Great powers and South Asia’s geopolitics
The Pakistan-India contestations have been at the core of insecurity and instability in South Asia, one of the most populous and under developed regions of the world. Both countries remain locked in struggles with a zero-sum outcome and have actively sought extra regional support against each other.
It is indeed unfortunate that the dynamics of South Asian geopolitics makes the region vulnerable to global strategic predilections that reinforce negative trends and severely diminish the huge potential of the region to join efforts in meeting common challenges of development and environment. Schooled in western political constructs, their statecraft is too heavily imbued with notions of power.
The vision of the South Asian Regional Cooperation as envisaged in SAARC evaporated with the advent of the Modi administration in India. Historically, India played the China threat to justify its nuclear weapons program and more recently forged a strong defense partnership with the US. India’s foremost role in the US-China containment strategy has won it western political and military support but at the cost of deterioration of relations with China and relative diminishing of trust with Russia.
India’s strategic dilemma is maintaining its partnership with Russia and the US at the same time. This dilemma has been brought to the fore with the conflict in Ukraine, which has brought the patterns of European history to the front and center stage. These developments have dramatically altered the global strategic dynamics and is likely to deepen the divisions between NATO and Russia for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, the China-Russia strategic partnership seems to have been consolidated with the Xi-Putin Joint Statement in Beijing on 15 February 2022, which is being construed as a solid framework for cooperation and categorically opposed NATO’s eastward expansion. If India had hoped that Russia would be able to moderate or influence China-India relations, despite India’s involvement in the US-China containment strategy, this development would have forced a rethink in New Delhi.
The conflict should be settled by peaceful means whereby the sovereignty of Ukraine is maintained, while simultaneously respecting Russia’s security concerns vis a vis NATO’s expansion.
India’s abstention in the Security Council on the US draft resolution on Ukraine was clearly a gesture to Russia. The historic Indo-Russian partnership is now being tested on the issue of Ukraine. India cannot afford to condemn Russia, which has been a major arms supplier. Yet, another important factor that impels India is the fear that Pakistan-Russia relations have continued to improve and gained much traction and comfort. These developments would seriously unnerve New Delhi as without Russia’s continuing support, India would lose space and role in the continental constructive cooperative dynamics basically being propelled by China and Russia.
It is these economic cooperation initiatives also envisaged under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that have brought Pakistan closer to Russia. It was in this context that Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Moscow on 24-25 February and met President Putin for over three hours. It was a bilateral visit signifying Pakistan’s acknowledgment of Russia’s role in the broader region and in particular for stability and development in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The visit had nothing to do with the Ukraine issue. Yet the Prime Minister regretted the situation in Ukraine and called for dialogue and diplomacy.
Pakistan with its economic priority strategy has been averse to leap into geopolitical global contestations. For long years, Pakistan sided with the ‘free world’ in its global struggles against the Soviet Union and suffered immensely. It has decided now to steer clear of these contests. Pakistan wishes to have good relations with all major powers including the US and Russia and believes that the best way to defend international order is to follow enlightened principles of win-win cooperation dictated by global interdependence.
Regrettably, there has been much grief for the Ukrainian people, with potentially raised prospects of decades of doom and gloom in Europe. It could have been averted if all sides had abided by respecting the legitimate security concerns of all states proceeding from the premise that security is indivisible. The conflict should be settled by peaceful means whereby the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is maintained, while simultaneously respecting Russia’s security concerns vis a vis NATO’s expansion. This is what Pakistan and China have advocated.
The Ukraine factor will impact the great power equations for a long time. South Asia will be affected as both Pakistan and India will read signs of how this plays out in terms of US-China relations and costs, if any, to an Indo-US partnership. Pakistan hopes that prospects of Eurasian economic cooperation go forward eventually. It is perhaps premature to isolate South Asia from global geopolitics and the games that the big powers play.
- Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.