India Just Split Up SAARC and Brought The New Cold War to South Asia
The New Cold War between the unipolar and multipolar worlds has been progressively unfolding across the past couple of years, most visibly through the US and its allied bloc’s ‘containment’ aggression against Russia and China. The US recently succeeded in bringing India on board and has thus opened up a southern front in its pan-Eurasian asymmetrical war. Up until this point, India’s Hybrid War on CPEC and the Chinese-Indian Cold War were being waged beyond the institutional front, with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) not formally being brought into these battles. This pragmatically left open the possibility that the competition could be contained and that the organization could serve as an intermediary venue for cooling down tensions between all sides. Alas, this is no longer the case, however, since Modi-Doval decided to up the ante and mischievously forced the apolitical regional integration group to take sides in the New Cold War, splitting it up along New Cold War lines and formally bringing the global rivalry between the unipolar and multipolar worlds to the forefront of South Asian politics.
Divide And Conquer
The news just broke that India is boycotting the upcoming SAARC meeting in Islamabad in November, and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan are also following suit for their own various reasons. Whether it’s due to Pakistan’s alleged “interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh” as Dhaka proclaimed or concerns about “terrorism” like Afghanistan and Bhutan made a point of saying, it should be obvious to all regional observers that these member states are simply following India’s lead in trying to ‘isolate’ Pakistan from South Asia, using the occasion of the SAARC gathering in Islamabad to add insult to injury with their abstentions. The other three countries of the bloc – Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – might still attend the event, but each of them are comparatively small, weak, and are already the scene of heated New Cold War rivalry between China and India, so it’s very possible that some, if not all, of them might be pressured in one way or another by New Delhi (or even bribed) to forgo the meeting. Even if they showed up, the SAARC meeting still wouldn’t be the same because of the other abstentions, so in essence, India has succeed in splitting up the group and making it a symbolic South Asian sacrifice on the altar of the New Cold War.
Here’s what the bloc-like division of SAARC looks like on a map:
Weakness, Not Strength
Contrary to how the Indian media is predictably painting it, India’s actions are taken not out of a position of strength, but of strategic weakness. Modi had to deflate his famous ‘56-inch chest’ and walk back from the warmongering threats that he and his media jingoists had been bleating about for the past week, instead seeking to ‘isolate’ Pakistan on the diplomatic front. Even this policy has abysmally failed, as can be seen by a host of examples from Russia’s joint military drills with Pakistan to Iran’s eagerness to joint CPEC, but nevertheless, the myth of Pakistan’s ‘isolation’ still lives on in Indian tabloids and unipolar media outlets that indulge in wishful thinking. An objective appraisal of the situation indicates that India is trying to balance against Pakistan by enticing smaller states to bandwagon behind New Delhi, with Modi depending on the unipolar world and its globally pervasive media infrastructure to incessantly reinforce the false narrative that Pakistan is ‘isolated’ and that the end of CPEC is nigh. This same modus operandi was applied last week towards India’s first-ever infowar against Russia, and just like that one spectacularly failed, so too will this one, though the SAARC subterfuge will have much more visibly impactful, wide-ranging, and immediate consequences.
India’s Policy Of Carrots And Sticks
It’s not too difficult to explain why some of the SAARC members decided to side with India in this fabricated spat. Afghanistan, as is known, has many problems with Pakistan that are driven by both geopolitical and demographic considerations. Some Afghan voices insist that the British-era Durand Line separating their country from Pakistan should have expired in 1993 and that Kabul is thus eligible to ‘reclaim’ the rest of Balochistan all the way up to the Indian Ocean, an attractive idea for a landlocked country and one which can assuredly be abused by hegemonic India in getting its Afghan subordinates to back the RAW-organized separatist insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan. On the demographic front, Pashtun-majority Afghanistan wants to extend its influence into the Pashtun-populated periphery of Pakistan, seeking to capitalize on the fact that there are numerically more Pashtuns in Pakistan than Afghanistan in trying to actualize some vague notion of “Pashtunistan” that could complement India’s destabilization activities in Balochistan.
