Responding to a query by a Pakistani journalist on his fiery bowling against Indian batsmen in 1982, Imran Khan asserted that when he played against India, he regarded the game as jihad. While much has changed in the cricket world since he was the Pakistan team’s captain, Imran’s present jihadi instincts appear to be directed more against the Pakistan army than against India! Imran’s ire evidently arises from his feeling that he lost his majority in the parliament due to the machinations of the then army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.
While there may be a good reason for Imran’s ill feeling towards General Bajwa, it is widely believed in Pakistan that Bajwa was responsible for the back-channel negotiations with India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval on Jammu and Kashmir. This was the period when cross-border terrorism across the Line of Control was rarely witnessed. While cross-border terrorism still continues, as was seen recently in Rajouri, it is evident that Pakistan will take time to return significantly to its old ways. However, as the adage goes, old habits die hard. Moreover, India does have options for responding in kind to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism.
In the larger perspective, one has to bear in mind where things stand now in Pakistan, which is in an economic mess. Its foreign exchange reserves have been falling drastically. Its reserves today can barely meet a month’s requirement for essential imports. The inflow of foreign exchange from friendly countries has been hampered in the absence of clearance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has not been forthcoming for months.
The US has also been insistent on Pakistan fulfilling its commitments before the IMF could certify that it met the requirements for further assistance. There appear to be doubts in the USA about Pakistan's assurances on its economic policies. More importantly, the US has concerns about the policies of Imran, who is likely to be the frontrunner in any forthcoming election in Pakistan.
The people of Pakistan are paying a heavy price because of the follies of the country's political leadership and the incompetence of its military rulers since the days of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. There have, however, been instances when military rulers such as General Musharraf learnt the right lessons from follies like the Kargil misadventure to seek a realistic and reasonable solution to the Kashmir issue.
We also find young, immature and overzealous ministers such as Bilawal Bhutto going off the bend and creating misunderstandings. Bilawal has only to be reminded of the path his mother and grandfather took on relations with India.
The principal external power given to using and fostering Pakistan’s hostility towards India remains China. Beijing has traditionally been the principal instrument in encouraging Pakistan’s hostility to India — by strengthening Pakistan’s conventional, nuclear and missile capabilities. This propensity of China is now evident across India’s neighbourhood, extending from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz.
China is now determined to use Moscow’s growing dependence on it to influence Russia’s policies towards India and Pakistan. Russia’s hostility towards Pakistan remained high when Islamabad was found to be providing weapons to Ukraine, evidently at Washington’s behest. This policy was largely influenced by the then pro-US General Bajwa. But the extent of Chinese influence on Russia’s policies became evident when Moscow suddenly started changing policies and opened the doors for supplying petroleum to Pakistan at rates similar to those provided to India.
One also saw changes in Russian policies through the statements made by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during the meeting of the defence ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Goa. Shoigu criticised groupings such as Quad, of which India is a member, asserting that they were set up to ‘contain’ China. Moscow has clearly chosen to back Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific Region. Shoigu’s statement came alongside blunt statements by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar drawing attention to China's violations of border agreements with India.
Shoigu’s comments came at a time when a meeting in Saudi Arabia brought together US NSA Jake Sullivan and Doval, along with leaders from two of the most powerful Arab states in the Persian Gulf — the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and the UAE's NSA, Sheikh Tahnoon. This meeting, according to the White House, was to “advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East Region, interconnected with India and the world.”
Clearly, this meeting sets the stage for discussions which PM Modi will have with President Biden in Washington. The meeting in Saudi Arabia was preceded by Doval’s visit to Iran, where he met President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
India has been unable to purchase oil from Iran in recent years because of US sanctions on Tehran. Nevertheless, the Chabahar port in Iran provides India crucial access to Afghanistan. India is among the countries which have successfully balanced their relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
China has played a vital role in bringing to an end the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran — an action that makes the conduct of diplomacy and expanding economic cooperation across the oil-rich Persian Gulf Region much easier.
But China also appears determined to take an adversarial position on India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. This move is accompanied by China’s deliberate effort for expanding its military cooperation with Pakistan, while simultaneously countering India’s efforts for promoting cooperation with its ASEAN neighbours. It was evident during India’s recent naval exercises with ASEAN countries.
In these circumstances, Pakistan remains China’s principal instrument in its efforts for “low-cost containment” of India. New Delhi has, however, limited the strategic space in its immediate neighbourhood for China to succeed in its effort.
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