As the sun sets on 2017, a look back at the world gone by gives us a mixed feeling. Here is a quick recap of some major developments in South and East Asia. Let’s begin with our own region, South Asia.
In this region, the tensions between India and Pakistan have become a routine matter but what was unique in 2017 was a Sino-Indian flare-up that almost ended up in a war. The bordering area of Bhutan with India and China is called Doklam. The Chinese started some road construction in that region and Bhutan itself could not resist much.
Suddenly, India felt like the ‘big brother’ of Bhutan and started threatening China of dire consequences if it went ahead with the road building. The Indian threats could not achieve much and China continued with its plans. India deployed its forces with increased arms and ammunitions resulting in some minor skirmishes, but the exchange of words was hotter than the fire-exchange on the ground. China wanted to pave the way for a smoother logistical access to that region and Indian troops could only fire some shots, received a couple of punches, and sat quietly.
Another cause of irritation for India was Sri Lanka’s willingness to give its ports under Chinese control. India tried to browbeat Sri Lanka and attempted to stop it from negotiating port deals with China. Sri Lanka didn’t pay much head and continued its activities with China. The third major headache for India was Nepal, where the communists won the election with big majority and the traditionally pro-India Nepali Congress faced a humiliating defeat. India never had a soft corner for the Maoists in Nepal. The recent victory by United Marxist Leninist (UML) is a big shock not only for the Nepali Congress but also for India.
If we look at the domestic politics of India, the recent elections in Gujarat have been an important one. Congress finally and formally handed over the leadership to Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia, and the grandson of Indira Gandhi. Rahul’s father and grandmother, both were assassinated in 1984 and 1991 respectively. In the recent Gujarat elections, Congress performed much better than what was expected. The BJP had tried its best to retain its previous majority but it lost many seats. Rahul Gandhi led the Congress election campaign so well that the Indian media stopped using the moniker ‘Pappu’ for him.
It seems that the BJP’s increasing paranoia against minorities in India has backfired and people are getting fed up. Initially, it was only Muslims, but now Christians and other minorities are also being targeted. Another reason for the BJP’s declining support is perhaps its selection of a Yogi as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The UP CM, selected by Modi, is an uncouth and semiliterate Hindu fundamentalist, and spouts venom against religious minorities with impunity. Though the BJP has scored some gains on the economic front, such as winning some aid from the US, that doesn’t count much if the people of India decide to put a brake on the slide to more extremism.
One can hope that by the time the general elections are held in 2019, the BJP would have lost much of its sheen. The UP is a state with over 210 million people i.e. larger than Pakistan; by giving the largest Indian state into the hands of a Yogi, Modi appears to have initiated the decline of the BJP.
Looking at the three largest countries of South Asia, i.e. Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, we see that Bangladesh and India, have been able to develop and maintain good, friendly relations under the leaderships of their prime ministers, Hasina Wajid and Narendra Modi. They have resolved a couple of territorial disputes and have enhanced communication and travels. Their bilateral trade is booming with an almost free trade regime, without imposing many taxes on each other’s produce and products. On the other hand, Bangladesh and Pakistan are at the lowest ebb of their contacts since Pakistan recognized Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country in 1974.
A major reason for these deteriorating relations was the outburst against Bangladesh government by Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, who was interior minister but loved to open his mouth on all topics under the sun. He repeatedly protested against the sentences awarded to the war criminal of 1971. Though the Bangladeshi government and judiciary did not fulfil the international requirements for such harsh punishments, it was their internal matter. Just like our own judicial and military justice leaves a lot to be desired, but when other countries criticise hanging of criminals, our government and establishment don’t like it.
The Bangladesh government continues to be angry at Pakistan and further restricted issuance of visas to Pakistani passport holders. The commercial and diplomatic ties have also gone down the hill. Another important country of the region, Afghanistan, too is not happy with Pakistan, and both the countries have been trading barbs by accusing each other of terrorism. If there is a terrorist attack in Pakistan the charge is almost immediately levelled against Afghanistan or India, and when there is trouble in Kashmir or Afghanistan, they reciprocate. That’s how for the entire 2017, Pakistan has been unable to improve its relations with any of its neighbours, barring China alone.
