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China-Russia-Pakistan axis looks real: What course will Delhi chart vis-a-vis Islamabad?

Before it becomes a 'universal truth', driven by the echo-chamber effects of mass media, it is time to challenge a notion that is of late gaining huge traction in India — that post Uri, Pakistan now lies boxed in a sulky diplomatic corner.

Subscribers of this view point to recent Indian success in leading five Saarc nations into boycotting the host Islamabad. The Narendra Modi government's efforts to boost Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative For Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) ties — a regional realignment excluding Pakistan and comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal — and the decision to invite the leaders during the recent Goa Brics Summit have been lauded as a diplomatic masterstroke that further reinforced Pakistan's isolation.

Though Brics and Bimstec declarations refrained from taking Pakistan's name, Indian foreign policy experts have pointed to the meaty stress on terrorism, from what are essentially geo-economic alliances and have interpreted these as more proofs of Pakistan's growing ostracisation.

 China-Russia-Pakistan axis looks real: What course will Delhi chart vis-a-vis Islamabad?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Brics leaders in Goa. PTI

If anything, China has masterfully sought to fuel this impression. In its state-run mouthpiece Global Times, it accused India of using Brics-Bimstec Summit to "outmaneuver and force Pakistan into becoming a regional pariah", conveniently forgetting its own role in influencing Russia against checkmating India's almost every move of cornering Islamabad.

As usual, the truth is layered and infinitely more complex. Behind India's ceremonial triumphalism and China's smoke-and-mirror game lies the fact that Pakistan is no more isolated on international stage now than it already was before Uri. If anything, the shifting sands of global power and realigning of regional forces indicate that Islamabad now sits more smug than ever due to its close relationship with the world's newest superpower — China.

It was seen as little more than a frustrated bluff from Pakistan when one of Nawaz Sharif's 22 envoys recently visited Washington to 'apprise the world on India's brutalities in Kashmir' and ended up threatening the US over its growing coziness with India. He finished with a typical rhetorical flourish that Pakistan simply doesn't care if US chooses to side with its enemy, because China is on its side. And yet, Special Kashmir Envoy of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mushahid Hussain Syed, who talked aggressively of a new China-Russia-Pakistan axis, wasn’t far from truth.

A barely reported fresh development on South China Sea that promises to have far-reaching consequences has gained little attention in India. As we remained fixated on Pakistan, Philippines — America's oldest strategic ally in Asia and among its staunchest — cut off (or at least threatened to) its umbilical cord with US and fell onto rival China's lap like an overripe fruit.

This was a move so little anticipated, dramatic and profound that it left China squeaking in delight like a kid in candy shop and triggered deep tremors in Washington. Consider the significance. It was Philippines, under former president Benigno Aquino III, who dragged China into the international tribunal for its territorial claims and military-strategic advances on South China Sea. And it was only in July this year that Beijing was handed a sound thrashing for breaking international maritime laws.

For Philippines, therefore, to effect what Foreign Policy calls an abrupt "vertigo-inducing change in Manila's orientation" is beyond staggering. It may totally reshape the regional alignments where plucky Philippines set the tone for Malaysia and Vietnam to take on China's increasingly assertive and aggressive dominance. With the biggest US ally moving towards Beijing, China's hegemony on the crucial passage of South China Sea, which facilitates the passage of $5 trillion worth of trade each year, is only going to become near total.

China's sleight of hand was evidently on display by the way it dangled the booties

Strategists in Washington are at a loss to explain Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte's move. Explanations have ranged from his congenital dislike of Barack Obama (he insulted the US president as 'son of a w**re') to China's dangling of a slew of economic carrots which proved irresistible for Manila. Be that as it may, the very fact that Duterte, during the just-concluded visit to Beijing, warmed up to China like a moonstruck lover and talked of Xi Jinping as 'elder brother', point to China's growing clout.

As PTI reported from Beijing last Thursday, after a meeting with Jinping, Duterte perhaps shocked even the room full of Chinese and Filipino business delegates themselves by declaring: "I announce my separation from the United States. Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost… I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way."

In Foreign Policy, Max Boot details the history of US-Filipino relationship: "The US ruled the Philippines as a colonial power from 1899 to 1942 and implanted its culture in the archipelago. In World War II, US and Filipino troops fought side by side against the Japanese occupiers. In 1951, Washington and Manila signed a mutual defence treaty. For decades afterward, the Philippines hosted two of the largest US military installations overseas at Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base… In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an agreement with then-president Aquino III that would allow US forces more regular access to bases in the Philippines and increase the tempo of training exercises and military cooperation between the two countries."

So this wasn't just an indication of China's growing clout; it was also an unequivocal symbol of how smaller powers align themselves to whom they feel would better protect their interests. After the Modi government's NSG ambition was vetoed by Beijing, triggering deep resentment in India, China offered a piece of advice to outraged Indians. It said that if India wishes to become a global power, it must first figure out how the big boys operate. China's sleight of hand was evidently on display by the way it dangled the booties.

A report in Bloomberg points out: "China will provide $9 billion in soft loans, including a $3 billion credit line with the Bank of China, while economic deals including investments would yield $15 billion, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told reporters in Beijing on Friday. Preliminary agreements in railways, ports, energy and mining worth $11.2 billion were signed between Philippine and Chinese firms.

And The Economist writes: "Duterte wants lots of infrastructure, particularly railways. China is offering cheap loans. He wants the country to export more. China is offering to reopen its markets to Philippine fruit. He wants help with the war on drugs. A Chinese businessman is building a big rehab centre. And he wants Filipino fishermen to be able to return to their traditional fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal. China has told Philippine officials that it is open to an accommodation."

Suddenly, the pieces seem to be falling in place. Given the way Russia — now increasingly indebted to Chinese capital, investments and even to tourists from world's most populous nation — has shown every sign of cozying up to Beijing and has even opened new military-strategic ties with Pakistan, that China-Russia-Pakistan axis now looks like an increasing possibility.

India shouldn't count its chickens. Yet.

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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2016 17:29:07 IST

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