PERSPECTIVE The New Realities
Pakistan must explore its options in a world that is fast-changing under new realities and adjust its policies to meet the demands of sustained growth.
Any turmoil or confusion contains its own seeds for damage or gains not only for the parties involved but the neighbours, the by-standers and, by whiplash effect, for even those far away and not directly involved. It can be chaotic and messy as have been the cases of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria or long drawn out like the 1950-52 Korean War Ceasefire, the Iranian nuclear crisis and the vacillating US approach to the Formosan settlement with China or any crises in formation. Examples could be Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the South China Sea or fallout from creation of the Indo- Pacific Command by the USA. In all these cases, the greater the intensity of turmoil or magnitude of confusion, the greater would likely be the damage or gains individually or collectively affecting countries. Pakistan, to benefit from or to safeguard its interests in a fast-changing world, both near and far, must develop new thinking in its external policy with matching changes domestically.
Currently, the words and actions of three countries, USA, China and Russia, generally create worldwide or regional ripples in descending order of intensity. However, China amongst them has always advocated a preference for continued diplomacy as the means to finding a solution to any problem while the USA, too conscious of its military prowess, has generally threatened the opposing parties with a military option from the very start. Meanwhile, Russia for the present is trying to resurrect for itself a place of eminence like the ex-Soviet Union in managing the world.
In international affairs generally, economy leads to politics and politics to war while the strength of a country can be described as a triangle where the economy provides the base and diplomacy and defence the two arms for action. The economic strength of a country determines the power available for the two arms and their size and reach. In changing times, the baggage from history, e.g. NATO and the South China Sea islands, too plays its part in motivating a nation’s actions. Accordingly, three important events in the last quarter century have led to shaking up the whole world order. First, NATO’s move eastward to isolate Russia from its west and south, second, the phenomenal economic development of China and its economic supremacy resulting in the USA shifting its forces from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and creating a combined Indo-Pacific Command for its forces in the two oceans and third, North Korea becoming the third country in the world capable of launching a nuclear attack on the United States mainland.
The NATO move into Eastern Europe early this century, despite verbal assurances to the contrary, caused President Putin to act fast first to peacefully resolve Russia’s border dispute with China which released about a third of its defence budget for other purposes and a large number of land and air elements to augment defence against NATO which was reportedly now planning to base 40,000 NATO troops in Poland. In addition, to safeguard its entry into the Mediterranean Ocean overland through Syria, Russia got actively involved there to prevent USA-led NATO’s direct and indirect intervention designed to bring down the Asad regime as well as to break up Syria. Its success there and its increasing economic and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Turkey have put Russia in direct conflict with America for influence in the Middle East. US supremacy there was being further undermined by increasing Chinese economic inroads into the region in terms of trade and investments, including in oilfields and in future reconstruction of devastated Syrian cities. Iraq could perhaps benefit similarly. Furthermore the first-ever Chinese military base abroad has come up in Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden, reflecting its new policy of militarily defending its vital interests abroad.
It was a sign of the changing times that almost all littoral states of the Pacific and Indian Oceans now have China as their largest trading partner, providing the latter soft power in the region. This trade includes huge quantities of oil and gas shipments that were open to all types of maritime interference throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans and even more acutely in the Malacca Straits and the
South China Sea. The openly threatening attitude of some countries, which included USA, India, Australia, Japan and Vietnam, together with strengthening of their naval forces, has forced China to build its own naval forces to a level that could provide the necessary protection to this maritime trade. The force could include three aircraft carriers by 2023. However the creation of the new US IndoPacific Command, though it provides greater flexibility in rapid deployment of required US and Allied forces into areas concerned, it also reflects US doubts about the availability of Allied forces at critical times because those countries have economic interests with China or for other reasons.
Not long ago in the Maldives Presidential crisis, India had been unable to rapidly build up a force large enough to bring about a change of government there while the USA did not wish to be directly involved. According to one report, China which supported the ruling President had eleven ships present in the region at that time. As for the South China Sea, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, China’s efforts at island building have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US.”
Meanwhile, the USA has commenced with economic policies that hurt interests not only of China but the US’s own allies and its own interests too. This has invited retaliation that would make imported and US products costlier for the American public and for exports. In the case of high-tech IT, China imports about US $ 225 billion worth of IT goods annually from the USA, Japan, South Korea and Formosa, all connected with the US industry. What would happen to those industries if their products were banned for exports to China? Furthermore President Trump’s vision of refurbishing the old and worn-out infrastructure in the USA could remain a vision only and difficult to achieve, particularly as his rich friends who benefitted most from recent tax reforms have so far failed to come forward with any investments, etc.
