22 June 2012
Enhanced security cooperation between South Asia’s dominant powers remains unlikely, argues the CSS' Prem Mahadevan
Prepared by: ISN staff
Editor's Note: To conclude our week on power dynamics in South Asia, today we feature a written question and answer session with Dr Prem Mahadevan, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, on the future of security considerations in the region. The questions were prepared by the editorial staff of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
1) You’ve written that the biggest obstacle India faces is strategic collaboration between Pakistan and China, which diverts attention and resources away from poverty alleviation and towards defense. Do you still see this as India’s greatest challenge?
Sino-Pakistani collaboration is the biggest structural cause of India’s security deficit. Its contribution to regional instability tends to be underestimated.
First, there is the direct impact: in the event of military tension with either Pakistan or China, India constantly needs to be prepared to fend off an opportunistic attack by the other. Being neutralist, it cannot count on help from third parties, least of all since China and Pakistan are both nuclear states. The financial strain of remaining vigilant against a two-front threat, while bearable, saps the resources of what is still, in per capita terms, one of the world’s poorest countries. India is presently forced to prioritize security over development, because its security is undermined by external factors that lie beyond its control. Both China and Pakistan at the moment make claims to Indian frontier territory, while refusing to countenance reciprocal claims to frontier territories in their own possession. Their common uncompromising stance on the diplomatic level has emboldened both, especially Pakistan.
This leads to a second, indirect consequence: in an already suspicion-riddled context, Sino-Pakistani collaboration has inadvertently raised the risk of armed hostilities. Starting in the early 1980s, when it began receiving nuclear technology and large quantities of conventional armaments from China, Pakistan has been providing support to militant groups fighting India. Some of these groups, like Sikh and Kashmiri separatists, are composed of Indian nationals, and Pakistani assistance to them is basically a covert operation of the kind often undertaken during the Cold War. However, other groups are composed overwhelmingly of non-Indian nationals, thus raising the political stakes. When Pakistani militants launch cross-border assaults using terroristic tactics, as occurred in Mumbai in November 2008, Indian public opinion demands a military response. The Pakistani military and intelligence community, however, calculates that a combination of dissuasive factors, such as the risk of nuclear war, plus likely Chinese military intervention and Western diplomatic pressure, would prevent India from reacting to terrorist provocations. Thus, the situation becomes incrementally worse as terrorist groups continue to operate across India’s western border, under a Chinese-supplied nuclear shield.
2) What implications does this dynamic have for the region? In your view, what are the prospects of genuine economic and security cooperation between India and Pakistan (and by extension other South Asian nations) in the foreseeable future?
There are prospects for tactical cooperation on the economic front, intended primarily to boost narrow business interests. They are ‘genuine’ insofar as they potentially offer real and tangible benefits to those who are advocating them. However, at a strategic level, Pakistan has refused India’s suggestion that political differences should not be allowed to impede trade relations. Islamabad insists that Kashmir be resolved before economic ties can be normalized.
On the security front, the situation is similar: both governments have an obvious interest in protecting high-ranking visitors from the other side. So, if the Indian prime minister were to travel to Pakistan, as would probably happen in the not-very-distant future, there would be short-term arrangements to ensure that terrorist threats to his person are minimized. Beyond such isolated cases, there are very few prospects. Limited interest has been sporadically voiced in counter-narcotics and other police-level cooperation, but this gets completely overshadowed by the terrorism issue. Here, a massive trust deficit prevails, because India believes that sections of the Pakistani intelligence community are complicit in specific incidents of terrorism. In the case of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, these claims have been independently verified and supported by US investigators. However, Pakistan continues to avoid taking action against these individuals. The main operational planner of the Mumbai attacks, according to Indian Intelligence sources, was recently seen hanging around his family home in Lahore, but he has not even been questioned by the Pakistani authorities, much less apprehended.
With other countries, the prospects for cooperation are much brighter. India presently enjoys excellent relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan. The first two have been extremely helpful in security efforts against separatists in the Indian northeastern provinces. Although India has minor points of disagreement with Bangladesh, these are being addressed through dialogue and, in the absence of intervening variables such as a military coup or a political assassination in Dhaka, this dynamic is likely to continue. India also has strong economic interests in Afghanistan, having massively funded development efforts in that country. This in turn has led Afghanistan to enhance security cooperation with India, particularly with regard to radical Islamist groups.
3) Is Sino-Pakistani collaboration weakening at the moment? What do you make of suggestions, such as Evan Feigenbaum’s in Foreign Affairs last winter, that economic concerns (including a declining investment climate in Pakistan) are beginning to undermine the relationship?
The notion of Sino-Pakistani collaboration starting to weaken seems to be mere wishful thinking. The relationship has always been first and foremost, a military-driven one. Economic considerations are not even secondary; they are tertiary. Before them comes the consistent diplomatic support that Beijing has provided Islamabad, even going so far as to use its UN Security Council veto to shield terrorist groups based on Pakistani territory. The logic of the security partnership is simple: China provides military assistance to Pakistan, both conventional and nuclear. Pakistan uses this assistance to bolster its defenses against India, and from behind these defenses, carries out cross-border paramilitary operations using deniable assets. The Indian security establishment is forced to concentrate on domestic counterterrorism instead of developing long-range capabilities with extra-regional objectives. This leaves China as the sole Asian superpower – a situation which suits Beijing and Islamabad admirably.
