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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

Pakistan far from Losing Relevance

Friday 17 April 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

While Pakistan may appear to be losing its relevance to India in some Indians’ perception, it is in fact strengthening its geo-strategic relevance in the fast-changing Asian geopolitics. There is every reason to believe that the Indian Government is fully seized of Pakistan’s fast-growing importance in this context.

Ever since the two countries came to exist, Pakistan was clear in its perception that while it was no match to rival India, it must adopt policies to befriend powerful third countries to balance its relations with its neighbour. Its earliest well-wisher was the United Kingdom, joined later by the United States after the latter realised that India would not be its ally and would remain non-aligned.

Pakistan’s successful search for such a relationship and the consequent benefits derived from it over the following decades needs no reiteration. Despite this, however, as democracy was superseded repeatedly by military dictatorships and thus not allowed to take roots, the country grew into a nursery of religious fundamentalism. The compounding of a plethora of foreign and domestic policies, most of which went wrong, have since pushed the country into the status of a near-failed state.

However, it was Pakistan’s policy of choosing to become the main vehicle for facilitating the United States’ game-plan to weed the Soviet presence out of Afghanistan, which initially brought both military and economic benefits, led ultimately to the flourishing of religious fundamentalism and militancy. The situation was exacerbated by the parallel running of the long-standing policy of constantly seeking to weaken the Indian state, the ultimate enemy.

Pakistan has always sought to exploit its geo-strategic advantage by aligning with third countries to rebalance its overall failure to build a politically and economically strong state. While there is a fairly prevalent perception in India that the country has become irrelevant in the South Asian context, the truth is that it is now becoming increasingly relevant in the overall Asian context.

Behind this significant development lie the “all-weather” relations with China, and as China keeps rapidly gaining ground to emerge as the world’s future dominant power, Pakistan will continue to benefit and be a very significant player in Asia. This will concurrently strengthen its position in South Asia.

The strategic balance in South Asia is set to change dramatically with Pakistan readying to buy as many as eight submarines from China. When seen in the context of China’s rapid naval modernisation targeted at rendering the country the potentially indisputable sea power in Asia, the significance of Pakistan’s expansion of its Navy can be better appreciated.

As China pursues its naval modernisation plan aimed at making it the supreme sea power in Asia, this necessarily will lead to Beijing’s eventual domination of the Indian Ocean, apart of course from the more immediate Pacific Ocean. This would also mean a lessening of India’s role in the Indian Ocean region, that again would benefit Pakistan which must necessarily pursue the goal of a weakening, and not a stronger, India.

Pakistan’s role in two important theatres of geopolitics, the Saudi Arabia-centric West Asia and Afghanistan, has also been strengthened due to the China factor. Andrew Small shows in “The China-Pakistan Axis:Asia’s New Geopolitics” that at a time when Saudi Arabia had no diplomatic relations with China, it was Pakistan which facilitated secret negotiations between Riyadh and Beijing culminating in te sale of Chinese long-range missiles to the former. He writes that Pakistan thus lies at the nexus of Saudi Arabia’s potential nuclear capability; warheads produced by Pakistan can possibly be mated with Chinese-built Saudi missiles in a future scenario.

As for Afghanistan, Pakistan’s importance has steadily been going up with the exit of foreign troops from the country. One major plus point is Kabul’s change of policy towards Pakistan; President Ashraf Ghani has clearly given up predecessor Hamid Karzai’s hostility and initiated a programme of allowing a larger role for Islamabad. China is also considering a wider role for itself beyond its hitherto strict profile of a major investor. Pakistan will certainly benefit from this impending change.

Thus, while Pakistan recognises its inherent weaknesses to take on India on its own, it would not necessarily be weaker in future. On the contrary, pursuing correct policies with third countries (necessarily China) it will continue to be a relevant force in Asia.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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