weaning it away from China and embedding it in a peaceful South Asian construct. Logically, only this can provide a sustainable solution to Pakistan’s financial health. As China’s economic rise helped lift Asean nations like Vietnam, a rising India can bring prosperity to all of South Asia, provided of course that India-Pakistan differences stop being a hurdle.

However, the time is not yet ripe for such wise counsel. India is barely a year away from the next Lok Sabha election, for which the ruling BJP is already gearing up. Pakistan too will face a national election this year, with an ascendant Imran Khan threatening to seize power back. Thus, Mr Sharif can’t present Mr Khan any vulnerability that a compromise on their Kashmir stand would constitute. Likewise, in India, with a global economic slowdown likely on the way and its possible impact on India, the Narendra Modi government cannot risk diluting its majoritarian nationalist plank. The peace card appears unplayable in both nations due to domestic political compulsions.

China presents a very different challenge. President Xi Jinping, having consolidated power, appears to be calibrating China’s aggressive posture. After an about turn on the “Zero Covid” policy, he has allowed the virus to surge through his indifferently vaccinated population. After weeks of denying mass deaths, China finally announced that 59,938 persons died of Covid-19 between December 8 and January 12. Even this figure is considered by most international experts as an undercount. China also conceded that at the end of 2022 China had 850,000 fewer people than at the start. It was the first population drop since the disastrous Great Leap Forward that ended in 1962. The Chinese fertility rate lingers at 1.2 per cent when the replacement threshold is 2.1 per cent. Alongside, the Chinese economy last year only grew at three per cent, the weakest since 1976. This bodes ill for future growth as it starves the economy of fresh workers, besides creating a growing number of older and non-productive people who will need pensions and healthcare.

Chinese exports were also down 9.9 per cent on a year-on-year basis.
But this is where a new contradiction emerges. Xi’s New Year address adopted a less aggressive and more measured tone. Muscle-flexing on the unification of Taiwan was dropped, as were dark warnings about external forces. Statesmanship emerged as the new talisman as President Xi promised that “we cherish peace and development and value friends and partners”. However, on January 18, he had a video conference with the PLA forces near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Khunjerab and reportedly “inspected their combat readiness”. He postulated that “in recent years the area has been constantly changing”. Noticeably, the area faces the eastern part of Ladakh where the post-Galwan standoff between India and China still persists in some sectors. This came as Bhutan sat down to sort out its border issue with China. New Delhi’s nervousness at being outflanked was apparent as the foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra rushed to Thimphu to decipher China’s moves.

India needs to introspect on President John F. Kennedy’s remark that “domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us”. When a democracy is imperilled by majoritarian nationalism, the reverse can be true as well.

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