China has well protected its interests through CPEC, and is also investing substantial amount in Pakistan. But this corridor is almost silent about any of the fundamental services people need, such as the improvement or provision of health and education facilities, supply of potable water, or sanitation services. CPEC mostly revolves around infrastructure so that Chinese products can reach the world quickly, and the benefits to Pakistan appear to be highly exaggerated.
Looking at East Asia in 2017, we find China and Japan the two largest countries of the region, not enjoying good relations with each other. China has increased its influence across the region tremendously, especially thanks to its ‘one belt-one-road’ initiative, spanning dozens of countries. Investing through this project, China is trying to connect all countries of Indo-China from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, to Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. This initiative is a long-term undertaking to be completed around 2030 and proposes to build a network of new roads, railways, and thousands of bridges that will facilitate easy access of Chinese good across the region.
In addition, China has also promised to invest in air and sea ports in most countries of East and South Asia. By deepening, expanding, and modernising, sea ports, China will gain access for its deep sea liners and even aircraft careers. In Pakistan, the Gwadar air and sea ports are good examples where the Chinese will have an almost complete control. That is the reason most countries have not fully disclosed the details of their agreements with China. People are already voicing their concern at the possibility of the emergence of another colonising power that will make most of the decisions thanks to its economic clout.
Internally, the president of China, Xi Jinping, has consolidated his power by including his name in the Chinese constitution. After Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the current president of China aspires to be the third most powerful leader in the recent Chinese history.
In the second largest country of East Asia, Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has won the elections for his second term. He has become one of the very few prime ministers of Japan to have completed his five years in office. He has joined the ranks of former prime ministers Koizumi (2001 – 2006), Nakasone (1982 – 1987), and Satu (1964 – 1972). Internationally speaking, in East Asia, Japan and North Korea remained at loggerheads. Both kept shooting hostile statements at each other. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Unh kept threatening both America and Japan with ‘complete destruction’.
By detonating more nuclear weapons and training its missiles at Japan, North Korea put the entire region in grave danger. It even fired a couple of missiles across the Japanese air space. North Korea is demonstrating that its threats are not hollow but real and can be carried out. In response, Japan further strengthened its relations with the US, as Japan greatly depends on America for its defence. On his part, US President Donald Trump continued with his braggadocio. He called the Korean leader a ‘Rocket Man’. All these threatening exchanges have put East Asia on a powder keg.
If Trump’s presidency is not interrupted, there is real possibility of a nuclear conflagration in the region. Among the other countries of East Asia, the president of the Philippines, Duterte, has also set a new trend. He is no less a braggart than Kim or Trump. He claims to have killed many criminals with his own hands. After being elected, Duterte had used swearing words for Obama by calling him the ‘son of a whore’. Then he unleashed his police on ‘criminals’ in his country by giving them powers to shoot criminals without any trial.
That’s how in the Philippines, thousands of so-called ‘criminals’ have been executed summary style. Some of them were for sure criminals, but there are hundreds of families that are claiming the innocence of their relatives who have become victims of the police high handedness. It has reportedly become a practice in the police to apprehend someone, ask for money, and at refusal, shoot the victim by accusing him of any crime. The new president of Philippines is unable to understand that a civilized society is built on the rule of law, and the implementation of law requires justice.
If police or military become a law unto themselves, many innocent people are killed, and it perpetuates more lawlessness. To date, president Duterte appears to be crossing all limits to get his objectives. Just imagine, if this president keeps doing the same for the rest of his term, how many more thousands of families will be targeted. The current period in the Philippines history reminds one of the era of General Marcos, the dictator who ruled with an iron fist during the last decades of the 20th century.