Bangladesh, for its part, ‘made nice’ with India through the promulgation of an historic border agreement last year which positions the country as the necessary transit space for Modi’s “Act East” policy of direct commercial engagement with ASEAN. Moreover, Dhaka is continually threatened with the Damocles’ Sword of international terrorism which never-endingly strives to turn Bangladesh into Bangla-Daesh.
Faced with such diabolical internal-external pressures and with India breathing heavily down its neck at all times, Bangladesh broke down and became a normative instrument of Indian foreign policy in New Delhi’s Hybrid War on CPEC, powerfully symbolizing that a fellow Muslim country will take India’s side in this campaign and misleadingly reinforcing the New Delhi-driven narrative that Hindutva India isn’t a threat to Muslims.
For all of its obsequiousness towards India when it comes to Pakistan, however, Bangladesh is less likely to be as compliant when it comes to China, understanding that it would completely sacrifice its strategic-competitive edge in the future global economy if it disregarded its high-level ties with China and abandoned the One Belt One Road project in favor of becoming an industrial outgrowth of India. That being said, sometimes countries don’t always behave rationally, so there’s a possibility that Bangladesh might succumb to the pressure against it in turning a cold shoulder towards China one day as well.
As for the last of India’s cronies, the most predictable of the three to stand behind New Delhi is Bhutan, which has historically functioned as a slightly more independent Kingdom of Sikkim prior to the latter’s pressured annexation by India. The last Himalayan Kingdom also has an existing border dispute with China which impedes its relations with the People’s Republic, and as most people could have surmised, plays a great deal of importance when it comes to the appeal that New Delhi has to Thimphu as a balancing partner and ‘protector’. Just as ‘big brothers’ are prone to do, however, India has the potential to abuse its status in taking advantage of Bhutan’s geostrategic security situation by implicitly holding out the threat of militarized pressure along its southern periphery.
Although mythologized in the imagination of the world as a purely Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan actually contains some lowland jungles along its border with India, and this part of the country was previously used as a refuge for Assamese and other Northeastern militant groups that are fighting against India. Bhutan took action against them in 2003, but the threat is always lingering that India might feel compelled to stage a unilateral intervention against any remaining members of these groups one of these days just like it did in Myanmar last year, which could serve as a fearsome stick for keeping tiny Bhutan in line with New Delhi’s policies. As for the carrot, India would like to import hydroelectricity from Bhutan and integrate the country into the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) highway project (despite Bhutan’s hesitancy), New Delhi’s response to the Chinese-promoted and now-stonewalled BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Corridor.
China’s Silk Road Support For Pakistan
From the other side of the now-divided SAARC bloc, the remaining countries that chose not to immediately align with India did so not necessarily because they want to support Pakistan, but because they’re tied to China’s New Silk Road projects and understand that supporting Islamabad is the same as backing Beijing due to the unshakeable all-weather Chinese-Pakistani Strategic Partnership. As a brief overview, here’s what each of the three multipolar holdouts stand to gain by resisting India’s unipolar pressure and remaining firm in their support for Pakistan-China:
This country is located smack dab in the center of the Chinese-Indian Himalayan frontier, and while historically being a subservient proxy of India, the established paradigm was turned on its head last year after New Delhi arrogantly overstepped all bounds of acceptability and blockaded the country in protest of its new federal constitution. India of course vehemently denied that this was the case and blamed the de-facto blockade on truck drivers and demonstrators, but the events were widely seen as being stage-managed by India no matter what its Ministry of External Affairs diplomatically said about them.
