By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: It may come as a rude surprise to our soi-disant strategic experts, bogged down with a myopic India-centric worldview, to learn that a China-Pakistan-Iran-Russia axis may be in a nascent stage of crystallisation. What would possibly be even more alarming to that tribe of self-imagined policy sages is that Modi’s India is concurrently ostensibly at its nadir – geopolitically speaking.
Coming down to brass tacks, allow me to begin by quoting relevant excerpts from an engrossing, recent write-up in Karachi’s Dawn by former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar who asserts that, from an Indian perspective, the month of November was a “defining moment in the geopolitics of the region.”
Quite apart from recalling that during November 2016 the $ 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was operationalised by Chinese ships docking at Gwadar to carry the first containers brought by a Chinese trade convoy from Xinjiang for despatch to world markets, Bhadrakumar informs that sometime earlier in the same month of November “Gwadar also received Russia’s Federal Security Services chief, Alexander Bogdanov.”
As the former Indian diplomatist tells it, the Bogdanov visit was not merely “a hush-hush inspection tour aimed assessing the efficacy of Russian ships using the port during their long voyages, to assert Russia’s return to the world stage” but, to boot, constituted the “first visit by a Russian spy chief to Pakistan in over two decades and it took place just as America elected a new president, Donald Trump.”
Before proceeding any further into this conversation it may be worthwhile, for the sake of proper perspective and respect for nuance, to remember that CPEC is a mélange of assorted projects that are intended to boost connectivity between China’s landlocked eastern province of Xinjiang and Pakistan’s well-endowed but generally untouched coastline, including the Gwadar port that sits virtually at the opening of the Gulf from the Arabian Sea.
To return to Bogdanov’s Pakistan trip, it is certainly intriguing that it took place “just a few weeks before the planned strategic dialogue between Russia, China and Pakistan, ostensibly regarding Afghanistan, in Moscow” in December. No less worthy of attention is that China’s regional diplomacy is moving in tandem with the new China-Iran diplomatic dynamic, as would clearly be suggested by the recent visit to Iran by Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wangquan, who, one is informed, described his meetings as “signifying a turning point in the China-Iran strategic partnership.”
What is more, as Bhadrakumar firmly urges, “It is useful to remember that during (Chinese President) Xi’s visit to Iran in January 2016, the two countries had signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement that included a call for much closer defence and intelligence ties.” If, to the above developments, one adds the desire of Iran to “become part of CPEC, which was reportedly conveyed to (Pakistan) Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at their meeting in New York last September”, it would logically follow that “what we are witnessing is a historic shift in regional alignments which is to bring together China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran on the template of CPEC.”
Aside from the apparent birth portends of new regional alliances in the making, as suggested above, what is also unmistakable is a dramatic lowering of the Indian diplomatic/geopolitical profile. While much of the same was apparent in the hurtful rebuffs India faced at the BRICS summit in Goa in September (discussed in a previous column), a similarly ineluctable conclusion is this: despite all efforts to isolate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, South Block has been spectacularly unsuccessful.
That is most glaringly underlined in the profuse and unexpected encomiums heaped upon Sharif by Trump the other day, praise that contrasted with the absence of any similar gestures from the incoming American president for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi!
While on this theme I wish to recall the stunning setback that Indian diplomacy suffered in Bangladesh, long regarded as virtually an Indian client state, not only during Xi’s landmark visit there en route to Goa but also subsequently when Dhaka went ahead and purchased two Chinese submarines! One has only to recall the paranoid hue and cry that New Delhi whipped up over the fact that a Chinese submarine had visited a Sri Lankan port, soon after Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, to assimilate the strategic import of such a transformation in the sub-continental mood.
Indeed, today not only Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but the Maldives and even Bhutan – if you can believe it – have signalled their unwillingness to take Indian political dictation lying down.
Going beyond South Asia, one has only to note Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ cooperative moves towards China to understand how much ice India’s Look East policy is cutting these days. In fact, one is informed that even Singapore has indicated to India that she is no longer interested in joining her in her futile bid twembarrass China on the South China Sea issue. Singapore is a pragmatic state; it knows which side of its trade/investment bread is buttered!
Though India does not have ‘a dog in the fight’ – to use an Americanism – Modi has rashly taken the Japanese side getting itself needlessly entangled in roiling Japan-China tensions.
Finally, as far as Modi’s India is concerned, the world has seen that the Japan has not only crumbled with the quietus provided to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) by US president-elect Trump who will possibly have a less active role in Asia-Pacific than the Obama administration had with its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy.
As far as Nepal is concerned, what is there to say except that our ‘Indo-pendent’ politicos are behaving like ostriches with their heads in the sand? They amazingly seem blind that Indian diplomacy/prestige is in a shambles. Yet they continue to behave most obsequiously towards India – a posture that, in time, will surely exact from them a very heavy price.