Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hotspot Of Indo-Chinese Geo-Strategic Rivalry

IN 1890 the American naval strategist Alfred Mahan expressed the view that sea power was the key to global control and showed how the building up of naval power by seafaring nations remained a crucial factor in shaping history and changing geo-strategy of the world. Colonisation of third world countries by European nations with a strong maritime tradition is a clear pointer to the significant role played by naval forces in the global power equations. Coming to the 21st century the importance of blue power strategy is unchanged and, to some extent, it is an ever increasing phenomena and determining geo-strategic factor too.

The blue power school of strategists used to say that the current century’s controlling power will be in the hands of the nation which can dominate the Indian Ocean and the states on its littoral. And Indian Ocean that extends from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz and from the coast of Africa to the western shores of Australia. The region contains 1/3 of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its landmass, and 40 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It is the locus of important international sea lines of communication. The region is home to most of the world’s Muslim population as well as India, one of the world’s likely ‘rising powers’.

The Indian Ocean also is home to the world’s two nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran, which most observers believe has a robust programme to acquire nuclear weapons. India and China, Asia’s two powerful neighbours, have already jumped into the tidal waves of Indian Ocean to be predominant in this region and their continuing efforts aimed at the strategic encirclement and containment of each other are a potential source of competition and rivalry and, perhaps, even conflict.

China’s growing power and influence in Asia is a strategic challenge for India as, eventually, Indian and Chinese geo-strategic interests will clash, particularly in the South Asia, Southeast Asia, and central Asia as well as in Africa. Indians see the Indian Ocean as India’s backyard and see it as both natural and desirable for India to function as the leader and the predominant influence in this region since it is the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state. But Chinese used to refuge the claim, saying ‘we can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians and they have to remind that it is not an Indian Lake rather it is the Ocean and that should be universal.’

China has already made its presence felt in the Indian Ocean region, where it could come into conflict with Indian maritime interests. To the east of India, China’s maritime challenge to India starts with the Malacca Straits. As India has moved forward to project its presence and ‘guardianship’ of the area, the People’s Republic of China has been trying to circumvent this through discussions with Thailand on building a canal across the Isthmus of Kara. This would directly link the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, and bypass the Malacca Strait. China’s links with Myanmar are well established on land and at sea, the source of long-established Indian concerns. Base facilities have been established at Sittwe, along with various intelligence posts in the Coco Islands, and elsewhere.

To the south of India, China’s development of port and bunker facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka is the causes of worry to Indian policy makers. China has also made its influence felt in the Maldives’ islands, a crucial link between China’s presence in the Arabian Sea (Pakistan) and in the Bay of Bengal (Myanmar and Bangladesh). Direct ‘intrigue’ and rivalry is evident between India and China with regard to the Maldives for the control of the Indian Ocean region... India and China both are keen to woo Maldives for their strategic interests.

To the west, Pakistan has long been the lynchpin of China’s presence in South Asia. In 2005, China also conducted its first joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with Pakistan, the first outside of PRC territorial waters. Chinese maritime ‘Grand Strategy’ is most evident at Gwadar, situated on Pakistan’s far western shores, looking towards the entrance of the oil-rich Gulf, and it is capable of offering ongoing berthing facilities for the Chinese navy. Gwadar is important: not for what it is today, but for what it will indicate about Beijing’s intentions in the coming years and decades. The race for resources like oil can put countries at loggerheads, and the foreign policies of both India and China are increasingly dictated by their energy needs.

India has also considerably strengthened its posture in several strategically important regions. Her infrastructure has been strengthened; her more northerly command centres shared with commercial shipping at Mumbai and Visakhapatnam have been supplemented with two new purely naval deep-sea port facilities on the southwest coast at Kawar and on the southeast coast some 50 kilometres south of Visakhapatnam. Both bases will enable Indian power to be felt further around the Indian Ocean, and thereby enable India to more easily cut China’s Sea Lanes of Communication between the Persian Gulf and Straits of Malacca.