Even though New Delhi ultimately succeeded in engineering a behind-the-scenes regime change against the Chinese-pragmatic Prime Minister KP Oli and bringing pro-India Prachanda back to power, the legacy of Nepal’s accelerated engagement with China was already institutionalized through lasting agreements for Special Economic Zones (SEZs), fuel imports, and an extension of the Tibetan high-speed rail network under the Himalayans to Kathmandu, all of which have now bestowed the landlocked and geographically obscure country with an alternative outlet to the rest of the world that can gradually lessen India’s decades-long dominance over the state.
While accepting that Prachanda is pro-Indian, he won’t be able to reverse his Chinese-friendly predecessor’s pragmatic inroads to China without experiencing considerable domestic opposition due to the fact that the government would be backtracking on its development commitment to the people. With this in mind, it’s not too unexpected that Nepal has refused to listen to India and is still planning to attend the SAARC meeting in Islamabad, though New Delhi might jealously resort back to Hybrid War pressure in getting Kathmandu to do what it wants, which might disastrously repeat the same mistakes of last year and with the same humanitarian and geopolitical consequences.
Located right off the southern tip of India’s Tamil Nadu state, the government of Sri Lanka has always had a love-hate relationship with India, and the history of both countries-civilizations has been intimately interconnected throughout the centuries. Without getting too deep into the background of bilateral relations, Sri Lanka swung from being pro-Indian to pro-Chinese during the administration of former President Rajapaksa, during which the strong-handed leader controversially crushed the Tamil insurgency to the cheers of China and the ire of India. It was also during his tenure that a Chinese submarine docked at a Sri Lankan port and sent shivers up the spines of India’s strategists. Additionally, China and Sri Lanka signed very important New Silk Road deals in building Colombo’s port facilities and those in the southern city of Hambantota.
The Indian leadership’s zero-sum mentality saw China’s infrastructure inroads as strategic threats to New Delhi’s envisioned leadership throughout all of their namesake ocean, which is why the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW, India’s version of the CIA) set out to throw the 2015 Sri Lankan election against Rajapaksa, who eventually lost his re-election bid by a razor-thin margin. His successor, Sirisena, quickly took steps to walk back some of Rajapaksa’s deals with China on the grounds of purported environmental concerns and other ‘plausible’ excuses for doing his Indian patron’s strategic bidding, though much to India’s complete surprise, Chinese diplomacy masterfully succeeded in restoring all perceived losses in August 2016 and now all the projects are back on track.
The Sri Lankan “deep state” (permanent military-intelligence-diplomatic bureaucracies) evidently realizes that the country’s most advantageous position in international affairs is that of a balancer between India and China, not a partisan proxy of one or the other like Sirisena initially sought to be for New Delhi. These sensible considerations are why Sri Lanka has thus fair refrained from India’s call to avoid the SAARC gathering in Islamabad, since it knows that doing so could create problems with China by reinforcing the perception that Sirisena is still an Indian stooge. If Sri Lanka took the fateful step to follow India’s lead, China truthfully wouldn’t be able to do much to pressure it because of the mutually beneficial nature of the Colombo and Hambantota projects and the decisive strategic advantage that their completion would give Beijing relative to New Delhi (which is why China discretely fought so hard to salvage these projects), but it can be expected that some sort of consequences would ensue that could complicate the bilateral relationship between the two.
The last country of the three to stand behind Pakistan-China in still agreeing to attend the Islamabad meeting in November is the Maldives, which just like Sri Lanka, also has a rocky history of relations with India, sometimes oscillating towards friendship and other times towards antagonism. As of late, India has been behaving in an unfriendly fashion towards the Maldives because of its fear that President Yameen is a “Maldivian Rajapaksa”, or in other words, is working uncomfortably close with the Chinese on infrastructure projects and other New Silk Road initiatives to the point that RAW has targeted him for elimination, whether by political or physical means. This isn’t hyperbole either, since the Maldives were thrown to the brink of Hybrid War chaos last fall when India and Saudi Arabia teamed up to destabilize the archipelago and prompt a forcible regime change following several high-profile and mysterious assassination attempts against Yameen.
