With India aggressively pursuing its ambitions of getting a more prominent role in the world, there is a feeling in Islamabad that an essential element of Delhi’s strategy is to encircle and isolate Pakistan.
These fears have been particularly reinforced by Indian moves in the region, where on the one hand the Modi government is developing close relations with countries in the Arab world that have traditionally been seen as Pakistan’s allies, while on the other it is reinforcing its engagement with Pakistan’s uneasy neighbours like Iran and Afghanistan and the countries in the broader South Asian region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Tehran on May 22 for starting ‘a new phase’ in India-Iran ties. The visit – during which Mr Modi is expecting to seal the multi-billion dollar agreements on Chabahar Port, investments in Farzad B gas project, construction of International North-South Transport Corridor, the India-Iran gas pipeline and security – comes close on the heels of his highly successful visits to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
While the objective of this engagement is to get a bigger geo-political role at least in the neighbourhood, develop energy and economic ties, and bolster security cooperation, the leaders of the ruling BJP make it no secret that they are working for the ‘grand isolation’ of Pakistan by restricting Islamabad’s sphere of influence.
The Indian policy of reaching out to the Arab world is not exactly new. The process was initiated during Manmohan Singh’s tenure and several defense and counter-terrorism agreements were signed with Gulf countries. But Prime Minister Modi has given a fresh impetus to the strategy, and importantly added a Pakistan dimension to it. Modi’s visit to the UAE was first by an Indian premier in 34 years, and the Riyadh trip was fourth ever to the Kingdom by a prime minister of India. That in itself says a lot about the significance of these contacts.
There are several reasons why India and Arab countries are getting closer. The Arabs see India as an important energy market and a destination for their investment. At the same time, they intend to benefit from the advancements India has made particularly in the IT and services sectors. From the Indian perspective, the relationship is important because these countries are hosting a large Indian expatriate population, are an important source of oil imports, and have a high volume of bilateral trade with Delhi.
But the unsaid part of the script for this engagement is Indian desire to reduce Pakistani influence in these countries and possibly pressure Islamabad through them on issues of concern to India. New Delhi may have achieved initial success on that count if one were to look at the statements issued after Modi’s visits to the two countries, both of which endorsed Delhi’s terrorism concerns.
India may not be able to achieve a major breakthrough overnight in terms of Pakistan losing its influence in the Arab world, but it must be worrisome for Pakistani diplomats that Delhi has successfully penetrated into what was once seen as its exclusive domain.
One should not lose sight of the fact that the intensification of this engagement coincided with the period during which Pakistan’s relations with Arab countries were not at their best after Islamabad refused to be a gun-for-hire.
Pakistan refused to be a gun-for-hire
India has, moreover, been actively working on its SAARC-minus-one strategy for economically integrating the region without Pakistan, and has already carved out a sub-region by formalizing the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh for promotion and facilitation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic among the four South Asian neighbours. India is also developing South Asia Satellite. Islamabad likely stayed out these projects deliberately because of its own reservations, but the very fact that India went ahead with these two initiatives without Pakistan reveals its intentions.
Prime Minister Modi is also the first Indian prime minister to have visited all five Central Asian states. Concerns in Islamabad about encirclement and containment by India notwithstanding, Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment seems to have failed to come up with any concerted response to countering the Indian moves.
There are several reasons for that. First, there is complacency within the Pakistani establishment that being one of the most important Muslim countries, which has the world’s sixth largest army and is nuclear armed, it would be nearly impossible for India to isolate Pakistan. Secondly, Pakistan sees its ties with China and the upcoming China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a guarantee against any attempt to contain it. Furthermore, the government is confident about the personal relations of its leaders with Arab rulers, preventing any Indian move against Pakistan from succeeding.
Saudi Arabia and UAE endorse Delhi’s terrorism concerns
They also know that despite its refusal to participate in the Yemen war, the Arabs continue to look towards Pakistan as a guarantor of their security and India cannot replace Pakistan in that role.
About a year ago, the Pakistani government had held a conference of all the envoys from the region for promoting connectivity amongst the countries in the neighbourhood (though it was not meant to deal with the new challenge from India). There has hardly been any significant effort to implement the recommendations formulated by the conference.
Delhi is pursuing a SAARC-minus-one strategy
A pro-active strategy would serve Pakistan’s interests better. This strategy should center on institutionalizing the relationship with the Arab world instead of keeping it personality based, clarifying the nature of defense and security cooperation to make it more realistic, and avoiding unrealistic expectations that then infuses frustration and a sense of futility in the relationship. Pakistan should also develop trade, energy and connectivity projects with its neighbours.
Most importantly, Islamabad needs to build relationships with other countries independent of their ties with other countries. It should stop looking at Afghanistan through the prism of India, and the relationship with Iran should not be hindered by its cooperation with India or its troubled ties with the GCC countries.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad