Early mornings in the three-bungalow complex at Lok Kalyan Marg, which serves as PM Narendra Modi’s residence and personal office, are tranquil. There, Modi reflects on the day’s schedule, does yoga and devours the morning papers along with a light breakfast.
On his mind will be the packed international calendar: the UN General Assembly speech will again be given by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Modi has other priorities than the annual bickering at the UNGA between India and Pakistan that no one outside the subcontinent pays attention to. The PM’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October is a more pressing engagement given the diplomatic tightrope India has to walk between Washington and Moscow.
But the real problems lie closer at home. Following a successful India-US 2+2 dialogue earlier this month, India has achieved three geopolitical objectives. First, naming Pakistani terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad in the joint statement at the end of the dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two nations. The wording is significant: The US has for the first time used the term terror groups operating from areas “under Pakistan’s control” rather than “Pakistani territory”. The shift in nuance is not an accident. The US accepts that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is not sovereign Pakistan territory.
As the India-US joint statement pointed out: “The Ministers denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region, and … called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. … They called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri and other cross-border terror attacks. The Ministers welcomed the launch of a bilateral dialogue on designation of terrorists in 2017, which is strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including Al-Qaida, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, D-Company and their affiliates.”
This is also the first time an official US statement has been so explicit about Pakistan’s complicity in sponsoring proxy terror against India. Despite the US tilt towards India, the region’s problems will have to be solved by regional initiatives. A key shift in India’s regional strategy is allowing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to remain comatose. India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka boycotted the last SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan. The summit was aborted. Islamabad is desperately keen to host the abandoned summit in November 2018.
Pakistan’s new PM Imran Khan will turn on the charm to convince Modi, or at least Sushma, to attend. Neither should and neither will. Without India, a SAARC summit is a non-starter. Pakistan knows this. A second consecutive snub will play badly with Pakistan’s establishment that craves equivalence with and respect from India. It doesn’t qualify for the former and does not merit the latter.
Meanwhile, India has other irons in the fire. It is developing BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) as a substitute for the mothballed SAARC. The BIMSTEC comprises India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand. The first five are also part of the eight-member SAARC. The three SAARC absentees in BIMSTEC are Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives. By giving Afghanistan special observer status, BIMSTEC can entirely replicate SAARC minus Pakistan and the Maldives.
There are precedents for giving non-contiguous countries observer status. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping headed by China and Russia and comprising a smattering of Central Asian countries, gave India and Pakistan observer status before admitting both recently as full members.
The presence of Afghanistan as a special invitee to BIMSTEC will send a terse message to Pakistan whose proxy terror war has turned ordinary Afghans into bitter critics of Pakistan. The appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special US envoy to Kabul is significant. Khalilzad is an anti-Pakistan hawk. According to Khaled Ahmed, a columnist with the Pakistan edition of Newsweek: “If you are a non-Pashtun Pakistani in Afghanistan on a business trip, pretend to be from India or you will get roughed up, so offended are the Pashtun Afghans carrying the baggage of rage over the creation of Pakistan that divided the Pashtun nation. With Khalilzad helping President Ghani in Kabul, Pakistan is going to find it difficult to engage with Afghanistan on the lines it is familiar with.”
BIMSTEC is over 20 years old but has only now assumed geopolitical importance. Many of its members are targets of China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Some like Sri Lanka and Myanmar have noted Malaysia’s rebuff to China by cancelling OBOR infrastructure projects worth $22 billion. By using BIMSTEC as its primary regional forum, India can achieve two complementary objectives. One, isolate Pakistan regionally; two, build support against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (a part of OBOR) that violates sovereign Indian territory in PoK.
The BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu on August 30-31 has partially restored India’s relationship with Nepal’s China-leaning premier K P Oli. China’s recent decision to allow Nepal use of four Chinese ports has ended India’s monopoly though the 3,300-km distance from Nepal to the nearest Chinese port makes the arrangement impractical. Nepal’s hostility following India’s thoughtless blockade in 2015-16 has however mellowed.
India’s strategic defence partnership with the US gives it an edge regionally. BIMSTEC will allow India to further strengthen its Act East policy. The Indo-Pacific extends from the Middle East to the west coast of the US. India’s strategic impulse, as it prepares for a wider global role, is to have tactical options to both its east and west.
The author is an editor and publisher