India and Pakistan have fought three wars (1947, 1965 and 1971) and an undeclared war (1999) since they gained independence from the British. All, except the 1971 war, erupted out of Kashmir imbroglio; a disputed territory of unparalleled beauty and natural resources. The 1971 war took place when Bangladesh, which was then part of Pakistan and was called East Pakistan, rebelled against the Islamic republic. Indian army played a decisive role in that freedom struggle of the Bangladeshi people.
Even today shots are fired across Kashmir’s Line of Control on a daily basis. But they are too commonplace to stir any media interests. The public learn only about major events such as the infiltration of Pakistan-backed separatists into Kargil (a border district in Kashmir) in 1999 and the ensuing undeclared war between the two neighbours. The war raged on for two months and killed over 500 Indian armymen while unconfirmed number of lives were lost on the part of the separatists and the Pakistani army.
This war-ridden history causes widespread apprehension that someday the entire South Asian region may get annihilated as a result of a full-fledged nuclear war between these two nuclear archrivals.
But this is the fear among the ordinary and straight-thinking citizens of the two nations. The pundits think otherwise. They argue that the very fact that the two nations have nuclear warheads preempts such a dire prospect. They believe that both Indian and Pakistani military leaderships know it very well that they cannot turn nuclear weapons at each other for a basic reason – if one does so will the other. Also, the proximity between the two countries means any nuclear exchange, even one way, would be catastrophic for both sides.
All this may not always be a deterrent but it has worked so far.
What concerns South Asia now, however, is not the stand-off between these seemingly hostile ex-colonies but an undercurrent of a silent war between India and China. A war of strategy. A war of strategic projects. A war of economic ambushes.
India which had so far enjoyed an undisputed role of a Big Brother in South Asia suddenly finds itself countered at every corner of the region. This because for a decade or so China has intensified its funding and presence in less powerful countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
On 5 August 2013 Sri Lanka launched its Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) which is capable of serving mammoth ships plying the India Ocean. It was built and is currently operated by China Merchants Holdings International Co. The transhipment port is said to be a world class facility and is apparently sophisticated enough to handle 2.4 million 20-foot containers a year.
CICT handles container traffic to and from India and other countries in the South AsiaN region. It provides sea route to mega vessels from China and guarantees its access to the Indian Ocean. Also, to India’s great consternation, Chinese nuclear submarines and warships are increasingly calling at Sri Lankan ports, few just before Chinese President’s South Asian visit last year. Similar sightings of Chinese vessels have been reported at Hambantota port in the southeast of the country. China holds high stake at this port.
All this became possible as Sri Lanka gradually drifted away from India under the leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. He courted Beijing to access critical weaponry as he remained steadfast to annihilate LTTE in 2009. Towards the end of that fateful war against Tamil fighters, India refused to provide arms to Sri Lanka for concerns of being used against innocent public (Tamils of Indian origin). But China had no such qualms against supplying the much-needed hardware. And that sealed the doom of the Tigers.
It is not the military necessity alone that brought Rajapaksa closer to China. The role China played to counter probing international attention on war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army as it battled the Tigers further galvanised the relationship between China and Sri Lanka, a pearl in China’s ‘string of pearls’. Another pearl being the Maldives where it has already secured strategic presence.
Today, according to media reports, 70 percent of the military hardware used by the Sri Lankan army is Chinese. The island nation imports anti-tank guided missiles, rocket launchers, ammunition, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, deep penetration bombs and rockets, mortar ammunition, night vision devices, artillery armour mortars, security equipment, tanks, jets, naval vessels, radars, communication equipment and many other military paraphernalia from China. This combined with the fact that China trains Sri Lankan military personnel is a clear indication of well-developed and well-trusted defence ties between the two countries.
Needless to say, India is uncomfortable with this development in its backwaters. India is known to have voiced its displeasure to Colombo many times. The latter has convinced New Delhi that ‘military use’ of Sri Lankan soil would not be allowed. But one does not need to be an international affairs specialist to deduce that China is already heavily involved in Sri Lanka, specially in relation to its involvement in relation to the development of an aircraft maintenance facility.
China is also building a $14 million dry port at Larcha in Nepal, a country bordering India. The dry port is expected to facilitate the bilateral trade between Nepal and China. India has time and again expressed its displeasure against increasing Chinese presence in the Himalayan nation, particularly when the Nepalese government was led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda.
China also has had long-standing and very fruitful bilateral relationship with Pakistan. China funded and built the Gwadar port in Pakistan, another strategic investment with a view create South Asian bonhomie.
All in all, the Maritime Silk Road envisaged by China and feared by India, is well into operation, it appears.