Modi’s war rhetoric may boomerang on India

The government should welcome Islamabad’s move to ban militant outfits designated by the UN Security Council as a step in the right direction. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by making a gesture. But a leap of faith is needed.

Pakistan is crossing the Rubicon. Even if it is only acting under compulsion to conform to the standards set by Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, which has included Pakistan in its ‘grey list’, the Pakistani move overlaps certain templates that have appeared lately. There has been a high level of international attention on terrorism, focusing on the Pakistan-based militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Pakistan cannot afford to waffle anymore. 

Second, this move is in consonance with Imran Khan’s overall conciliatory attitude toward India since he came to power, especially his most recent gesture to return the Indian pilot. Third, this move must be seen in conjunction with the extraordinary public remarks yesterday by the Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi hinting that Pakistan may not oppose a joint move in the UN Security Council by France, Britain and the US to list the JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. 

Qureshi reportedly said, “Time has come for Pakistan to decide in its own interests. We’ll do what’s in Pakistan’s interests… We have some global commitments… We will have to take action which doesn’t harm our global reputation.” He characterised the situation around the Pulwama attack as a “defining moment” for Pakistan.

When asked specifically whether Pakistan will seek a veto from China in the UN SC once again, Qureshi said meaningfully that Pakistan will try to build a consensus among all parties and do what’s in Pakistan’s interest. 

Qureshi’s remarks signal that the ground beneath the feet is shifting and Islamabad cannot remain wedded to the old matrix. The big question is whether Pakistan is changing tack on its opposition to  previous attempts in the UN SC to list Azhar as a global terrorist. Indeed, that could be the case. 

The interplay of various factors possibly accounts for the new thinking in Islamabad — one, quiet Chinese advice behind-the-scenes; two the manifest interest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to seek a new type of relations with India; three, the endgame in Afghanistan heralding a new beginning in regional politics; four, Imran Khan’s innate ‘westernism’ that seeks rapprochement with the US and Britain; and, five, a cool assessment that the upheaval in Jammu and Kashmir has acquired a dynamic of its own and Pakistan’s campaign on Kashmir can only acquire greater credibility and appeal in the world community if it has no blood on its hands. 

Finally, all this is unfolding at a time when the US needs Pakistan’s help to wrap up a settlement in Afghanistan, which enables President Trump to announce troop withdrawal. The prioritisation of Pakistan in the US’ regional strategy at present has serious implications for India at a time when the situation in J&K has touched a criticality. 

The US interest lies in insulating the Afghan peace process from India-Pakistan tensions. Pakistan is notifying the Trump administration that it may stop being a facilitator and give up pressuring Taliban anymore if tensions continue with India. Pakistan’s UN ambassador, Maleeha Lodhi, told Reuters that Islamabad’s focus could completely shift to its eastern border with India. “If the crisis with India continues, Pakistan will be obliged to keep our entire focus on our Eastern border. That may affect our efforts on our Western front,” Lodhi said.

(Talks in Doha between US officials and Taliban representatives, Feb 25, 2019)

Islamabad may not be overstating the risks of fallout on Afghan peace talks, since many of the Pakistani officials who deal with India are also responsible for Afghanistan. The bottom line is that in the current state of play, any US strategy to guard Afghan peace talks from India-Pakistan tensions inevitably brings the Trump administration perilously close to the Kashmir crisis. 

Against this backdrop, Pakistan cannot but be intensely conscious of the need to do some house cleaning of its own. This is where a discernible shift in China’s stance recently merits attention.

The Chinese reaction to the developments since the Pulwama attack has been one of strict neutrality and a balanced view. It gives primacy to regional stability, while taking into account both China’s longstanding friendly ties with Pakistan as well as the positive trajectory of the Sino-Indian relations since the Wuhan Summit last April. 

Significantly, China has taken a proactive role of peacemaker-cum-facilitator-cum-moderator. This implies receptiveness to India’s profound concerns as a victim of terrorism and a realisation in China’s own self-interest that regional peace will be better served through closer cooperation between China and India in the fight against terrorism. Of course, such cooperation would have positive fallouts for the overall relationship between the two countries, too. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a media briefing on March 4:  

“we hope that India and Pakistan, as two important countries in South Asia, will enjoy good neighborliness and friendship and resolve their issues through friendly consultations… China is in close communication with both to facilitate reconciliation and dialogue. China will continue to play a constructive role in its own way in whatever that will help ease the situation and promote regional peace and stability… In fact, China has been in close contact with both India and Pakistan and making efforts to promote peace and facilitate talks.”

The government newspaper China Daily in an editorial comment on February 28 expressed understanding for India’s “anger” over the Pulwama attack but disapproved of Delhi’s military escalation last Tuesday. Again, it highlighted Imran Khan’s repeated overtures for dialogue but only to call upon him to release the Indian pilot as a measured step “in a show of goodwill to improve its ties with India.” On February 28, the veteran India hand Wang Dehua also penned a commentary in Global Times saying, “China will act as a mediator between India and Pakistan in the long term, hoping to accelerate the peace process between the feuding nations.” 

There is no competitive edge to China’s role. China is already an influential player in the region and a stakeholder in regional stability. Most important, China hopes to create conditions in which India and Pakistan can discuss their mutual differences and resolve them bilaterally. It is a long-term project, if Wang is to understood correctly.

All in all, therefore, the Pakistani move to ban militant outfits and placate international opinion and Islamabad’s openness to a UN SC resolution on Azhar — instead of beseeching China to cast yet another veto — enables Islamabad to occupy the high ground.

This would mean that while Delhi’s long-cherished desire to settle scores with Azhar is nearing fulfilment, there is a flip side to it, namely, the P-5 members will also expect India to follow through by commencing talks with Pakistan. Paradoxically, PM Modi’s war rhetoric only adds to the sense of crisis in the region.