India’s zero-sum game on Chabahar hinders regional cooperation

Chabahar_port_night_viewBy Farooq Yousaf

South Asia is witnessing a major geo-strategic shift, especially after Trump’s ‘new’ policy for Afghanistan. Where Barack Obama was quite subtle in his approach, Trump, on the other hand, has remained quite explicit. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his recent South Asian tour, conveyed a strong message of new US inclinations towards India vis-à-vis Afghan politics. He also left Pakistan fuming with threats of unilateral actions by Washington in the region. Tillerson told the civil-military leadership in Islamabad that “If Pakistan failed to act against terrorists, US will get it done in a different way”. In response, the Pakistani leadership conveyed to Mr Tillerson that not only was Pakistan now less dependent on US military aid, but that it wished for ‘equal’ ties with Washington.

These developments initially had taken Pakistan aback. The US, though, did send a high level delegation in October to mend tense ties, but anti-Pakistan statements coming out of Washington, from US military’s top brass, gave a clear indication that the US was not serious in addressing Pak-US tensions. Making the situation worse for Islamabad, President Ghani of Afghanistan has already made his position clear on where he stands on future alliances and partnerships. Also, the recent inauguration of Chabahar Port in Iran and shipment of first consignment to Afghanistan, which India said ‘was a gift for the people of Afghanistan, also put question marks on future of Af-Pak transit trade.

With Khwaja Asif already making important state visits in recent months, especially that of China, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bajwa chose Iran for his high-profile visit. These visits indicated Pakistan’s intentions of finally looking eastward for new long term alliances. For Pakistan, Gen Bajwa’s Iran visit at least helped in dispelling rumours that Tehran was colluding with India and Afghanistan (read Chabahar) against Pakistan. In all of this, India seems to be taking pleasure in Pakistan’s now fragile ties with the US and Afghanistan.

For India the South Asian battle for strategic importance has already been won. New Delhi believes that the US scolding, and allegedly abandoning, of Pakistan is a ‘welcome change’. Also, the US position on CPEC – claiming the CPEC passing through disputed territory – has also brought unparalleled joy to India. Unfortunately for India, it is a bit too early to celebrate. For a simple matter, how can the US seriously consider abandoning Pakistan at a time when its forces have failed to gain any ground in Afghanistan? Also, can Trump risk isolating Pakistan, especially when his country alleges Islamabad of having ‘control’ over the Afghan Taliban?

It clearly seems that the whole Indian narrative is based on undermining China and its flagship China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Chabahar Port’s inauguration has been boasted in the Indian media as the ‘next big thing’ for the region and that it can easily compete with CPEC’s Gwadar port. Sadly, though, it is such a narrative and approach that impedes regional growth, cooperation and development. Where both Gwadar and Chabahar can work in sync – and bring together India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and China – India seems to be aiming for a zero sum game; taking joy in competing with an economy (of China) far greater than its own. The South Asia and Af-Pak region can’t afford such self-proclaimed chest thumping at such a critical juncture in time.

The Taliban – as per recent reports – control their largest territory in Afghanistan since they were overthrown from USA in 2001. Not only this, but a recent Guardian report also revealed how Taliban militants, previously based in Pakistan’s FATA, are now moving towards Iran because ‘they don’t trust Pakistan anymore’. Such transnational movements by a militant group bears major risk of destabilising the whole region. Such groups should be seen as a mutual problem, rather than perceived as one proxy against the other. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan need to recognize that the region’s security and economic progress can only come through mutual cooperation. Without such multi-lateral cooperation – with militant groups hurting most of the region – achieving peace would remain a distant and improbable proposition.

The writer is a PhD (Politics) Candidate studying at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He also consults Islamabad based Center for Research and Security Studies. He tweets @faruqyusaf

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