The need is to sign an Indo-Pacific charter that enshrines the principles that the signatories commit to defending, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Perhaps shortly after he steps down from his office of General Secretary of the most powerful political party in the world, the Chinese Communist Party, but more likely years before, Xi Jinping will realize that the gamble he has taken by placing on steroids the military-to-military cooperation between the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and GHQ Rawalpindi will rank as an error comparable to the 1979 decision of Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to invade and occupy Afghanistan by force.
With every passing year, the PRC will get further sucked into the quicksand that the military is making of Pakistan. It will willy-nilly be an accessory to the various methods employed by the Pakistan army against its foes. As a consequence, friends will turn into foes. The bills for the Chinese people will mount, as will the human toll of seeking to prevent the meltdown of a country through boosting the capabilities of the very institution that is responsible for that situation, the higher command of the Pakistan army.
It had been Brezhnev who had announced that the Soviet Union “was prepared to risk World War 3 rather than surrender control of any of its East European satellites”. Neither was Afghanistan ever a Soviet satellite, nor was the Carter administration (with the Russia-centric Zbigniew Brzeziński as its National Security Advisor) going to forgo the opportunity of ensuring that Soviet armies get so mired down in Afghanistan that the CPSU will forget all about waging World War 3 and be forced to concentrate on fighting the Afghan resistance to their illegal occupation. Presidents Carter and later Reagan made the mistake of ignoring moderate Pashtuns and outsourcing the Afghan war to Pakistan, who promptly used only religious extremists to carry out a campaign of attrition that bled Soviet forces incessantly.
This US policy put the armed segment of Wahhabism on steroids, an error that the world is still paying a high price for. Sadly, other countries (including in the GCC, who ought to have known better) were prodded by Washington into backing the extremists let loose by the Pakistan army, brushing aside the overwhelming majority of Pashtuns, who are moderate. China, which for several decades has been a force multiplier for the Pakistan military, assisted successive US administrations in the task of crippling the Soviet Union, including in Afghanistan. For such steadfast support to Washington against Moscow, the PRC was richly rewarded by the US and its allies (including Japan and Taiwan) in the form of financial resources, intelligence and advanced technology.
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All of this was at the same time being denied to India, except by Japan, which was helpful even after Taiwan under Lee Teng Hui cold-shouldered an informal request for financial accommodation from the Government of India. Despite this snub, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao established “non-formal” diplomatic ties with Taiwan in common with much of the rest of the world, besides correctly recognizing Israel’s support to India by upgrading diplomatic relations to the level of embassies in the respective capitals. India was and still is the world’s most populous democracy, but that cut no ice with President Bill Clinton or his contemporary leaders in the EU, US and Taiwan, who denied even a little of the same favours to India as was thrown away lavishly towards China.
Much has been said about the evolving Indo-Pacific confluence of countries that oppose the efforts of an authoritarian power under a hyper-confident leader seeking to dominate the Indo-Pacific. Those expected to know better claimed in public that the Quad needed to remain without a military component. Mahatma Gandhi was a saint who saw only good even in the worst of people. During the 1940 and 1941 effort by Adolf Hitler to conquer Britain, his advice to the British was to open the doors of their homes to the Germans, so that soul-force could transform hatred and cruelty into compassion and love.
From the time the Mahatma publicly made this recommendation to the British people, M.A. Jinnah began gaining traction in Whitehall for his formula of “divide before quitting”. The results of that tragedy reverberate across the subcontinent and beyond to this day. This makes more aware of the wisdom of the pacifist Abraham Lincoln conducting a bloody civil war with secessionist (slaveholding) states from 1861 to 1865 rather than accept a divided United States.
Another example of a leadership style, albeit with a very different ethical quotient, was the manner in which Mao Zedong doubled the land area of China through the PLA during the 1940s and 1950s without any opposition from either British India or Free India. Now Xi Jinping seeks to do a Mao, again with the assistance of the PLA and its auxiliaries such as GHQ Rawalpindi. This time around, the lessons of the 1940s and the 1950s (not to mention that of the consistency of the ideological trajectory of the CCP since the founding of the PRC in 1949) seem to have been learnt at least by a few countries. Prime Minister Suga and President Biden, where the challenge of dealing with an expansionist authoritarian state are concerned, seem to have read the tea leaves correctly.
Which is why Prime Minister Modi, President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Suga need to sign an Indo-Pacific charter that enshrines the principles that the signatories need to commit to defending. Marx said that history repeats a tragedy the next time around as farce. This was in his book on Louis Bonaparte. The Roosevelt-Churchill Atlantic Charter was not a tragedy but a ray of hope showing a future better than that promised by the damp, dark shadow of Hitler.
The Biden-Johnson Atlantic Charter Mark II was a farce that other members of the G7 apparently saw through. If such parodies of statecraft are the efforts of advisors of the US President and the UK Prime Minister, both are soon going to be in trouble where their countries are concerned. The manner in which the Sino-Wahhabi alliance (in which the Sino-Pakistan alliance is a prime mover) is seeking to widen societal faultlines in India and the US in particular through infiltration into social media space indicates the methodical manner in which a superpower whose leadership has been transparent about seeking dominance in the Eurasian landmass and in the Indo-Pacific is aiming its arrows at not just India but the US and indeed the system of democracy.
If both the societies of the two biggest democracies in the world develop faultlines that are ignored much as the collapsed condominium in Florida was, it would be easier, in PRC’s reckoning, to ensure that the system of governance they have preserved for seven decades prevails in a manner that the Soviet system failed to do in 1992. The battle is existential, and unless the Indo-Pacific partners in ensuring free and open passage together with ASEAN and the countries on both sides of the Atlantic understand this reality, the outcome of what may most appropriately (if still not accepted widely) be termed Cold War 2.0 needs to move in a direction that only clarity of purpose and effectiveness in response can assure. The Himalayan massif and the South and East China Seas are part of the same front, and need a unified response, no matter where the challenge next appears, whether this be kinetic or otherwise.