Bangla Monday, September 21, 2020

A year after Kashmir’s annexation, India is far from stronger in the region

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Even a year after the Modi sarkar’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s Special Status and thereby annex it, the regional balance of power has not changed in its favour. On the contrary, the annexation has exacerbated its problems in Kashmir by turning what was essentially a bilateral Indo-Pak issue into a trilateral issue with China being drawn into it. 

India has been pushing, as part of its ‘Hinduisation’ agenda, to bring a demographic change in Kashmir. It has allowed its military personnel to buy land in Kashmir. But its actions have largely turned out to be counterproductive allowing China to redefine its role and policies in the region.

India’s annexation of Jammu & Kashmir signalled that it could at any time take territories under Chinese control. But a pro-active Chinese response, taking economic, diplomatic and military forms, is a logical outcome of Indian actions, making things far more complicated for India than they were a year ago.

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As it stands, China will be an indispensable actor in any future settlement of Kashmir. In other words, if Kashmir was fundamentally a bilateral India-Pakistan issue before August 5, 2019, it has become a trilateral issue post August 5, 2019.

With China pushing back Indian military advances in Ladakh and with China continuously investing billions in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, Chinese stakes, if anything, have exponentially increased, meaning thereby that in any future high-level escalation along India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC), China will be directly involved.

Accordingly, Pakistan has cultivated China for investment in that part of the disputed Kashmir to cement its position. Reports in the Western mainstream media have rightly called Chinese investments a “blow to India.”

The most recent and perhaps the biggest investment has been a joint China-Pakistan venture to build Pakistan’s third largest dam, the Diamer Basha Dam. This dam will be a joint venture of China’s state-owned China Power and Pakistan army’s commercial wing’s Frontier Works Organization.

The Daimer Basha dam is apart from two other agreements that Islamabad and Beijing have signed under CPEC to directly invest up to US$ 4 billion to develop two hydroelectric power projects in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, with a total capacity of about 1,800 megawatts.

With China thus entrenching itself in the region, this will add to the already existing tension points between China and India. In other words, when planning, even hypothetically, to expand Indian control to the Pakistan controlled part of Kashmir, Indian strategists will have to take into account the ‘China factor’ as well.

Indeed, the calculus had already changed after the China-India clashes in Ladakh, which were in many ways a China-Pakistan response to an ever-increasing jingoistic Indian rhetoric about bringing the whole region under its direct control to realise a Hindutva-imbued “Akhand Bharat”.

The ground realities post-Ladakh clashes, however, show that the Modi sarkar’s ambitious dream to have a more muscular role for India in the region and the world may not be fulfilled.

If the litmus test for such a role was Indian advancement in Ladakh and success in pushing back China, that test failed miserably, forcing India to engage, as I wrote for SAM previously, in some sort of a strategic re-think. But it will be long before New Delhi can revive the ‘Wuhan spirit.’

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Indeed, much of this will be due to India’s increasing tilt towards the US to buttress its weak position in the region. With China increasing its presence in and around the disputed region, Indian attempts to develop a deep strategic relationship with the US, the kind of which exists between the US and Israel, will increase as well.

Indian policy makers have already been speaking, as a way of justifying a deep US-India strategic relationship, of a ‘hostile environment’ and a ‘two front war’ that they will have to tackle and fight.

But the question is: does India have enough internal resources to fight and sustain such a war and/or even effectively tackle a ‘hostile environment’?

India’s dwindling economic position indicates the limited extent to which it can push for change. According to safe estimates, in the second quarter of 2020, India’s economy has shrunk by almost 20 per cent-the first double digit contraction since the mid-1990s. With India being already the third worst-COVID-19-hit country after the US and Brazil, the Indian economy is expected to shrink even further in the remaining two quarters of the year.

With such a devastating economic situation facing the Modi sarkar, India can neither modernise its military-something that it does need to do in the wake of the beating it received in Ladakh---nor channelize more resources to the defence sector to fight a ‘two front war.’ India has not yet been able to get back the 40-60 sq. kilometres that the PLA is believed to have secured in Ladakh in the recent clashes.

While India hoped to have US support vis-à-vis China, the Ladakh episode showed once again that the US may not be a reliable partner.

In the US, Donald Trump is already trailing in the polls and, with a defeat looking increasingly possible, he has already suggested delaying elections. It is possible that the new US administration may neither want to push China politically and diplomatically nor engage India strategically to confront China in Asia.