The author will spare the reader the details about all of these fast-evolving events and instead suggest that they reference his three-part article series on the topic that was published on Oriental Review during that time, but long story short, Color Revolution leader Mohamad Nasheed and his supporters were implicitly backed up by India as they once more attempted to unsuccessfully topple the government. India wanted Nasheed to reign over the Maldives instead of Yameen because RAW identified him as the most likely pro-Indian force that could possibly seize power in alliance with Saudi-supported Salafists. The unrest passed after a tense couple of weeks and Yameen is still is in power, though openly more pragmatic towards India in order to save his skin and stave off a repeat of the Hybrid War scenario that almost toppled his government and killed him. Still, Yameen remembers how India conspired against him and will probably not side with New Delhi against Islamabad unless faced with a credible and imminent threat to his life.
India’s Hybrid War on CPEC has escalated from the covert-terrorist level of supporting Taliban fighters in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), sleeper cells in Karachi, and separatist insurgents in Balochistan to the international one of directly attempting to involve the UN and New Delhi’s unipolar American, Japanese, and European allies into the spat that it has with Pakistan. The supportive rhetoric that India received was just window dressing for disguising the failure of New Delhi’s ‘isolation’ policy against Pakistan, as none of India’s Great Power partners took any substantial steps to transform their words into actions. Granted, it can be confidently assumed that the CIA is working hand-in-glove with their RAW counterparts when it comes to destabilizing Pakistan, but this is a totally different matter than ‘isolating’ it, which the US is officially reluctant to do because it needs to retain a working relationship with Pakistan in order to achieve some of its publicly proclaimed (but not necessarily committed-to) strategic objectives in Afghanistan.
Since Modi-Doval embarrassingly failed to ‘isolate’ Pakistan on the dual fronts of the UN and Great Power arena like they promised their Hindutva electorate that they would, India has decided to tone down the scale of its grandiose strategy by limiting it to South Asia, hence its active steps to divide the regional integration platform of SAARC along New Cold War lines and essentially ruin its working efficiency. The destructive insertion of unrelated geopolitical rivalry into a nominally apolitical bloc is nothing new for India, since it’s been escalating its Cold War with China over the past year to the point that it’s now prompting serious questions about whether the two Great Powers can still reliably cooperate with one another in pursuit of their shared economic-financial objectives in BRICS. Moreover, India’s defection from the multipolar geopolitical camp to the unipolar one after the signing of its unprecedented and historic military-strategic partnership with the US makes many people wonder whether India planned to be the US’ Trojan Horse in the SCO all along, and whether it will function as such in BRICS and other multipolar organizations unless it’s contained, neutralized, and/or expelled.
India, which has infinite potential to act as a responsible Great Power and one of the most positive geopolitical forces of the 21st century, has been on an institutionally destructive rampage and behaving like an crazed elephant stampeding through a ‘china’ shop. Expanding on this metaphor, while it’s certainly culpable for the immense damage that it’s inflicting all over the place, one can’t help but wonder whether the elephant chose to do all of this on its own initiative or if it was ‘spooked’ by someone else that had manipulated it into this blind rage. Pulling back from the imagery and returning to reality, the US obviously has a stake in turning India into the New Cold War 21st-century equivalent of what China was in the 20th-century Old Cold War and using its new ally as a battering ram for breaking BRICS, splitting the SCO, and shattering SAARC. The US’ “deep state” components have been hard at work over the past decade in convincing their Indian analogues that China is the number one threat to their country and that New Delhi needs to side with the West in order to defeat its rival, and judging by the look of things, it appears that they’ve succeeded.
Now that the unipolar world’s efforts have born impressive fruit in swiftly sabotaging SAARC and ominously threatening BRICS and the SCO as well, if the crazed Indian elephant ever calms down, it would do well to reflect on President Putin’s 2015 UN General Assembly address in which he rhetorically asks the US, India’s most important partner now, “do you at least realize now what you’ve done?”.
By Andrew Korybko