India at loss as Indo-Pacific strategy collapses

A Harvard law school graduate writes, the demise of the Indo-Pacific dream is a staggering loss of face for India on the international stage. China has put India back to where it belongs: a developing nation in South Asia. Not a regional player in the Indo-Pacific.

Indo-Pacific

The past two decades of international policy and regional strategy have been a tremendous challenge for Pakistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, and the consequent war in Afghanistan, international powers started to view Pakistan exclusively through the lens of ‘global Islamic terror’ (to use Donald Trump’s words). Making matters worse, Pakistan had to fight its own internal war on terror, which has claimed thousands of innocent lives and cost us billions of dollars in economic fallout.

Making matters worse, throughout this time, the ‘enemies’ of Pakistan (led by neighboring India) lobbied the Washington circles to permanently realign its vision of Pakistan. It was argued that US’ policy concerning Pakistan could no longer be seen in the context of ‘South Asia’ or the ‘subcontinent’. Instead, Washington was gradually persuaded to view Pakistan in the context of Afghanistan alone, decoupling other countries of South Asia from this region of ‘terror’.

As a result, owing primarily to India’s lobbying in Washington, a tectonic shift in US policy took place in 2008, when Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative in the region, started using the term “Af-Pak” to club Pakistan with Afghanistan, as having a single political and military situation, requiring joint policy for ‘war on terror’ in the region.

Read more: Afghan-Pakistan cordial ties: India’s hybrid wars suffer tremendously

This was a blow to Pakistan’s image and aspirations on the global platform. No one wanted to be clubbed with Afghanistan. Not even places in the Middle East, that had been ravaged by war for decades.

But, even more than a set-back for Pakistan, this was a victory for India, and its (false) narrative of painting Pakistan as the global terror factory. Even more importantly, with the introduction of ‘Af-Pak’ policy by the United States (the only global superpower on the scene at the time), India had successfully disentangled itself from Pakistan, seeking ‘greener’ pastures on the international stage.

South Asia, for the United States, no longer included Pakistan-India-Bangladesh etc. Instead, the United States policy, especially that relating to Pentagon’s Central Command (CENTCOM), was divided across the lines of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of this, according to American policymakers, was a ‘troubled region’, and feeding grounds of ‘global Islamic terrorism.’

As China has infiltrated through the borders of Indian-held Laddakh, claiming important vantage points in Pangong Lake and the Galwan Valley, there has been no resistance or counter from India

India was instead part of Pentagon’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad) – created in 2007, which included Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Together, they would rule the Pacific and the Indian Ocean together. Or at least that’s what the plan was. We will come back to this in a moment.

Truth be told, India alone cannot be blamed for this turn of events. Abysmal policy lines by successive Pakistani governments, played their part. During the Musharraf years, Pakistan was still trying to find its balance in the ‘clash of civilisations’. Our foreign and regional policy was more an exercise in fire-fighting. The only real objective was to show Pakistan as a country of ‘enlightened moderation’, as opposed to a pit of radicalism.

In the years following Musharraf, the PPP and PML(N) governments were absolutely inert in their foreign policy. What else could be expected from rulers who were too busy hiring Washington lobbyists to promote their personal fiefdoms, as opposed to national interest. And General Kiyani was still splitting hair between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’, in a bid to protect historical entrenchments.

Read more: China needs “Soft Power” to survive America’s “New Cold War”

All that changed during the Raheel Sharif years. Let us be more specific: all that changed in the post-APS Peshawar environment. As Pakistan’s Army launched (and won) the only successful campaign against terrorism in this region, there was a new realisation of how much space we had lost to India, on the international stage. And a strategy was made to reclaim some of the lost ground – through new regional alignments and, in particular, the CPEC project.

While Pakistan was still trying to grapple with the new foreign policy, India pushed its global agenda forth. Specifically, it showcased itself as the new ‘strategic partner’ for the US in this region. Let us rephrase this, to convey the underlying message: it portrayed itself as a counterweight to China in this region. And as the new strategic partner to the United States, India wanted to have its stakes in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, and beyond.

The most concrete step, in this regard, came on May 30, 2018, when the United States Defence Secretary of the time (Jim Mattis) announced that Pentagon’s Pacific Command was being renamed the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, giving India a larger role in the Pacific theatre, in pursuit of containing and countering China.

Other than a meaningless phone-call with the Australian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has failed in taking any step that ‘contains’ China or its growing influence across the region

This was a significant policy shift in Washington. It symbolised that Delhi had convinced Pentagon that it could serve as a counterweight to China in the Pacific region, while also destabilising China’s economic interest across the region – and in particular the CPEC project. Thus India’s open threats of infiltrating Gilgit-Baltistan, and disrupting the CPEC supply route.

Was India going to deliver on its promise? Could it really act as a counterweight to China in this region? Would it be able to help the United States ‘contain’ China, and its growing power? India certainly claimed that it could. That was the very reason for its de-linking with South Asia, and introduction in the Pacific theatre.

However, the past few weeks have exposed India’s bluff. As China has infiltrated through the borders of Indian-held Laddakh, claiming important vantage points in Pangong Lake and the Galwan Valley, there has been no resistance or counter from India. Not even a peep. Not even a whimper of challenge. Nothing.

Read more: Indo-Sino crisis: Modi between rock & a hard place

According to available reports (including those from India), the Chinese walked into Laddakh with virtually no resistance from the Indian Army, and since then, have refused to entertain discussion on returning the territory. Not just that, emboldened by Chinese actions, Nepal has also claimed territory within the Indian boundary, and the eastern areas of Nagaland et al are also shunning the grip of the Indian State.

Making matters worse, it has been reported that the Chinese have continued to expand their influence (and military presence) across the Indian Ocean (including Gwadar), with no real challenge or interference from India. In fact, many areas close to India (e.g. in Sri Lanka) are places where the Chinese have made long-term investments, and exercise control that can result in a blockade of the Indian Navy.

All attempts by India to involve its coalition partners from the Quad (i.e. The United States, Australia, and Japan) have fallen on deaf ears. Other than a meaningless phone-call with the Australian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has failed in taking any step that ‘contains’ China or its growing influence across the region.

India’s bluff has been called. And without firing so much as one bullet, China has put India back to where it belongs: a developing nation in South Asia

So, in the circumstances, what happened to the whole idea of Indo-Pacific? Serious policy circles, in Washington and across the globe, are asking what benefit can India provide in the Pacific (against the Chinese) if they cannot even retrieve their own (claimed) territory from China? If its forces cannot face the Chinese military in Ladakh, can India really be expected to send war-ships to the South China Sea? Or into the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean? Can it curtail or hinder the CPEC route, when it is having trouble keeping the Chinese at bay in Sikkim?

And if India cannot stand up to China – especially now, when the United States needs it the most – what is the purpose of having an ‘Indo’ Pacific strategy? In the circumstances, India is a mere liability for the United States. Not only can it not counter China, it may help destroy the myth of powerful West alliances in the region.

India’s bluff has been called. And without firing so much as one bullet, China has put India back to where it belongs: a developing nation in South Asia. Not a regional player in the Indo-Pacific.

Read more: Should we start countdown for War In Asia?

This demise of the Indo-Pacific dream is a staggering loss of face for India on the international stage. And coupled with its waning grip on the affairs in Afghanistan, India might find itself back where it started: as Pakistan’s jingoistic neighbour, who is at daggers drawn with the new global power in this region.

India’s bluff has been called. And without firing so much as one bullet, China has put India back to where it belongs: a developing nation in South Asia.

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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