The extension and build-up of Campbell Airport on Great Nicobar Island gives India the chance to strike against the southern and central Chinese zones, avoiding the geographical problems for India of trans-Himalayan operations. 2005 saw the setting up of India’s Far Eastern Naval Command, at Port Blair in the Andaman Island. They also look eastwards, to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea; indeed they geographically pull India into Southeast Asia, being in between Indonesia and Myanmar.

India’s naval operations with Southeast Asian neighbours have been a regular feature of its Bay of Bengal operations since 1995, buttressed still further by the quadrilateral naval exercises conducted by the Indian navy with American, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean units in September 2007, near the Andaman Islands, close to China’s monitoring stations at Coco Islands and near the strategic Strait of Malacca. American-led alliances in the region, Beijing perceive the ties with Japan, Australia and India as the most vital because collectively they can transform into a US-Japan-Australia-India coalition to encircle China. Indian naval links with Vietnam, nestled in what strategists see as China’s ‘soft underbelly’, is a great Chinese concern since both Vietnam and India have unresolved territorial disputes with China, both have China as a looming northern land neighbour, and both have faced war with China (India in 1962, Vietnam in 1979).

Bangladesh is another vital factor in the grand chessboard of Indian Ocean geopolitics for her geo-strategic location to both India and China but she used to treat two giants equally, her leaning towards any one can change the power projection and control of the sea lines of communication and ‘sea-power’ as a whole. India and China in Mahan-style are stepping up navy building or enhancing their ability to control the ocean and such rivalry of two neighbours can hamper the integrity and security of the region and their peaceful rise might be questioned. As a dweller of Indian Ocean territory, both countries are expected to avoid all sorts of antagonism and will work for peace and tranquillity of Indian Ocean region and for the planet as a whole.

BY :  Abdullah Shahed Miaji.

Chinese Penetration In South Asia Now Beyond India’s Control

With China seeking greater role in the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as a ‘dialogue partner’ and Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka immediately supporting the Chinese move, the 20-point agenda of the declaration adopted by the 17th SAARC Summit that concluded on Friday in Addu City of the Maldives, also included the decision to review engagement between the regional body with the countries with observer status.

The United States, China, Japan, Myanmar, Australia, Iran, Korea, Mauritius and the European Union were present at the 17th SAARC Summit as the observers.

According to the 20 Point declaration, the SAARC regional body will undertake a comprehensive review of all matters relating to its engagement with observer countries, including the question of dialogue partnership, before the next Session of the Council of Ministers to be held in 2012.
The Chinese move was resisted by India and Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan preferred to remain neutral.

Thus, Nepal’s Prime Minister Bhattarai justified his India elevation else he would have a fate similar to Nepal’s former sovereign Gyanendra Shah.

Nepal thus became a tail of the Indian regime. 

To recall, at the 13th SAARC Summit held in Dhaka of Bangladesh, Nepal had supported Chinese entrance in the South Asian regional body with an Observer status.  

“It was a long time coming. But when it did in Dhaka over the weekend, China’s diplomatic big bang left in tatters India’s long-standing claim of an exclusive sphere of influence in the sub-continent. That Nepal’s King Gyanendra could hold up the consensus at the summit on Afghanistan’s membership for two days by linking it to China’s request for an association with the SAARC, heralds a new paradigm in the sub-continent’s geopolitics. Without even being present at the summit, China has significantly influenced the outcome of the Dhaka debate on expanding SAARC membership”, so wrote C. Raja Mohan for the Indian express (12, November 2005).
King Gyanendra thus became instantly a villain in the Indian eyes. 

It is quite interesting to note that in a revengeful act, just a week after Gyanendra Shah’s grand push to lend support to the Chinese place in SAARC as an Observer, India forced Nepal’s subservient political parties to sign the most humiliating and anti-national 12-Point Agreement that eventually did away with the institution of Monarchy in Nepal.

Chinese also did not come to the rescue when the monarch was being sidelined. What a pity!
The date of the signing of the 12 point agreement is November 22, 2005. 

