By Ameen Izzadeen
In politics, there is neither a permanent enemy nor a permanent friend, only permanent interests.
This was amply demonstrated in Skull Island, a 2017 King Kong movie. In the movie, after being attacked by a giant ape in a South Pacific island, a group of US explorers find refuge among a jungle tribe where they meet an American pilot who went missing during World War II. In a conversation, the pilot comes to know Germany which was the enemy during WWII is now a frontline US ally, while Russia which was an American ally during the war is now America’s main enemy.
This political aphorism is also vividly explained in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The story unfolds against the backdrop of Oceania being at war with Eastasia. Oceania is allied with Eurasia. But there was a time, the story’s main character Winston remembers, when Oceania’s enemy was Eurasia.
Take a glance at the post-World War II history until now. The Soviet Union was first a friend of China and then became its enemy. Today, Russia which symbolically represents the Soviet Union is a close ally of China.
Vietnam once fought a fierce war against the US. During the Vietnam War, as a key ally of Communist North Vietnam, China armed the anti-US forces till they achieved a glorious victory in 1975. But today, in the collective Vietnamese mind, China is perceived as a hostile country, while the US is regarded as a friend. What’s more US-Vietnam defence cooperation is flourishing in view of regular standoffs between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea where both nations claim ownership to the Spratly Islands.
However, the adage that there is no permanent enemy or friend in politics but only permanent interest appears to be working in reverse in South Asia, where for more than 70 years India and Pakistan have been locking horns over multiple disputes. It appears that the time has not come yet, for the two countries to realise that their permanent interests will be served better in peaceful cooperation than in confrontational politics.
As a result of India-Pakistan crises, South Asian regional cooperation has virtually come to a standstill. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s March 14 video conference aimed at launching a SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) response to the COVID pandemic is seen more as a political manoeuvre by India to assert its regional leadership than a genuine effort to revive the grouping, which has not held a summit since 2014. A suspicious Pakistan deliberately underrepresented itself at Modi’s virtual SAARC summit, with Prime Minister Imran Khan staying out of it. He was represented by his advisor on health matters. Pakistan feels it remains vindicated as India shows reluctance to heed Islamabad’s call to bring the SAARC COVID Fund under the SAARC Secretariat. India donated US$ 10 million to the US$ 21 million Fund, while Pakistan’s contribution was US$ 3 million. Sri Lanka gave US$ 5 million. However, with no accountability to the secretariat and with little transparency in the absence of a functioning Parliament, Sri Lankans do not know how and where the public fund is being disbursed.
South Asian nations should take a leaf from other regional groupings. SAARC may not be rich as the European Union. But the spirit with which EU nations have come together to combat the COVID virus is certainly worthy of emulation. The EU is allocating US$ 825 billion to help hard-hit nations to obtain assistance in the form of grants and soft loans to revive their economies.
Far from strengthening cooperation, South Asia is witnessing heightened tension during the pandemic. Apart from the regular India-Pakistan border clashes, a serious concern is the tension on the India-China border.
Reports said troops on both sides on May 5 exchanged blows in Ladakh. Since then, there has been tension along the 3,400 km de facto border or the so-called Line of Actual Control. India has said the Chinese army had made intrusions in at least three areas considered Indian territory.
If this was not enough, India is also embroiled in another major territorial dispute with neighbouring Nepal, a country sandwiched between India and China. Nepal has raised objections to India’s publication of border region maps incorporating what Nepal regards as its territory. This was after India built a road upto the Chinese border. Nepal protested saying the road passes through Nepali territory. The two nations are continuing their war of words, with Indian ministers and the Army Chief accusing Nepal’s Marxists-led government of being China’s lackey.
It is against this backdrop that India last week signed a defence pact with Australia, which is one of the four countries in an informal defence alliance called Quartet. The other three are the United States, India and Japan. China feels the pact is targeted at it.
China’s Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times in a recent op-ed article said, “… after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, India seems to be worrying that its own international status is declining while China’s influence is rising, especially in regions such as South Asia and Africa where India wishes to play an influential role. Therefore, its attitude toward China has to some extent changed.
“By asserting itself with recent conflicts with China on its border, India may hope to shape more pressure toward China from the international community — in particular from the West. New Delhi can thus show Washington its tensions with Beijing, adding more leverage to boost relationships with the West. This embodies a shift in India’s strategic tendencies.”
On Wednesday, the two countries’ military leaders held talks aimed at de-escalation. The two countries must build up on the spirit of friendship they emphasised at the Wuhan summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018. The two Asian giants should realise that their permanent interests can be served better through cooperation rather than conflicts.
A pandemic should have been a time to forget enmity and strengthen friendship between nations to fight a common enemy which respects no borders. Hostilities can only prolong the pandemic. This is more so if nations conspire to allow other nations with whom they have enmity to suffer the worst under the pandemic. Needless to say, this amounts to bio-warfare.
A nation not lowering its guard under any circumstances is quite understandable, but what is equally important is cooperation among nations to minimise the risk of war and slow down arms races nations indulge in at a huge socio-economic cost to the people’s welfare. During the covid pandemic, realization should have dawned on many countries that if they had used the money they had spent on military preparedness on building more hospitals and stockpiling emergency health equipment, they would not have been struggling on a ventilator.