Within a month of the trilateral US-India-Japan naval exercise off the coast of Okinawa comes the news that the warships of China and Pakistan held a joint drill off the Somali coast. Interestingly, China broke the news of the drill which was held on April 22. From the Chinese account, 3 of their warships and a Pakistani guided missile destroyer took part in the drill. The scope of the drill seems limited but the political symbolism of the two countries cooperating in securing the ‘global commons’ in the Indian Ocean cannot be overlooked. China may take in its stride the establishment of the trilateral US-India-Japan ‘trilateral dialogue’ mechanism on regional and international issues but military or security cooperation between the three flourishing democracies is an altogether different kettle of fish, as they say.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Chinese scholars from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations which visited Pakistan last week at the invitation of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute has made a thoughtful proposal - Sino-Pak cooperation for ’stabilising’ Afghanistan. Interestingly, the Chinese proposal envisages the setting up of a ‘trilateral arrangement’ with Pakistan and Afghanistan that could neutralise the “nexus between the US and India” over the Afghan problem. It needs to be noted that the Chinese delegation arrived in Islamabad after holding consultations with Afghan counterparts and officials in Kabul and amidst the sensational Wall Street Journal story that Pak PM Yousaf Gilani proposed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai the viability of the two countries dumping their so-called partnership with US and teaming up with China to craft a new geopolitical vector in the Asian drama.
Perhaps, the missing link here is that the US keeps shying away from persuading Afghanistan to form a ‘trilateral arrangeement’ with India. Perhaps, US is chary that Karzai won’t look at such an idea even with one eye and one ear closed. Or, perhaps, US truly lacks the leverage in Kabul. Or, perhaps, US doesn’t want to annoy Pakistan. Or, perhaps, it is a combination of all these unhappy circumstances.
The big question is how Kabul responds to the Chinese ‘Track II’ idea of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan ‘arrangement’. (There is nothing like an exclusive Track II in the Chinese strategic culture.) Meanwhile, Kabul isn’t ready to host PM Manmohan Singh just yet in early May, within a week of the Taliban announcing the launch of its ’spring offensive’ and the Americans, Pakistanis and Afghans finally sitting down to have their ’strategic dialogue’ on Tuesday. It belies comprehension why South Block chose to ‘leak’ the sensitive information, in the first instance, regarding the earlier idea of PM’s proposed visit to Kabul this week. Grandstanding - to dissimulate that Delhi is into something serious in the HIndu Kush? There was no need of the “leak”. It was literally a kiss of death. Even Barack Obama and David Cameron sneak in and out of Kabul unannounced.
Unsurprisingly, Delhi kept on low key the weekend visit by Marc Grossman, US special representative on Afghanistan, taking note that Washington hastened to characterise the visit as “routine consultations” (implying nothing much should be read into it). Grossman’s priority would have been not to raise hackles in Islamabad which was his next port of call and, that too, when US-Pak ties are on a roller coaster. So, on balance, Delhi may have to rest its oars and be satisfied with the US-India-Japan trilateral forum. Ishah Allah, a forum (involving US and Afghanistan) which would give China’s proposed ‘arrangement’ with Pakistan and Afghanistan a run for the money would materialise some day in the womb of time. .