After more than a decade of status quo in the geopolitical environment of South Asia, the region is now entering a phase of tremendous flux. The transformation underway can be viewed from the regional lens and through the global angle.
At the regional level, elections in Afghanistan and US withdrawal represents the first level of change. The Indian elections and its potential outcome, symbolizes the second level, while the tussles of Middle East demonstrates the third. The fourth level of change can best be grasped by the interrelations of established and emerging powers. Some may call this the BRICS versus Europe/North America dynamics.
Many analysts tend to connect the future of Pakistan on how it deals with extremism and manage ties with Afghanistan and India. These analysts also tie the future of US-Pakistan relations to this calculus. Perhaps the most important determinant of the future of US-Pakistan relations, and the region, is the emerging and established power dynamics. The manifestations of this factor are amply at display around various global fault lines, especially in Ukraine and Syria.
The Dynamics of Middle East
PoliTact has for long maintained that the situation of Middle East is likely to impose far more influence on the affairs of South Asia than any other region. To some extent, this has already proven to be true with both Saudi Arabia and Iran attempting to influence the position of Pakistan on Syria, for example. And in this regard, Pakistan has so far propagated neutrality.
If the situation of Middle East continues to deteriorate, the role of Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, is likely to become even more critical; first of all because these states have economic and religious ties with the Arab region. Any worsening of affairs there will have an inverse impact on the economies and the religious balance of these three states, albeit disproportionately. At the same time, it’s the Shia influence that is resurgent in the Arab world and Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India cannot afford to alienate Iran at the cost of the Arabs.
If Iran’s détente with the West progresses despite friction with Russia over Ukraine, the Gulf States paranoia is likely to increase. These states would not like Pakistan pull away from their orbit under these circumstances. Recognizing the growing clout of emerging states, and disillusionment with the US over Syria, Gulf States are increasingly balancing their relations with China and India.
On the other hand, it’s possible that Iran détente runs in to trouble and the West does agree to arm the Syrian opposition, as demanded by the Saudis. This prospect has even higher chances of escalating Shia-Sunni fissures.
Thus, the situation of Middle East will have a greater influence on South Asian affairs due to religious and economic reasons. One of the ways to counter this tendency is perhaps envisioned in the ‘New Silk Road’ regional integration strategy, which transfers the nucleus of South Asia toward Central Asia instead, especially in connection to the energy needs of the region.
The New Silk Road
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had stated in Dushanbe in 2011, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”
Good ties between Pakistan and India, and stability in Afghanistan, are essential prerequisites for this strategy to work. Another challenge includes: both Russia and China view the Silk Road Initiative with suspicion and as an attempt to undercut their influence in Central Asia. For China, it probably provokes a comparison to the politics of Trans Pacific Trade Agreement, through which US is attempting to workout trade pacts with nations of the Pacific region. In South and Central Asia, China did in fact come up with its own Silk Road vision, which bypasses Afghanistan and instead passes through Northern Pakistan to reach Gawadar.
Western Priorities in the Middle East
The critical question to examine is what does South Asia (Pakistan, India and Afghanistan) expect in the future from US and China and vice versa.
If Middle East provides any precedence, the western priority there, first of all, involves dealing with the weapons of mass destruction. At the second level, it is to tackle the extremists, and reforms to the political system particularly in view of Arab Spring come last.
The justification for this is simple; if the law and order situation worsens, like it has in Syria, the WMD can fall in the hands of extremists and threaten the security of Israel and the region. Dealing with Iran’s nuclear program has a similar logic. While Egypt does not posses any such deadly weapons, it’s security apparatus is key to holding the peace with Israel and keeping the Islamists at bay. In this calculus, the Gulf States were never critical for security purposes and their energy dependence has been decreasing for the US but increasing for China. In the grand scheme of things, and as US pivots to Asia, it’s conceivable there is an attempt to make the Middle East, and even Africa, inhospitable for China and Russia.
Applying the same logic to South Asia, presents an interesting picture. While India is not only an important market for the West, it wants to use the country to contain China; a security role India often appears reluctant to play. Pakistan, on the other hand, not only has the nuclear weapons but also the extremists linked to cross border terrorism. Thus, the security cooperation of Pakistan is of an utmost importance for the West.
What Pakistan desires is trade and the same economic wherewithal as that of India, and China and US are both offering Pakistan their competing visions. At the same time, the trade and economic prowess Pakistan aspires requires stable law and order situation as a perquisite. Without cordial relations with Afghanistan and India, neither of them is going to allow it stability.
In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country may become the test case for how US, China, India, Pakistan and Iran manage their security, political and economic interests there. Moreover, how Pakistan, including Afghanistan and India, balance the competing Chinese and American visions for the region, and offset the Arab and Persian influences, will play an important role towards regional stability and future prosperity of South Asia.
The interplay of security, economic, and religious influences are creating a unique push and pull in the region and beyond. The security factors are coming in the way of economic and trade ambitions in the Asia Pacific and Europe. If the security situation of the Arab world continues to decline, it may ultimately lead to a situation where religious factors are given preference over both political and economic calculations, and this is indeed a grave risk.