Chinese naval ships in Pakistan's Gwadar port call for a rethink of India's regional policy

Regional alignments are shifting with China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran coming together.

The transformation of Gwadar port on the Pakistan coast as a base for Chinese Navy ships was long expected, but when media reports actually appeared on Friday to that effect, it was startling news. The reports quoted Pakistani officials saying that China proposes to deploy its naval ships in coordination with the Pakistan Navy to safeguard Gwadar port, which is the gateway to the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

India would have had some intelligence tip-off, which probably explains the mysterious episode on November 14 of an Indian submarine lurking in the vicinity of Pakistani territorial waters. It was brusquely shooed away by the Pakistani Navy. Of course, the corridor was operationalised a fortnight ago with Chinese ships docking at Gwadar to carry the first containers brought by a Chinese trade convoy from Xinjiang for despatch to the world market.

Viewed from many perspectives, the month of November becomes a defining moment in the geopolitics of our region. But the strangest bit of news would be that earlier this month, Gwadar also received Russia’s Federal Security Services chief Alexander Bogdanov. It was a hush-hush inspection tour aimed at assessing the efficacy of Russian ships using the port during their long voyages, to assert Moscow’s return to the global stage.

Equally, this is the first visit by a Russian spy chief to Pakistan in over two decades and it took place just as America elected a new president, Donald Trump. Maybe the timing is coincidental, but more likely, it is not. The Russian diplomacy invariably moves in lockstep. Bogdanov’s visit was scheduled just a few weeks before the planned trilateral strategic dialogue between Russia, China and Pakistan, ostensibly regarding the Afghan situation, in Moscow next month. Bogdanov reportedly sought a formal Russian-Pakistani collaborative tie-up over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Moscow wouldn’t have made such a move without coordinating with China first. At a meeting in Moscow with his Chinese counterpart, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that China-Russia military cooperation is “at an all-time high and it will contribute to peace and stability on the Eurasian continent and beyond”.

China’s regional play

Meanwhile, Chinese regional diplomacy, too, is moving in tandem. The Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wangquan (who is also vice-chairman of China’s Military Commission, which is headed by President Xi Jinping) paid a three-day visit to Iran last week. Chang’s visit held considerable geopolitical significance for the region and he described his meetings as signifying a turning point in the China-Iran strategic partnership. It is useful to recall that during Xi’s visit to Iran in January, the two countries had signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement that included a call for much closer defence and intelligence ties.

The Iranian Navy has not hidden its desire to become a major blue water power (one capable of sustained operations across open oceans) in the Indian Ocean, and China can help meet that goal by offering intelligence and training in the short term, and modern vessels and weapons systems down the road. Several existing Chinese systems would suit Iran’s need for a flexible navy capable of operating in both littoral (on shore) and blue waters – such as destroyers, corvettes, frigates, the much-vaunted Type-022 stealth fast-attack missile catamarans (described as carrier killers) and submarines. These cost-effective warships could enable Iran to perform more effective patrol missions at longer ranges for longer periods of time.

Simply put, there is much background to Iran’s desire to become part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was reportedly conveyed to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at their meeting in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.

Connecting all these dots, in geopolitical terms, what we are witnessing is a historic shift in regional alignments, which is bringing together China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran on the template of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. From the Indian perspective, these developments hold profound implications, especially against the backdrop of the unravelling of the United States’ pivot strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Some hard conclusions need to be made. Difficult decisions lie ahead for the Indian establishment.

India’s challenge 

Quite obviously, India has been tilting at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor windmills in vain, fancying its capacity to block the flagship of China’s One Belt One Road appearing in our north-western neighbourhood. As an open, inclusive and international cooperative initiative, the corridor merits a rethink on our part. The point is, China still regards India to be one of the key countries along the Belt and Road, although the Silk Road initiatives have already stimulated regional connectivity in the South Asian region, involving Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in one way or another.

Two, the rebuff at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Goa in October apart, the growing regional convergence over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor once again highlights the futility of our diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism. New thinking is needed to bring pressure on Pakistan to jettison its sponsorship of terrorist groups.

The foreign policy establishment should explore how membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a six-nation Eurasian bloc led by China and Russia to promote political, economic and cultural cooperation in the region – can be optimally utilised to (re)engage Pakistan. If China could effectively utilise this organisation to clear the huge backlog of Soviet-era regional animosities, India too can create similar synergy between its regional diplomacy and the bilateral ties with Pakistan.

Three, the manifest China-Pakistan-Russia-Iran regional convergence highlights the geopolitical realities of the emergent world order. Put differently, our fracas with China over membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and efforts to declare Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a terrorist have been, in reality, the symptom of a deeper malaise insofar as Indian strategists are still entrapped in their “unipolar predicament”.

Thus, the muscular diplomacy of the Narendra Modi government erred in its overestimation of India’s South China Sea leverage. India lacked traditional influence in that region and it is not even a claimant to the territorial disputes there. Today, therefore, our Look East policy is in shambles and a US retrenchment in Asia threatens to make it archaic. When Singapore snubs our overture to create new waves in the South China Sea, a nadir has been reached. However, India seems to opt for a repackaging of the Look East policy. It is getting embroiled in China-Japan tensions. Such naivety can turn out to be dangerous.

The recent developments concerning Gwadar underscore the crucial importance of addressing the distrust between India and China on the one hand and India and Pakistan on the other. Or else, serious contradictions are bound to arise in India’s relations with a host of other Asian countries as well – our time-tested friend Russia included.

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