In the meantime, reports have it that China has established an embassy in the Maldivian capital Male just two days before the SAARC Summit. Quiet diplomacy takes a new height. 

Reports coming from Bangladesh are also in favor of China. The main opposition BNP has called for granting China full membership in the SAARC regional body.

"The delegation discussed the issue of China becoming a full member of the South-Asian platform during the meeting and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia expressing her all-out support on the issue," BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, while briefing journalist in Bangladesh.

She made the remark while meeting a high level delegation from China.
The institution of monarchy may have been sidelined but Nepal’s last King Gyanendra’s noble efforts to include China in the South Asian regional body as an observer must be praised because his efforts have considerably lessened India’s fear among smaller South Asian states.
With Madam Khalida now demanding full membership to China in SAARC must have elated Nepal’s former King Gyanendra.

Teesta Water Sharing Agreement Failure- Pursuing A Wrong Accusation

The failure to conclude Teesta Water sharing agreement with India during the visit in August of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka has led to a plethora of accusations against the government. Principal among these are inept diplomacy, fecklessness of leadership, and inadequacy of negotiations on our part, and lack of good faith on the other side. In this barrage of accusations and conspiracy theories, the most astounding is the alleged inability or lack of foresight in the government to enlist the support of the West Bengal Chief Minister to the water sharing deal.

The agreement, as we know, fell apart at the last minute as the West Bengal Chief Minister signaled her unwillingness to accept the water sharing agreement on the proposed principles. The critics argued that Bangladesh should have known about this early on, and we should have prepared the ground for getting the agreement of the West Bengal Chief Minister to the deal. This is as if West Bengal is a sovereign state by itself, and any agreement with Indian Government by us needed to be validated by our government with other stakeholders as well.

The preposterousness of this line of argument is taken a step further when the proponents of the argument suggest that the results could have been different if the West Bengal Chief Minister were to be approached by our emissaries ahead of the planned signing of the water deal. That is to suggest that we should have conducted a parallel dialogue with a State Government of a sovereign country. Would any country allow that?

Treaties that countries go into with each other are between sovereign nations that take full responsibility of getting acquiescence to the treaties of their citizens and regions that are affected by these treaties. Each country follows its own legal process and norms to get ratification of the treaties, but the onus is on the countries themselves to see that the due process has been observed. Some countries may sign a treaty with others pending ratification by its legislature. The responsibility for seeking the ratification from the legislature is, however, with the country signing the treaty. The co-signatory cannot go lobby the legislature of a foreign country to ratify the treaty.

Consider the treaties that the President of the US enters into with other countries. Each of this treaty has to be ratified by the Congress either apriori or aposteriori, sometimes after debates that may last long periods of time. The recent nuclear deals signed by US President with Russia and India went through a considerable period of uncertainty of ratification by the US Congress although both were ultimately passed. In India too, the deal had to be ratified by Indian parliament. Yet, while the ratification process was in progress no one suggested in any of the affected countries that there be a parallel negotiation with the legislature to advance the ratification. Nor were there accusations that elements in the Government of either US or India had mistakes in the process leading to the treaties.

The Teesta water sharing agreement did not take place not because Bangladesh had done its home work. It did not happen because either the Indian Government had not done due diligence, or it was too confident that the interests of the affected state (that is West Bengal) had been met. However, having said that, I also think that we built our expectations too high. We ignored the likelihood of such an eventuality.

If we were prepared for the eventuality, would we have altered our red carpet treatment of the Indian Prime Minister? Perhaps not. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh brought much more to the bilateral relationship of the two countries than simply agreement on water sharing of a single river. The visit carried more than a friendly gesture. It went to show maturing of a relationship that began forty years ago that has weathered some cold days off and on. The visit has the foreboding of a relationship that would be built on trust, good will, and great mutual benefit.

The Teesta water sharing agreement is among many more agreements we need on water sharing with rivers that flow into Bangladesh from other neighboring states in India. But as in the case of West Bengal I believe the responsibility for carrying the affected Indian states to the bilateral agreement with us lies with the government of India alone. We are not expected to undertake parallel dialogues with each and every neighboring state on India’s behalf on the water sharing agreements. We negotiate with India. Let India negotiate with its States.

By : Ziauddin Choudhury,USA

UN fears Pakistani rogue scientist passed on nuclear secrets to Syria

The reported discovery of a previously unknown complex in Syria has raised UN suspicions that Damascus collaborated with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear bomb project, to obtain nuclear technology for a covert weapons programme.
The facility near the Iraqi border is almost identical to the design plans for a uranium-enrichment plant provided to Libya as the North African country developed its nuclear weapons programme with the assistance of Mr Khan and his nuclear trafficking network, the Associated Press news agency reported. Officials apparently visited Damascus to investigate last week.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is also understood to have copies of correspondence between Mr Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who apparently suggested collaboration following Pakistan's successful nuclear test in 1998, AP said, citing a former UN investigator.

There is no evidence, say investigators, that the plant in the city of Al-Hasakah was ever used for nuclear purposes – it is currently in use as a cotton-spinning plant – but its design, combined with the existence of a second suspected nuclear facility bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, suggests a strong possibility that Syria was at one point pursuing nuclear-weapons capability much more vigorously than was previously supposed.

Syria has never admitted to having a nuclear-weapons programme. Israel destroyed what the UN believed was a nuclear plant built with the assistance of North Korea that had not yet gone into operation, but Syria has always maintained that the Dair Alzour facility was a non-nuclear military installation, and that the uranium particles subsequently found at the site came from the missiles used to destroy it.

A popular uprising met with a brutal crackdown by the regime has deflected attention from Syria's nuclear activities in recent months. IAEA officials visited Damascus last week hoping to revive an investigation into Dair Alzour, but there was no tangible sign of progress. Despite the existence of the two complexes, there is little evidence that Syria has actively pursued nuclear weapons since the Dair Alzour facility was destroyed four years ago, nor is there any suggestion that it has resumed its activities now.

But there has long been speculation that Mr Khan offered nuclear technology to Syria – speculation fuelled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's admission to an Austrian newspaper in 2007 that the Pakistani expert had contacted government officials but Syria did not respond.

Hailed as the father of Pakistan's nuclear programme, Mr Khan shocked his countrymen when it emerged in 2004 that he had sold nuclear secrets abroad.

He was found out when nuclear components destined for Muammar Gaddafi's Libya were seized in 2003 from a German-owned ship.

It subsequently emerged that Mr Khan sold nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. He made a televised confession to the country that he later retracted and was held under house arrest by the Pakistani authorities until 2009.

Correspondence between Mr Khan and a Syrian official, Mr Issa, in the 1990s suggest that there was at least a tentative approach even if it did not develop into a formal relationship. Mr Issa, then a Deputy Minister of Education, congratulated Pakistan for its nuclear achievement in 1998 and followed up by suggesting some co-operation with Mr Khan and proposed a visit by Syrian officials to Mr Khan's laboratory, the former UN official told AP.

It was apparently the belief that Mr Khan may have approached Syria that prompted the hunt by UN investigators for the Al-Hasakah complex, and a Kuwaiti newspaper report claiming that Syria had a secret nuclear site in the city enabled them to hone in on the site.

Satellite imagery showed that the complex was almost identical to that of the Libyan-acquired design for a uranium-enrichment plant, down to the covered area providing protection to cars from the sun.
Damascus has reportedly not responded to IAEA requests to visit the site. The IAEA declined to comment on the reports yesterday.

Abdul Khan: Atomic outcast
Abdul Qadeer Khan, 75, is known as the father of Pakistan's nuclear programme, and is still revered by many in the country as someone who helped it to match its rival India in the arms race. In the West, he is seen as a dangerous nuclear proliferator, who helped pariah regimes including Iran, North Korea and Libya to develop secret weapons programmes.

