Pakistan and China: India’s strategic challenge in 2017

Examining the tactics India can use to turn the tables on its less-than-all-powerful tormentors

Look at a map of South Asia. I’ve said before that China’s unappealing wingmen are Pakistan and North Korea but luckily North Korea has shown no interest in India, lying as it does to the far east of the Middle Kingdom. China, though, right on top of India, is a threatening presence, while also shaking a fist at all the other countries in its neighbourhood, such as Vietnam and the Phillipines, as the People’s Republic throws its weight around the region. Pakistan is its enthusiastic henchman where India is concerned.

China’s strategy for regional – hemispheric? – domination consists of several elements. Forget for now its economy: nearly all growth in China today and tomorrow is debt-fuelled and will deplete wealth in the long run (Michael Pettis has done the calculations here). In fact it’s exactly because China’s real economic growth is grinding to a halt and its debt load reaching nose-bleed levels that expansion and power must now be projected by additional, alternative means.

Obviously there’s the factor of increasing and improving China’s armed services: their size, reach and technology. In addition, there’s the “sharp-elbow” tactic of claiming various territories and islands in the waters of the South China Sea and elsewhere, and even bulldozing new islands (or “missile platforms”) into existence, all to claim fait accompli ownership and rights over waterways, routes, fishing grounds, strategic chokepoints, etc.

Then there’s China’s huge “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project, which I have described as a massive bait-and-switch heist perpetrated on the nations of Asia. This encompassing road and maritime belt is designed to lasso an area from south of Indochine nearly all the way to Europe, supposedly to facilitate trade and international brotherhood and other communist – sorry, free-market – ambitions. In reality, it’s a series of hugely expensive white elephant projects. Most of the countries can’t afford them; and as for trade, many of the countries have not a lot to sell. Except for ex-Soviet oligarchs, there’s not many rich people to buy the goods China imagines in much of this expanded market area, either. But China is happily, eagerly lending these cash-strapped satraps the money to build the ports, roads, airports etc, after which it’ll foreclose, lean on or otherwise throw around its weight. Occupation by stealth.

One more element of the grand strategy is the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC), heading north-south through the country now known as Pakistan (I say “now known as” because we’ll have fun renaming it after Balochistan secedes). It’s the most directly aggressive squeeze that China is putting on India. China can always threaten minor military incursions far to the mountainous north-east, but really, who cares? It’s the ceiling of the world, and there’s not a lot there. It’s mostly, outside of an actual shooting war, bella figura posturing. But the PCEC is serious stuff. It’s an attempt to turn the screw on India by by-passing subcontinental ports altogether and suffocating India’s trade. Gwadar is closer to the Mid-East and will supposedly take all the sea freight from the West and the Arabian Gulf. But, but … it is also fabulously vulnerable in ways that India can exploit, and has already begun to do so.

There are 10,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan readying the roads and supply lines to reach Gwadar port. With a guard force of 12,500 Pakistan troops, each Chinese worker can more or less boast his own bodyguard – and bodyguards will be needed, because the violent Pakistani oppression of Balochistan has only increased the region’s demands, and its complementarily violent actions, in favour of independence. India would be wise to set up a Baloch government in exile in Delhi, and it soon probably will. That will make a tough situation for China even tougher. Anything travelling from or to China overland via Gwador is forever destined to be attacked and interdicted by rebels and separatists.

China recently held an OBOR summit in Beijing, from May 14 to 16, and the heads of state of all the suckers involved, from about 30 different countries, were summoned to attend. India refused for the very good reason that the bit of OBOR that runs from China to Gwador is illegal, passing as it does though Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. That occupation is recognised internationally as illegal (United Nations resolution 47), so who the hell is Pakistan to let China build on what’s really Indian land? China knows this, and is nervous about what future trouble it faces due to its dodgy deals with Pakistan.

In addition, India can make it even more difficult for both China and Pakistan by turning off the taps of Pakistan’s agriculture. Pakistan relies on rivers which all flow from India, and gets its water not by law or binding treaty but only by India’s long-suffering goodwill, which is notably never returned and more usually spat on. India is already pantomiming moving its hand to the faucet …

Geographically speaking, apart from a fertile strip on the east side of Pakistan, the rest of that benighted country is pretty much dry and barren. Furthermore, the Afghans to the west have really started to hate and loath Pakistan for sicking the Taliban and various other violent religious loonies on them, and Pakistan is finding it harder to rely on Afghanistan as its fall-back territory in case of aggression from India. It’s a foundational paranoia. So Pakistan is being squeezed on that western flank as well. It’s Pakistan’s own fault, from training and funding terrorists – with dumb US aid dollars – over a period of decades.

One great tactical countermove that India has already set in place, but which has remained largely un-noticed by the world’s press, is the agreement with Iran to develop the port of Chabahar. Despite the smoke-blowing by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Sheikholeslam’s spokesman, that Iran’s only oceanic port “is for everyone and would benefit every other country including Pakistan” – he doth protest too much! – the truth is that Modi has with a single stroke of the pen undermined the raison d’être of Gwadar by leaprofgging the port and placing an Indian maritime junction a few miles west of it – a move of tactical genius. Now goods can be shipped to Chabahar and overland all the way to Europe without touching China or Pakistan; and to India likewise.

In Myanmar (Burma) across the Bay of Bengal, to the west, the drug trade in opium and methamphetamine is controlled by the PLA, and staffed on the ground by Pakistanis of the ISI and their paid minions in the Burmese intelligence and military. Modi and Ajit Doval, his NSA, have already sent special forces into the jungle across the border after incursions onto Indian territory. The area is ripe for more disruptive activity by the Indians, who could use it as an opportunity to stir up trouble in Beijing.

This is all tied up with allies of former Chinese premier Xiang Jemin, his successor as gensec of the Party, Hu Jintao, and their buddies, the oligarchs of Shanghai. These are the people that Premier Xi Jinping is currently at war with politically (and Xi is the outsider) under the rubric of stamping out corruption. These people are the “vested interests” blocking economic reform in China. These enemies of Xi are also enemies of OBOR, since that project is designed to wrest economic power away from the army – still largely loyal to Xiang, who helps with their ill-gotten gains.

Watch as India interrupts the supply of drug money to the ISI and PLA and uses it as leverage to either control Xi or pressure Jemin’s followers to act against Xi.

One more tactical move, which long term is a strategic force multiplier, is of course the Andaman Islands, which I regularly mention. They are home to an Indian tri-service force, but it’s a sleepy backwater. What Port Blair and its surroundings should become, of course, is a major military base, a new tax-free ecological entrepôt to put Dubai in the shade, the new hottest holiday destination, with its beaches better than those in Thailand, and a full-fledged Panamax-sized container port to attract all the trade China is going for. Chabahar in the east, Port Blair in the west, mainland India in the middle. Job done. The islands sit at the north end of the Malacca Straits, acting as a cork in the bottle for any Chinese shenanigans that happen to the east. The Andamans could be made the keystone in the arch of power that China is trying to build, but with the Andamans as a military and commercial platform, India could effectively own the lot.

It’s a big project, probably at least $20 billion for the first stage and $100 billion plus overall. But with government seed money and then private capital and bond issues, I think the necessary funds could be raised without any problem. Huge idle piles of liquidity are sitting all over the world waiting to find projects with a worthwhile rate of return. Port Blair is a no-brainer: Say’s law, much doubted recently, could be happily resurrected in the Andamans.

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