South Asia Summary: August 10-13, 2021

Opinion writers in South Asia are grappling with China’s role in the rapidly changing geopolitical terrain of the region with attitudes varying between India and its neighbors. Indian perspectives seem rather pessimistic, and analysts are looking on the horizon to Tibet and its role in Sino-Indian relations. Pakistan seems to prefer what it sees as China’s “geoeconomic” order as opposed to the US’s “geopolitical” order.

A retired Indian general writes in ThePrint that India is not strong enough to compete with China and won’t be for another 20-30 years. He sees evidence of this in the partial disengagement agreement recently concluded between the two countries. India has effectively agreed to buffer zones within its territory that will become permanent. The problem is that Modi is not leveling with the country about this.

N Sathiya Moorthy, in The New Indian Express, sees India shifting from its traditional bilateral approach with respect to Chinese territorial disputes to internationalization. India should be prepared for increased Chinese “interest” in ‘leftist militancy’ and “interethnic strife” in India’s Northeast as the US draws greater attention to Tibet.

Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, says, in ThePrint, China sees ‘stabilization’ of the situation in Tibet as a fundamental security concern and is ‘obliterating’ Tibetan culture, identity, and religion in that pursuit. It is aggressively colonizing Tibet right up to the borders of Nepal, Bhutan, and India. There is no realistic prospect of a Sino-Tibetan reconciliation, and this will complicate India’s relationship with China further.

Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister, explains in The Indian Express why he thinks China is likely to become more aggressive towards India in “coming months”. In Beijing, there is a toxic mix of strategic anxiety and domestic political machinations that are amplifying each other. As Xi prepares for the 2022 Party Congress, he will need to exhibit “absolute strength” at home and abroad if he wants the party to acknowledge him as leader for life then. This will require “maximum nationalistic fervor” even against Beijing’s long-term strategic goals. It’s possible Xi could change course, but China has yet to implement its disengagement agreements with India, and the world will likely have to wait until September (after the conclusion of the August meetings at Beidaihe) to find out which path China has chosen to take.

Pakistani writers looked at China primarily through the country’s relations with Afghanistan and the United States. If some are looking for China to turn Afghanistan into a corridor by which Pakistan can reach Central Asia, others say that China has the more modest goal of preventing violence from spilling over into Pakistan, Xinjiang, and Central Asia.

A writer in Dawn says China is primarily concerned with Islamic instability and that a political settlement in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest. In The Express Tribune, a former general says that both China and the US have their positive and negative attributes, and it is difficult to tell who will come out on top. India’s incitement of Afghanistan’s “unreasonable and hostile” government makes Pakistan’s US-China balancing act all the more difficult. Shoaib Baloch writes in the Pakistan Observer that, with rising geopolitical stability and the US increasingly allied with an increasingly Hindutva India, Pakistan can no longer afford to maintain its balancing act.

In one article by a member of PM Imran Khan’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs in Pakistan Observer, multiple interpretations seem to be held simultaneously. On the one hand, she says China wants Afghanistan to be a “regional hub”; on the other, she says China sees risk rather than opportunity in the war-torn country. China is outsourcing its Afghan foreign policy to Pakistan and knows it will have to accommodate Pakistani interests there, she goes on. And yet, the solution to political stability and terrorism in Afghanistan and the region is China’s One Belt One Road. Pakistan therefore has begun tilting towards China rather than the US. India barely gets more than a cursory mention.

Looking even farther out, Shazia Cheema says in Pakistan Observer that China should form a new, apolitical socioeconomic bloc in Eurasia. The US is the only country that sees China as a threat, the writer says, and Europe is starting to look towards Chinese geoeconomics/globalization/harmony instead of American geopolitics/war-on-terror/chaos. “China is offering this harmonious world through its Belt and Road Initiative”, and thus Europe should exit Nato.

Farid Erkizia Bakht in Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune also sees a global ideological alternative in China. Beijing’s war on the tech sector is evidence of a Chinese-led change in global power. Technology not only failed to conquer Afghanistan–it bled the American empire dry. The US’s technological solution to COVID (i.e., vaccines) did not outperform China’s low-tech solutions. Now, America’s military-technological complex is shifting to the eastern edge of China in pursuit of a more conventional enemy, where it will offer more of its expensive solutions.

As upbeat as some are about China’s global leadership in the future, others are upbeat about the last two years of Indian rule in Kashmir. A member of parliament from Ladakh describes the “peace and progress” in Jammu and Kashmir in The Indian Express and foresees a “glorious future”. And in Bangladesh’s Asian Age, Matiar Chowdhury says “Jammu and Kashmir under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for peace and development will usher a new era for the people of the region” now that “everybody is living in peace”.

Multiple writers in Pakistan Observer see the situation in Kashmir differently, however. Modi is seen to have “designs to eliminate Muslim and other minorities from India” while the international community is looking the other way, says one. “Zeal” in Pakistan and other Islamic countries is diminishing for Kashmir’s cause, another one notes, despite the “atrocities” in Jammu and Kashmir under India’s “reign of terror”, “especially…after abrogation” two years ago. The writer says Pakistan should take the Kashmir and Afghan issues to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

There were a number of articles in the Indian press critical of both the government’s and opposition’s behavior during the recently concluded Monsoon Session of parliament. Many criticized the government for steamrolling the opposition, and some among them put some of the blame on the opposition for making it so easy to be steamrolled. This point of view was perhaps best caught by Anita Katyal in TheQuint, where she says the government made no attempt to reach out to the opposition as multiple bills were passed without discussion. Yet, the opposition’s “unruly behavior…touched a new low”. The opposition has thus lost public support and the opportunity to question the government.

The Pegasus scandal, wrote one MP from the Bengali Trinamool Congress in ThePrint, required parliamentary protest but the ruling BJP can only be resisted “by participation of regionally strong parties”, as evidenced by TMC’s victory over the BJP in West Bengal elections. The Indian Express placed the emphasis elsewhere. Recent attempts to unify the opposition floundered without leadership from the Congress, yet local parties were cannibalizing Congress support, and there was no political vision no unify them all.

Abhishek Banerjee taunted the opposition in OpIndia. Acknowledging that the opposition could have scored points against Modi’s government by focusing on matters that matter to ordinary Indians, such as rising inflation or COVID failures, Banerjee said that the opposition obsessed over Pegasus and Balakot instead. The good news, he claimed, was that many of the activists who have been leading Congress astray over elitist concerns were now shifting their support to the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee. This is bad for the BJP and Modi, whom the writer described as “a man of the masses” and a “karma yogi”.

In Pakistan, the opposition was criticized for being weak, disorganized, and aimless in Dawn, The Express Tribune, and The Nation.

Meanwhile, as the Taliban rolled over Afghan government positions, the latter two publications offered some new ways of thinking about the Taliban and democracy. Pakistan is the victim of an Afghan-Indian info-op that encourages the international community to sanction Pakistan for its supposed support of the Taliban.

The Express Tribune printed a piece that concluded that “democracy…is wrong” because elections are based on fear, as evidenced in India, Israel, and the US.

And another article in that same publication took Western media to task for “racially profiling” the Taliban. Western media often described the Taliban as barbaric and cruel, but the Taliban spokesman has spoken of inclusivity and civility. The Afghan government, a “child of the West”, has committed atrocities and only an Islamic emirate can resolve the strife. The slaughter portrayed in Western accounts of the Taliban advance has been exaggerated, and the “rationality of the Taliban viewpoint” in not negotiating with those who collaborated with the “enemy” is apparent. The West wants to destabilize Afghanistan to weaken China, Iran, Russia, and Pakistan.

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