A Reason To Hold Back
Indian and Chinese troops have “pushed each other around” on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, raising international alarm. Under pressure from missile fire on its own LAC with India, Pakistan made public its hostility by getting its military experts to predict India’s humiliation at the hands of a “superior power”.
But judging from its past modus operandi, war is not going to be India’s option — nor any form of escalation that will affect its economy. This is where India acts differently: No knee-jerk reaction that will lead to the kind of war that broke out in 1962. Unlike Pakistan’s predictable reaction of breaking off cross-border trade — as it did in 2019 after the Pulwama incident — India became a significant trading partner with China touching a reported turnover of $89 billion in 2018.
The country Prime Minister Narendra Modi courted the most after he came to office was China — despite border incidents — and he conducted highly publicised meetings with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Modi was not hostile towards Pakistan to begin with either and paid a “private” visit to Lahore in 2015 to see a friendly Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The visit, unfortunately, foreclosed the latter’s ouster from power in the “rigged” election of 2018. All this after the genuine Indian grievance over the Mumbai attacks, and the subsequent badly-handled trial of the culprits in Pakistan.
Despite signals from President Donald Trump in Washington, India is not going to step into the war of a “geostrategic response” to China in South and Southeast Asia where China is seen flexing its military muscle. Europe seems to be going along with Trump and Australia, actually swallowed the bait, criticising China over COVID-19. The result: It has suffered a major trade reversal at the hands of its largest trading partner. Both China and India are major powers in the Gulf region and don’t need to confront each other, either in Afghanistan-Pakistan or the Iran-Arab region.
In the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the third-largest trade partner for India, worth nearly $100 billion, while Saudi Arabia is fourth-largest with $57 billion in 2018. China trades to the tune of $167 billion with the Gulf states and, together with India, has emerged as a significant political “alternative” after Trump withdraws from the Gulf. Of the 28 million foreign workers in the Gulf, India has the largest number followed by Bangladesh and Pakistan — its manpower being superior in quality to the workers sent by others.
How have the Arabs and Iranians reacted to the developments in India, which affect the lives of Muslims? Note the lack of reaction from Saudi Arabia and the UAE after India’s “annexation” of “disputed” Kashmir in 2019, and the enforcement of conditions of “citizenship confirmation” of Muslims in India (also note the absence of Arab reaction to China’s incarceration of Uighur Muslims). Both China and India have emerged as big regional powers, making it possible for the neighbours to establish trade equations with them. Pakistan may be the one that has not rationalised its relationship with India, but Iran clearly has.
PM Imran Khan did begin by announcing that he would like to have trade relations with India, and possibly also did some lateral thinking about India’s desire for a trade route to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Since Afghanistan is included in the SAARC, the trade route would have been quite natural and beneficial to Pakistan. But Pakistan still had to learn its lessons. India opened the Chabahar port route for Indian trade going to Afghanistan, and onwards to Central Asia. India traded with Iran to the tune of 41 billion Indian rupees in 2019, running parallel to China — Iran’s largest trading partner.
India’s position in South Asia and the Gulf has gained acknowledgement because of its economy — note the Arab investment which has gone to India instead of Pakistan — and China is a peripheral challenger in the region, in addition to being one of its biggest trading partners.
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan