Monday, February 21, 2011

The Chinese Mirror: Pakistan and North Korea

At the end of the second world war, two of the Chinese neighbors experienced partition; North Korea and South Korea came into existence in 1945, India and Pakistan in 1947. While the former was just an administrative partition caused by deep distrust between the Soviet Union and the West, the latter was a commencement of the divide and rule policy of the British encouraged by the divide in the Indian society and the geopolitics of those times. After more than half a century, the two pair of nations have again started mirroring each other to some extent.

While the circus of Indian democracy finally found the magic mantra for economic development, Pakistan has been gradually spiraling into a rogue state which shall hold the world for ransom by using its twin strategy of nuclear blackmail and extremists ideology. As in case of North Korea, China is the all weather friend of Pakistan and may have been a great help in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. As in case of North Korea with respect to South Korea, the Pakistani establishment is largely and obsessively anti India. The trajectories of the two countries seem disturbingly similar. Will the events that took place in the Korean Peninsula repeat themselves again in the Subcontinent? 

If so, India has a lot to lose. The wild fires in the neighborhood will affect India sooner or later. Similar to North Korea, Pakistan is very close to becoming a proxy state for China to further its geopolitics. As India and China continue to grow, there will be a lot of points of disagreement and Pakistan shall come handy for China to pressurize India. As seen in the run up to the India specific waiver in the NSG, the dragon rarely shows its hand in the international arena unless it becomes inevitable. China has already started using the Kashmir dispute to gain a vantage point in its boundary negotiations with India. Pakistan is already acting as the outpost of Chinese military and navy. This trend shall increase in the future, as the west grows more impatient with Pakistan and imposes more conditions on aid. As it has happened in many African nations with despotic regimes, Pakistan government will find Chinese aid much more attractive and would readily lease a part of its sovereignty to its all weather ally.

In the larger geopolitical game for the control of international trade and natural resources, Pakistan will become a more willing pawn of the Chinese foreign policy to counter the moves of India. It would be a very scary situation for India to have a North Korea like administration in Pakistan. To prevent this scenario, India must do all it can to better its relations with Pakistan before it is too late. India must not hand over the remote control for its talks with Pakistan to extremists across the border, who have every reason to hinder the talks. Above all, India should not shy away from discussing the issue of Kashmir with Pakistan. The Kashmir issue not only provokes much of anti India sentiment in Pakistan, it also makes the Indian government to stand as a silent spectator watching with fear the democratic revolutions unfolding in the middle east.

If the Chinese mirror does show us the future, it is more important than ever for India to settle its issues with Pakistan, and help see it growing as an independent, democratic and prosperous nation.

PS: Thanks to a friend for editing


  1. Nice post. Agree with your premise as well as the tone: that it's in India's interest to have a stable, progressive, and economically thriving Pakistan. But, in comparing Pakistan to North Korea, you gloss over some important differences between these two countries that makes Pakistan a lesser basket case than NK:
    1) Pakistan's geography sharing long borders and waters with India, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia makes it virtually impossible for any regime to cut itself off. The one big reason Pakistan badly wants PoK (if not the whole of Kashmir) has nothing to do with religion. It will give Pakistan its only land border with China which comes with its associated fringe benefits.
    2) Pakistan has a genuinely vibrant media, a hangover from British days. Yes, at times it's shriller than Indian media, but does perform its duty of whistle-blowing from time to time. This alone helps information to seep in to and out of the country.
    3) Pakistan severely lacks a liberal-to-leftist political voice. All political parties pander to the extreme right. An interesting unintended consequence of this is that there is remote chance for any extreme-Left ideology to gain ground. If you want your state to go North Korea way, almost by definition, you need a popular political force that believes in the pre-eminent role of State in the economy. Today, Pakistani people consider the State their weakest link in the economy.
    4) While it's plausible that China can use Pakistan as an attack dog on India, there are severe limits to that proposition. Chinese "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan begins with their governments and ends with their militaries. Pakistani people have culturally little in common with Chinese and vice versa. The limits can be gauged in how successful China has been in propping up a left-leaning voice in Pakistan, unlike in NK, Nepal, Burma, or even in India.
    5) Incidentally, India's demographics provides it with good cushion against extreme situations. The primacy given to secular politics in India will render such a showdown with Pakistan remote.

    And my analysis does not even consider the roles US, Russia, Iran and the Arab world (all of whom share a decent relationship with India, while being sufficiently wary of China) will play their pawns. Welcome to the complex world of diplomacy!

  2. Nice comment, I agree that Pakistan will not be a copy of North Korea but it would bad enough to have a regime in Pakistan as unpredictable and extremist as in North Korea.

    Very true that Pakistan can not be as isolated as Pakistan, but its long borders with Iran and Afghanistan are not that helpful in terms of getting a positive influence from across the border. The border with India is quite well guarded.

    I agree that Pakistan has a very vibrant media which can at times put Indian media to shame. Same is the case with its civil society, but the space for both is shrinking at a fast pace. Also, a part of the reason why the English newspapers there are so shrill is because they play small role in opinion making. The larger part is played by multitude of Urdu papers which are not all very independent.

    About the lack of leftist political voice, it is a mirror effect. There is a very strong support for orthodox and extreme religious views. On paper Pakistan may never have a state controlled economy, but what we see today is that business in Pakistan is collapsing and what ever is left and running is run by the people with strong links to the army and the government.

    Never the less, it is not the economic model I am concerned with, but the shrinking of the space of dissent which makes Pakistan seem going the North Korea way. The murder of the Punjab governor is a good example. The type of government also does not matter, till the actual power rests with the army. The people of Pakistan may have little in common with the people of China, but they are convinced that China is their refuge against the conspiracy of the West and India. The envy and hatred against India, coupled with the extreme religious views, and the exit of NATO from Afghanistan along with the exit of aid from Pakistan will align Pakistan much more with China. China can use Pakistan and its religious fundamentalists the same way as US did in the 1980s.