After working as a nuclear scientist in Europe in the 1970s, Mr Khan returned home, where the authorities threw resources into efforts to develop a weapon, successfully testing a device in 1998.
But under pressure from Washington, Mr Khan confessed in 2004 that he had sold nuclear know-how to other regimes, and has spent most of the intervening years with his movements restricted.
Mines being planted on Lebanon border

Syria is planting landmines along parts of the country's border with Lebanon as refugees stream out of the country to escape the crackdown on anti-government protests, officials and witnesses say. A Syrian man whose foot had to be amputated after he stepped on a mine just across from the Lebanese village of Irsal on Sunday was the first known victim of the mines, a doctor who treated him in Lebanon said.

Witnesses on the Lebanese side of the border said they have seen Syrian soldiers planting the mines in recent days in the province of Homs and across from Lebanon's eastern Baalbek region. A Syrian official claimed the mines were meant to prevent arms smuggling into the country. The exodus to Lebanon and Turkey has proven an embarrassment for the President Bashar al-Assad. 

The Transit Trouble

AFTER the huge hoopla surrounding ‘transit’ to India over the preceding months, and the subsequent debate surrounding its merits and demerits, the government last week opened up the door to transit rather quietly, albeit on a trial basis, under the revised Bangladesh-India Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, without completing the formalities for India using Bangladesh as a ‘corridor’. What experts and people concerned had been saying all along about ‘transit’ have already started to come true. According to a report published in New Age on Monday, over the last few days, hundreds of Indian trucks have been availing the ‘transit and transhipment’ service and passing through quickly, while hundreds of trucks carrying Bangladeshi shipments for export to India have been waiting in long queues awaiting clearance from the Indian authorities. A large section of business community had for long clamoured over the adverse effect transit would have on Bangladeshi exports to India, especially the north-eastern Indian states.

The surge in traffic the last week have also left a toll on the small number of officials posted there, causing a huge backlog of trucks, exacerbated by the narrow and dilapidated roads leading to Akhaura port. While ‘transit’ may be on a trial run, it has certainly created serious doubts about the government’s intentions in realising financial benefits from providing transit facilities. All of this should indicate to the government, less than week into the trial run, what havoc ‘transit’ threatens to create, if implemented hastily. While there is not much resistance among the progressive sections of the country to providing India ‘transit’ in principle, concerns about technical details surrounding infrastructural capability, adverse economic effect and the finding the right mechanism to set transit fees, remain a serious concern. More importantly, ‘transit’, being possibly the most important thing India seeks from Bangladesh, is also a diplomatic issue. Most people feel that Bangladesh should only accord ‘transit’ after most bilateral issues have been settled on the part of India, or else we stand to lose our strongest bargaining chip.

Keeping aside large-scale formal ‘transit’ and ‘corridor’, the trial run through Ashuganj and Akhaura should provide the government enough things to ponder upon. The government needs to address the issue of bilateral trade with the Indian government and ensure Bangladeshi shipment going into India is accorded the same treatment as Indian shipment. Secondly, the government needs to seriously invest in the infrastructural and logistical capability on most land and river ports between India and Bangladesh. Thirdly, Bangladesh needs to set transit fees to a level that will offset the losses incurred through fall in export potential, pressure on the infrastructure, as well as possible future investments. Most importantly, however, keeping all bilateral issues in mind, alongside the technical drawbacks, the government needs to rethink whether ‘transit’, at this point, is a feasible and sound decision.

Pakistan’s Energy Shortage : Lights Out

Another threat to a fragile country’s stability.


ALTHOUGH Pakistan makes international news for terrorist attacks, anti-American demonstrations and its alleged support for insurgents in Afghanistan, it is the basic inability to switch on a light that is pushing this volatile country closer to the edge. Popular anger over Pakistan’s crippling electricity shortage boiled over on to the streets this week, with riots that paralysed whole cities, unleashing running battles with the police and causing widespread damage to government offices (see picture above).