In addition, as the US government income has gone down due to reduced taxes and escalated costs of domestic projects, the cost of running and maintaining the now super costly new weapons systems and simultaneously remaining superior to the combined Sino-Russian military capabilities in all the six defence fields; Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space and Cyber. This could become unsustainable for the USA in about a decade or two at the most. America could to an extent attract foreign funds by raising interest rates. However, in the most recent case, these foreign funds included almost US$ 29 billion FDIs from, amongst others, India and some south east Asian countries that would affect their economic development adversely. Furthermore, to prevent visible increasing Sino-Russian cooperation and thereby retaining US control of world affairs, President Trump, by offering a revival of G-7 (of which Russia was a member) despite the USA’s severe economic and financial sanctions on Russia, was trying to make it feel European again rather than Eurasian that Moscow was now beginning to act. Reportedly, Russian leadership was divided 50:50 on which way to go but President Putin has not reacted so far and instead announced increasing cooperation with China.
At the Inter-Korean Summit Meeting on April 27, 2018 at Panmunjeom, President Moon Je-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea solemnly declared that there would be no more war on the Korean Peninsula. They also shared a firm commitment to bring a swift end to the long-standing division and make joint efforts to eliminate the danger of war, hold tri-lateral (NK, SK and USA) and quadri-lateral ( 3+plus China) meetings with a view to declaring an end to the war. In the three-page declaration, both leaders also confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete verifiable de-nuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula..This declaration very much laid the format of the USA-North Korean negotiations as evident from the outcome of the Singapore parleys between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un and earlier took care of the opposition within the two governments i.e. three North Korean generals removed and the US Vice President and Mr. Bolt silenced.
Three considerations must have affected the change in the long-standing US official demand of complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament. First, the speed and strength of mutual understanding between North and South Korea which, if impeded, could lead to a direct final settlement between the two as per the Panmunjeom Declaration. Second, and importantly, that according to a study by Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker who had visited various North Korean nuclear facilities four times, the complexity and depth of North Korea’s nuclear program could take the de-nucrealization process up to fifteen years to complete. Third, by implication of the Declaration there would be no more military exercises against one another, leave alone combined with a foreign power and by stating de-nucrealization of the Korean peninsula, it implied all nuclear capable US forces would have to be withdrawn too. There would therefore have to be step-by-step progress by both sides which would take its own time to work out. However, it is important to observe that North Korea appeared to have won the complete backing of China and Russia.
Imran Khan as Pakistan’s Prime Minister would bring considerable hope as the most vital issue facing the country at the moment is getting out of the Debt Trap, something the last two elected governments placed the country in. For this dire situation, the establishment for a change bears no responsibility. There is a need to adjust Pakistan’s relations with the USA and adopt a friendlier approach towards Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. Imran has already talked of a frugal life style. Perhaps all non-self-sustaining state-run institutions like PIA and the Steel Mill need to be divested and future similar white elephants, particularly under CPEC, avoided.
In fact, had the Kashgar-Gwadar Trade Corridor been given due priority since it was conceived in 2006, Pakistan by now would not only have earned millions of dollars annually but benefitted from transfer of technology. Regrettably, even now CPEC remains a pie in the sky with no activity in sight except words. Furthermore, by helping to bring peace in Afghanistan with no left-over foreign political or military presence, just as the wise north and south Koreas have done or Afghan-based terrorism or Indian activities against Pakistan, Pakistan’s defence expenditure would be reduced considerably. However, the present Afghan government must also contribute positively by accepting the reality of having only a minority following in the country. Riding an American horse would take the peace process nowhere except continued bloodshed in Afghanistan and some spillover in Pakistan.
Another vital problem for Pakistan is the exploding population. If it is not reversed, it could lead to much violence, due to lack of fresh water which has already reached a crisis level, continued high level of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and other social problems. With depleting river water levels, additional dams would be of no help and new methods of “creating” fresh water would have to be found. The third vital problem for all Pakistanis and all institutions is to avoid hypocrisy and to practice Islam and the national constitution in their true spirit. Without a moral revival and a good judicial system, the country can never expect to receive the mercies and blessings of Allah. Perhaps Imran Khan is actually what the country needs.
The writer is an Islamabad-based independent journalist with active interest in regional issues.