As things stand now, the US, China and Saudi Arabia are pulling in different directions with Pakistan caught in the crossfire

by Seshadri Chari

This is not the first time that Pakistan is proposing a peace plan. The more than 70 years of joint history is replete with instances of doublespeak and treachery by Pakistan — peace proposals followed by ceasefires and then their subsequent violation.

But this time it was the turn of Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to sermonise on peace, saying, “Pakistan is committed to the idea of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence….”. Ironically, two days after this homily, the army and the rest of the establishment in Islamabad held the ritual of observing ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ by organising anti-India protests.

Bajwa’s short-lived peace offer should also be seen in the background of changing geopolitical realities in the region. While Pakistan was considered part of the larger Islamic coalition but a poorer cousin, recent events have resulted in a drift between Saudi Arabia and Islamabad. The relationship took a hit when in 2015, Pakistan disallowed its military from participating in the Yemen conflict much to Riyadh’s displeasure. Islamabad once again stepped on Saudi toes when Prime Minister Imran Khan walked away disrespectfully and in breach of protocol after meeting the Saudi King during the OIC summit in 2019, without waiting for the translator to interpret the words he had exchanged. In November 2020, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued a statement that did not mention Kashmir in spite of Pakistan’s efforts to get the OIC to condemn India’s abrogation of Article 370. In August that same year, Imran Khan ‘accused’ the Saudi-led OIC of inaction over the Kashmir issue and plotted to convene an OIC meeting with the help of Malaysia and Saudi’s bĂȘte noire Turkey, bypassing Saudi objection. Saudi Arabia promptly asked Pakistan to repay the $1 billion loan immediately. China came to Pakistan’s rescue.

But China will prefer to wait and watch before advising Pakistan on further moves in the region. It is possible that it was under Chinese prodding that Imran Khan undertook his maiden visit to Iran to play matchmaker between Riyadh and Tehran. The Middle East conflicts are too serious a subject for Pakistan to resolve. The only reason Beijing would have prodded Islamabad is to play a greater role in Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Meanwhile, the White House under President Joe Biden might not appreciate Islamabad rushing in where angels fear to tread. It is clear that Washington wants Iran to “obey and not negotiate”. As it stands now, the US, China and Saudi Arabia are pulling in different directions with Pakistan caught in the crossfire. None of these countries can afford to lose the commercial part of the relationship with India. As for China, it would not want any escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan that could endanger its assets and strategic calculations in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

With none of these countries wanting to get into the India-Pakistan conflict, it is clear that an isolated Pakistan has no choice but to return to the table for talks, at least for the time being.

Dissent in PoK, And China Holding Back

It is becoming an uphill task for the Pakistan Army to meet the demands of the Chinese (army and civilian alike) engaged in CPEC projects and the increasing protests in Rawalakot in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) against rising inflation. Earlier in 2019, there were protests against the Pakistan Army and local police at several areas of PoK like Muzaffarabad, Tatto Pani, Rawalakot, Poonch, Hajira, and Tatrinote, with people accusing Islamabad of illegally taking over land for CPEC projects. In September 2018, political activists from PoK held a massive protest in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) office to protest gross human rights violations and exploitation of water resources by Pakistan as part of the CPEC projects.

China seems to be in a tearing hurry to complete the highway project between Chitral and Chakdara, which would be connected to the existing motorway that reaches Rashakai, the nerve centre of the proposed lucrative CPEC Special Economic Zone. More importantly, these projects are linked to the westbound highway linking the Karakoram Highway from Gilgit Baltistan to Chitral district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that straddles the Wakhan Corridor, which borders Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan. About 12 km from the corridor, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has reportedly stationed troops at a dedicated military base in Tajikistan and has been conducting regular joint patrols and counterterrorism operations with Afghan security forces to prevent infiltration by militant Uygur groups.

All this irritates the local population and has strong repercussions on political parties that have to tackle people’s ire.

Little wonder then that, every time an election approaches, the political class sets about to make two promises. First is the resolve to send the army back to the barracks. Although this has never happened, the army top brass seems to allow the political parties to have temporary hallucinations about such a possibility. The second promise they make is to undertake efforts to mend fences with India and begin a long life of peace and tranquillity. During the 2018 parliamentary election, all the prospective prime ministerial candidates — Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto and Shahbaz Sharif — declared their pious intentions to improve relations with India if elected. Ostensibly, such promises must be finding resonance with the masses encouraging them to vote for the right candidate who can engage with New Delhi for peace efforts.

Terms like ‘composite dialogue’, ‘comprehensive dialogue’ and ‘discussing all issues including Kashmir’ have been mentioned at every possible instance on international platforms. While Pakistan unfailingly raises the issue of Kashmir in every peace talk, India repeats the mantra of ‘talks and terror cannot go together’.

India’s Brush With Various ‘Peace’ Plans

Successive prime ministers of India have come across peace proposals from Pakistan and also witnessed the brutal terror attacks unleashed by the so-called non-State actors there.

The current phase of composite dialogue between Pakistan and India, which evolved into what is generally referred to as the peace process, began in January 2004 after the summit meeting between then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf. The meeting was touted as one that helped thaw the post-Kargil bitter relations between the two countries. But Islamabad did very little to reign in its non-State actors or prevent use of territory under its control to be used as terror launch pads.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said, “We can make borders irrelevant.” But soon after that, another series of terror attacks took place. Again, after Narendra Modi became the prime minister in 2014, the peace process received a new lease of life, only to disappear in the aftermaths of Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019).

It is unfortunate that peace proposals from the political institutions in Islamabad have never met with success because they do not have the support of the army establishment, which has assumed a significant role in the country’s political ecosystem. Even more unfortunate is the reality that every serious peace proposal has been followed up by some terror attack or aggression by the army and the so-called non-State actors, most of them patronised by the country’s intelligence wing, ISI. It is doubtful if the all-powerful Pakistan military would really appreciate the two countries deciding to live in peace and bury the hatchet. Pakistan has three power centres; the army, the clergy, and the political establishment, which can be said to be the weakest of the three. The people and the civil society seemingly play little to no role in the decision-making process or overall functioning of the country. One can come across a number of anecdotal evidence highlighting the aspirations and hopes of peace nurtured by the people of Pakistan since the tragic Partition.

Pakistan is a perennial concern for India and one of the biggest impediments to peace and progress in the region. New Delhi must keep all the options for peace talks open but never lower its guard lest it is caught unawares again with yet another terror attack.