It is clear why the people were angry. In many of the towns in revolt, they have gone 20 hours a day without power in a still-sweltering Pakistan. What is more, the government of President Asif Zardari has done little as the energy crisis has grown, dithering over its strategy even as it cooks up schemes for new power plants to enrich its cronies. In the process, the government has squandered billions of dollars.

This week’s demonstrations were the most serious protests against the government since a movement in 2008 to reinstate a sacked chief justice. The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, whose political performance had been lacklustre at best, quickly embraced the protesters, quipping that the “Zardari network” was more dangerous to the country than the Haqqani network, an Afghan jihadist group based on Pakistani soil.
The energy deficit, in both electricity and gas, means that businesses have to shut for part of each week, forcing many to go bankrupt. Power shortages are estimated to slice some 3-4% off GDP. “The textile industry of Punjab is doomed,” says Shabbir Ahmed, chief executive of Bashir Printing, a textile dyeing and printing factory in Faisalabad, in Punjab province. His plant now shuts for two days a week for lack of gas. Even when there is gas, he says, the electricity is cut four times a day.

For ordinary people, the frustrations are endless. Refrigerators become useless. Water runs out because it relies on electrical pumps. Children do their homework by candlelight.

Insufficient capacity is not even the biggest problem. That is a $6 billion chain of debt, ultimately owed by the state, that is debilitating the entire energy sector. Power plants are owed money by the national grid and the grid in turn cannot get consumers (including the Pakistani government) to pay for the electricity they use. This week, the financial crunch meant that oil supply to the two biggest private power plants was halted, because the state-owned oil company had no cash to procure fuel.

The central government also continues to subsidise the cost of electricity to the tune of billions of dollars a year. That money, say the government’s critics, could be better used to pay its own bills and thereby free up unused capacity in power plants that are mothballed because of non-payment and disrepair. Cutting subsidies to people’s electricity bills, however, could lead to even more unrest. Critics argue that the government’s hand-to-mouth policymaking is self-defeating, and illustrates its general lack of planning.

In the long term, help could be at hand. Pakistan says it is about to start work on a giant dam, the $12 billion Daimer-Basha, in the far north-east, with backing from the Asian Development Bank. The dam would add a large amount of generating capacity. America may provide aid for the project. (India, which believes that the dam lies in disputed territory, in part of the former princely state of Kashmir, is inevitably against the dam’s construction.)

There are also plans for a gas pipeline from Iran, though the Americans have warned that the scheme could fall foul of their sanctions against Iran. Alternatives include access to Pakistan’s abundant untapped coal reserves, or importing gas and electricity from central Asia, across Afghanistan, a daunting proposition.

However, it is the short term that is the real problem. Unless the Pakistani government can solve its cycle of debt and disorganisation, ordinary Pakistanis will continue to vent their fury.

Pakistan And America : To The Bitter End

Growing concerns about a difficult relationship.

THOUGH America’s relations with Pakistan grow ever more wretched, it remains hard to imagine either side daring to break them off. Military types, diplomats, analysts and politicians in Islamabad describe a mood more poisonous than at any time for a generation. Links between the intelligence agencies, the core of bilateral relations for six decades, are worst of all, notably since America caught Osama bin Laden hiding amid Pakistan’s apron strings. Pakistan felt humiliated too by the way the al-Qaeda leader was killed.

Yet the ties still bind, amid fears of far worse. Last month, America’s departing chief of staff, Mike Mullen, said Pakistan’s army spies ran the Haqqani network, a militant outfit that has killed American men in Afghanistan and attacked the embassy in Kabul in September. The chatter in Pakistan was of frenzied preparation for military confrontation.

Many Pakistanis seemed jubilant at the idea, with polls suggesting over 80% of them are hostile to their ally, and chat shows competing to pour scorn on America as the root of all evil. Instead relations have been patched up. Last week Barack Obama said mildly that the outside world must “constantly evaluate” Pakistan’s behaviour. In what may signal a conciliation of sorts, a new CIA chief has been installed in Islamabad, the third in a year after Pakistani spies outed his predecessors.

