A year of shocks reopens global fault-lines: 2017 brings new challenges in international ties

So the year of shocks has gone by. Good riddance, you might think. Old shockers should be forgot, and never brought to mind. But hold on a second. There’s good reason to study those shockers of 2016 closely, and learn lessons about what lies ahead.

For one thing, even before 2017 kicks in, the Cold War enemies are rattling sabres. That’s Russia and US, which have the two most sophisticated military machines the world has ever seen — shock and awe face-to-face. That sabre-rattling won’t actually go all the way. Nor will Israel, which has just told the US and the UN to go take a flying leap. But the ceasefire in Syria has given Islamic State a breather, and its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains in hiding notwithstanding reports a few weeks ago that he was near a dead-end.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

That’s not all. Believe it or not, the fact that Islamic State is alive — even if not quite kicking for the moment — is being cited as reason to give the Taliban unprecedented and heavyweight international support against the government in Afghanistan — Russia, China, Pakistan, even Iran, are together engaging with the Taliban.

Now that definitely seems to be happening. And if there’s one country for which that line-up behind the Taliban is particularly bad news, it’s India.

New global line-up

Ironically, it was at the Brics summit at Goa in October that it became clear that Russia and China have become strategic allies for the first time since China tested a nuclear device in 1964. That test led Russia’s Asian strategy to lurch towards India; it paved the way for the wide-ranging Indo-Soviet Treaty in 1972.

Half a century on, not only has that process been reversed, Russia and China are jointly backing Pakistan’s interests in the region — and even Iran seems to be part of that new deal.

I haven’t even mentioned the T word yet. Yes, Donald Trump will formally take over power in three weeks. That might align the US, even if covertly, with Russia. The question is, would that make it more favourably disposed to the Sino-Pak axis?

Yes, it’s time we realised that we’re no longer dealing with Pakistan but with a Sino-Pak axis. From Balochistan to surgical strikes, Beijing is likely to view every action against Pakistan as an affront to its interests.

One of its major economic and political interests in 2017 will be the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes squarely through Jammu and Kashmir. Any unrest in the Valley will directly impinge on China-India relations.

It might be more sensible to see that in reverse: unrest in Kashmir could stem from worsening China-India relations.

Serial shocker

If one takes a long view, the recent past has brought to the surface some of the most lasting, unstable and peace-threatening fault-lines in the world’s history — Russia against Turkey against Syria against Iran.

In the process of the reopening of those fault-lines, 2016 became a tumbling serial shocker. The near-coup in Turkey became an opportunity for President Erdogan to squash his opponents. The multiple wars in Syria took a turn for the worse, as Russia risked a direct confrontation with Turkey.

So shock-filled was the year that most observers did not adequately acknowledge that the Cold War was not only back, but perhaps more dangerously so than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis 55 years ago. Sanctions have only consolidated Russia’s President Putin domestically, and he is not backing down to anyone. For the first time ever, Russia has been openly accused of influencing the outcome of a US election — and there isn’t even a backlash of public opinion.

As if all that wasn’t enough, 2016 also brought Brexit, and more xenophobia and instability in Europe.

Trouble at home

In India, 2016 began with the Pathankot attack. That was not only a shocker in itself, the way it was handled would have seemed comic if it had not so badly compromised national security. And to top it all, a Pakistani team came, examined the place and evidence, and went back to announce that it was an Indian inside job.

In the last couple of months of the year, India was shaken up even more by a monetary shocker. As 2017 comes in, normal economic activity, particularly in the small-scale sectors of the economy, shows no sign of recovering from the government’s shock decision to demonetize high value currency notes.

At the fag end of the year came news of the first-ever joint military exercises by China and Nepal, provocatively named pratikar — meaning defiance. That is part of a pattern. Just before the BRICS summit in October, China had announced huge investments in Bangladesh — estimated at a whopping 24 billion US dollars.

One wishes of course for a happy new year. But, once the revelry is over, the impact of these various shocks on how things will pan out in 2017 and beyond need to be very carefully assessed.

Meanwhile, let’s gird ourselves for a challenging year. May we crest every wave that even the most turbulent year can throw up.

Published Date: Jan 01, 2017 13:56 PM | Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 13:56 PM

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