ON his first foreign trip, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena inked, along with other deals, a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India. For Modi, this is being billed as his first ‘big ticket achievement’ in the field of diplomacy
It is part of an effort by India to roll back Chinese influence in the island nation, as the previous government had made it a point to grow closer to China. Under Rajapaksa, Colombo had increased defence cooperation with China, which was also funding the construction of a port in Colombo. In addition to this, China has, over the last nine years or so, provided Sri Lanka with substantial soft loans and such meant largely for infrastructure projects.
The same kind of tug of war can be seen in the Maldives, where China and India are vying to develop a crucial military port. Last December, Male’s main water plant burned down, causing a severe drinking water crisis. India immediately responded by sending supplies of drinking water to the Maldives. Not to be left behind, China also dispatched naval and air vessels loaded with drinking water.
Behind this diplomatic one-upmanship is strategic necessity. The answer as to why China wants to improve relations with Sri Lanka and the Maldives lies in what a 2005 US report called the ‘String of pearls’, a series of naval bases meant to secure China’s lifeline: the naval trade routes that stretch from China’s eastern coast all the way around Southeast Asia, through the Indian Ocean and on to points beyond, the Persian Gulf and Africa. China itself prefers the term ‘Maritime silk route’, claiming that all Beijing wants is access to these waterways and not naval bases per se.
Either way, the importance of these routes to China cannot be underestimated, and as can be seen, the impetus for securing friendly relations with the littoral states is increasing.
Obama’s visit to India has no doubt magnified China’s fears.
To some Indian strategists, this is seen as a Chinese attempt to encircle India in conjunction with Pakistan. China’s own concerns are larger, and the nightmare scenario of a hostile US (currently in the midst of its Asian Pivot) choking off China’s lifeline looms large. Obama’s recent visit to India has no doubt magnified such fears, and it seems fairly apparent that the United States’ new strategic focus will be seen in India as an opportunity to create an alliance aimed at countering and possibly containing China.
The possibility of either scenario actually unfolding is unlikely, but strategic forecasts are not made on the basis of wishful thinking.
It is also no coincidence that while Obama was in India, COAS Sharif was in China; there can in fact be no clearer signal of which strategic orbit Pakistan has chosen. But then, there is little choice in the matter. Our relations with India make the idea of China and India competing to woo Pakistan a laughable one, and China offers us a way to leverage our geographical position into economic gain and security.
That’s because the Pakistan China Economic Corridor offers China an alternate route to the waters of the Arabian Sea, reducing its dependence on the maritime route. It also links the underdeveloped western parts of China with the global economy. This is crucial for China, which tends to believe that prosperity settles most arguments, and feels that if the western regions were developed, it would take the wind out of the sails of the Uighur rebels. In short, they hope that if the bellies of the people of those regions are full, they will have little appetite for militancy.
Something close to that argument applies in Pakistan as well. The areas around the route of the PCEC will no doubt benefit economically, and give the residents and locals a stake in peace and development. Now while this will certainly in the long term lessen support for insurgents and anti-state fighters, in the short-term the route will become a prime target.
For the Balochistan Liberation Army and its ilk, the prosperity that such a route would bring to parts of Balochistan is anathema, as it would reduce their appeal and recruitment. Similarly, the TTP will also make all efforts to attack such a project, as will the proxies of those powers (regional and otherwise) that are anxious to see the PCEC fail. Crucially, while the Chinese will no doubt say that the route itself is up to the Pakistan government, so long as it fulfils its core strategic function, one doubts whether they would be inclined to see it run through high-risk areas.
The PCEC is absolutely crucial to Pakistan’s long-term stability and, with increased cooperation with Afghanistan, can truly be a game-changer in regional politics. It is thus crucial that the government try to build consensus about the route, but equally important that it stands firm in its commitment to see the project through regardless of political protests.