Economics did not enter into the picture until recently, because Washington was liberally bankrolling the Pakistani economy. During both the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s and the post-9/11 War on Terrorism the US pumped vast quantities of aid money into Pakistan as a payoff for security cooperation. When it briefly suspended such assistance during the 1990s, Pakistan ran into severe economic difficulties because its ‘all-weather friend’ China did not see fit to step in and offer help. So, Pakistan has never received much from China by way of non-military aid, and such aid has not been the driving force behind the partnership.
Only in the last few years, in particular after the Abbottabad raid of last May, has there been some loose talk going around in Pakistan of how the country should completely ditch the US and turn to China for economic aid. Such fantasies were fuelled by notions that the global financial crisis has signaled the end of the US as a global superpower and presaged the rise of China. They were quickly put down by Beijing, which is not keen to take on the task of underwriting a country that is institutionally weak and dependent on external help. At most, what can be said is that the worsening security situation in Pakistan has cast doubt on the proposition that the country can provide an energy corridor to western China, as some of its strategic thinkers had fondly hoped. This however does not detract from the other tangible benefits of the bilateral relationship.
4) What would a Sino-Pakistani split mean for regional security in South Asia? Would it be enough, by itself, to encourage the kind of strategic cooperation on security issues in which neither India nor Pakistan presently seems interested?
There is no question of a Sino-Pakistani split, because its consequences for Pakistan would be too severe. What can Islamabad replace Beijing’s military and diplomatic support with? The United States is already deeply unpopular within the country and cooperation with it is seen as an act of high treason. The case of Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani national who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden, is an example. He has been sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment because many Pakistanis detest the US far more than they detest al-Qaeda. Such sentiment is not confined to fringe elements, it also permeates the Pakistani armed forces, hence all the speculation about ‘rogue operatives’ that one hears every so often.
A Sino-Pakistani split would compel Islamabad to give up its maximalist demands on Kashmir and settle with India for a formalization of the status quo. Washington has long been nudging the Pakistani establishment in this direction, while Beijing either offers no counsel on the matter, or provides low-key encouragement for an uncompromising stance. Having grown accustomed to unconditional Chinese support, Pakistan is incapable of making do without it.
The July 2007 Red Mosque crisis in Islamabad was a prime example. After jihadist militants kidnapped some Chinese nationals and held them prisoner inside the mosque, the Pakistani army stormed the complex under pressure from Beijing. Until then, the army had resisted calls from Western governments for tougher action against Islamist militants, by claiming that they enjoyed popular support. However, when Beijing exerted pressure, such support suddenly was no impediment and the army just caved in to Chinese demands. Ironically, the military assault triggered a popular backlash and directly led to the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban. Although the US is presently blamed for terrorist violence in Pakistan today, since it is perceived as having forced Pakistani soldiers to go to war against their own countrymen, in reality, it was Chinese interference which destabilized Pakistan. The fact that the Pakistani military chose to ignore this historical inconvenience indicates the importance it attaches to ties with Beijing.
5) How do you see these dynamics playing out in the medium- to long- term? How will security considerations in South Asia be different in 5 years? in 10 years?
It appears that Pakistan values its relationship with China more than China values its relationship with Pakistan. The past year has seen Chinese authorities publicly stating that Islamist militants in Xinjiang have trained in Pakistani territory. This is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when concerns over stability in Xinjiang prompted China to shut down the Karakoram Highway, which connects western China with northern Pakistan. Beijing will have no hesitation in once again acting unilaterally in defense of its own interests, should the need arise, and Islamabad will put up with that because it has no alternative. In this regard, the presence of Chinese troops in the Northern Areas of Jammu and Kashmir, which are under Pakistani administration, is most interesting. For a country that has traditionally set much store by the concept of national sovereignty, particularly vis-à-vis the West and India, it is striking that Pakistan has quietly acquiesced in Chinese military activities on its soil.
What is problematic about this dynamic is that domestic instability within Pakistan might worsen in the coming years, due to governance failures caused by excessive spending on conventional defense. Instead of investing in its civilian police forces, Pakistan has used Western aid money to buy weaponry for its army. The bulk of this weaponry, not coincidentally, comes from China - as said before, the Sino-Pakistani partnership is primarily a military one. The only benefit that accrues from it is that it strengthens Pakistan’s external security and allows it to take a hardline posture vis-à-vis India. Internally, however, the partnership does nothing to contain jihadist groups, which possess sophisticated small arms and a large support infrastructure.
By taking over some of the tasks of government, such as social work and welfare, the largest jihadist organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba are transitioning from terrorists groups to shadow states. It is quite likely that this trend will continue. India, for its part, will seek to lower tensions with Pakistan through peace talks, but these will be sabotaged by well-timed spoiler actions, carried out by private individuals with support from institutional patrons. There have already been two precedents for this. One was the 1999 Kargil crisis, when a small group of hardliners within the Pakistani army high command sabotaged a peace initiative launched jointly by the civilian prime minister and his Indian counterpart. The second was the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which took place when relations between India and Pakistan were extraordinarily friendly. Unless the problem of spoilers is addressed first, there is little reason to expect that any attempts at dialogue, including those presently underway between New Delhi and Islamabad, will get anywhere.
Dr Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich. He holds a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctorate from King's College in London.
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