American policy is contradictory. On the one side are defence types, eager to fight jihadists and angry at Pakistani meddling in southern and eastern Afghanistan. On the other side are diplomats, anxious about losing tabs on Pakistani nukes or having to do without Pakistani assistance in stopping terror attacks in the West. Many also fear the spreading failure of the Pakistani state. A senior American official in Islamabad starkly describes how the relationship seemed lost last month, with “huge numbers of people trying not to let it go over the edge”.

For the moment ties persist, though they are loosened. America has suspended military aid, supposedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars (Pakistanis say Americans inflate the figures). It has not paid its agreed dues to Pakistan’s army for several months, nor have its trainers returned. America is also readier than before to back things that Pakistan despises, such as India’s blossoming relations with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, who last week swept through Delhi to laud India’s growing role as a donor.

Pakistan’s army has responded by giving a little ground. It still refuses America’s call for a war on militants in the border area of North Waziristan—“it’s bad strategy to ignite everything at once” sniffs a gloomy Pakistani official—but it has, apparently, nudged Haqqani leaders from their hiding places over the border into Afghanistan. At the same time Pakistanis complain of impossible American demands over jihadists: they say Mr Obama’s strategy of “fight and talk” in Afghanistan requires Pakistan’s army to handle insurgent fighters by killing, capturing and bringing them into negotiations all at the same time.

Afghanistan, where the two countries fumble and fail to accommodate each other, will remain the crux of Pakistan’s relations with America. Pakistan’s leaders long derided what they saw as America’s vain “transformative” struggle to make Afghanistan modern, democratic and united—perhaps they also feared a similar push to refashion the role of the army in Pakistan. The head of Pakistan’s armed forces, General Ashfaq Kayani, in particular, is said to dismiss America’s understanding of the fractured country next door as naive and simplistic, a doomed effort to make Afghanistan into something it is not.

But as America’s ambitions there have shrunk to little more than extracting its soldiers fast and leaving behind a minimally stable territory that is not dominated by Pushtuns, concerns in Pakistan have grown anew. It now fears being abandoned, losing aid and relevance, and becoming encircled by forces allied with its old foe, India. Several commentators in Islamabad suggest that, sooner than have a united neighbour that is pro-India, Pakistan would prefer more war and division in Afghanistan—“let Afghanistan cook its own goose” says an ex-general.

A crunch could come in the next few months, as foreigners gather for a pair of summits on Afghanistan, first in Istanbul in November, then in Bonn in December. What should have been a chance to back domestic peace talks (which have not happened) could instead be a moment for recrimination, with Pakistanis to take the blame. Worse yet for Pakistan would be if its ill-starred performance as an ally becomes a prominent issue in Mr Obama’s presidential re-election campaign. Afghanistan is sure to dominate a NATO summit to be held in Chicago in May.

Afghanistan may, or may not, recede in importance after 2014, when America is due to cut the number of soldiers it has in the region. Yet even without the thorn of Afghanistan, a list of divisive, unattended issues infects Pakistan’s relations with America. On their own they would be more than enough to shake relations between most countries.

Pakistan is a known proliferator, and is more hostile than almost any other country to America’s global efforts to cut nuclear arsenals and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. America is fast expanding its economic and military ties with Pakistan’s great rival, India. And Pakistan’s domestic rule would set most American diplomats’ hair on end—venal civilian leaders; army men hankering for the next coup and having pesky journalists killed off; Islamists who shoot opponents for being liberal. With a friend like Pakistan, who needs enemies?

A taste Of Freedom

The government in Myanmar continues to spring surprises, mostly hopeful ones.


IT WAS only the night before her release this week that they told her of her impending freedom. Just 24, she had been locked up for her part in the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 when Buddhist monks led protests against the military junta then ruling Myanmar. She still had seven years of her sentence to serve. Now her eyes shine and her face is filled with a broad smile. The joy is not just for herself. It is surely not for her family, two of whom are still behind bars, one serving a 65-year sentence. But the smile greets a moment of uncommon optimism in Myanmar. A far-fetched dream just a few weeks ago, it is now possible to glimpse the shape of a future political settlement

For the families of most of the 2,000 or so political prisoners in the country, optimism this week proved agonisingly out of reach. For weeks it had been rumoured that political prisoners would be freed as part of the amnesty traditionally granted at the end of Buddhist Lent. A new human-rights commission had called for the release of prisoners of conscience, whose very existence the regime used to deny. And on October 11th the government announced that 6,359 people would be freed. In fact, only about 200 turned out to be political prisoners. They included well-known figures, such as the country’s most famous comedian, Zarganar, a longtime dissident jailed most recently for criticising the government’s callous and incompetent response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. About half the prisoners of conscience were detained after the 2007 uprising. They included veterans of previous movements, such as the abortive people-power revolution of 1988. Most, though, remain in jail.

That there are political prisoners at all, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the political opposition, told The Economist in an interview this week, means Myanmar is far from a democracy. But she expects the others to be freed in batches, as the government gauges the reaction of Western governments. The prisoners have become important as symbols of the government’s willingness to court favour in the West, and to win reconciliation with the political opposition.

Human-rights groups have naturally expressed disappointment at the numbers freed. For Amnesty International, without many more releases, this week’s expected breakthrough “will constitute a relaxation of reform efforts rather than a bold step forward”. But that in itself is testimony to the weight of expectations built up very quickly. After decades in which the political process has been frozen in repressive stasis, there has been a series of what Kurt Campbell, a senior American diplomat, this week called “dramatic developments”.

Central to these developments is the establishment of a degree of trust between Miss Suu Kyi and the government, whose hardline elements seem for now to be in retreat. Thein Sein, the former general who donned civvies to become president, met her in August, and persuaded her of the sincerity of his reformism. Since then she has been accorded respect, some coverage in the official press, access to a succession of foreign visitors and recognition of the central role she has played in Burmese politics ever since her return from exile in 1988.

The abrupt cancellation of a hydroelectric dam project being built by China suggested a regime anxious to move away from a dependence on its northern neighbour. The announcement by the country’s top censor that all censorship would stop—in a country with perhaps the most stultifying media outside North Korea—suggested a government keen to change its image. And the apparent willingness to amend electoral laws suggests one ready to legitimise Miss Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is at present technically illegal.

Three amendments are envisaged. One would lift a political ban on former prisoners (such as most of the NLD leadership, including Miss Suu Kyi). Another would remove a requirement that parties must contest at least three seats at the general election (which the NLD boycotted). A third would demand that parties “respect” or “honour” rather than “safeguard” the constitution (adopted in a rigged referendum in 2008, and enshrining a decisive role for the army). This week Miss Suu Kyi implied that, if these amendments are passed, the NLD might contest by-elections due soon. For the first time since it won a landslide in an election in 1990 that was never honoured, the NLD would be a legal force in Burmese politics again.

That would only be a start on the way to national reconciliation which must also involve the many ethnic minorities and the armed insurgents claiming to represent them. And it could all be derailed by the government’s failure to free enough of Miss Suu Kyi’s supporters from jail. Meanwhile, the government will expect some international reward for what it has done so far. One cherished ambition is to take the chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2014. It probably will. ASEAN is not a stern taskmaster.
The art of the possible
Some Western sanctions are likely to be eased, too. These include American-inspired restrictions on assistance from international financial institutions. Myanmar has recognised that it badly needs their technical help in reforming its cumbersome multiple exchange-rate system. It is also in desperate need of foreign aid. Some of its officials may have their visa bans lifted too.
Miss Suu Kyi’s sway over international opinion is an important reason for the regime to engage her. But the real hope offered by its recent behaviour is that it also covets her sway over Myanmar’s own people. A government that wants to be popular would be a huge change for the better. Some observers even think Miss Suu Kyi could be president in 2015. She herself is characteristically cautious: “anything is possible,” she says. In Myanmar, just a few months ago, it wasn’t.