Col (R) Muhammad Usman
THE US has beefed up its military presence in the Gulf by sending thousands of more troops around Iran including an aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber taskforce in response to threat from Iran with no detail or evidence. It is a move in strength whose exact contours remain open ended. Gilday and Katie Wheelbarger, Acting US Assistant Defence Secretary for International Affairs has said that mission is strictly defensive and is not designed to provoke Iran into carrying out additional attacks. The Pentagon will continue evaluating number of troops in the region in case more are needed later. It is not only composition and level of deployment which is shrouded in ambiguity but also the aim and intent.
The deployment was intended to send a clear and unmistakable message to Iranian regime that an attack on US interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force, announced US National Security Advisor, John R. Bolton. This is a broad and vague statement. He also said that the US is not seeking war with Iran but is fully prepared to respond to any attack whether by its proxies, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or its regular forces. According to senior officials, in a meeting with his aides, President Trump has said he did not want US pressure to turn into a conflict. With a little bit of grumbling, Iran has also stated quite clearly that Tehran did not want war with the US.
These statements of tough talk along with conciliatory tone lessen possibility of a war between the US and Iran to a large extent. Besides, there were no fresh, imminent or clearly defined escalatory threats by Iran or backed by them against US or its allies in the region. This leaves US action beyond Iran specific only. Precisely this may be the reason that US move is being termed against an unspecified threat by Iran. In this backdrop, one is tempted to view new build up in larger context of great game, taking grounds between US, China and Russia. At present, countering terrorism is not a Number One priority of the US rather, it is China and Russia that could emerge a counterweight to US influence in world economically, politically and militarily. The proponents of this view take latest build up by US in the Gulf, a pre-emptive move to check their outreach in the Gulf and beyond and its route is CPEC. There is nothing novel about it when vital importance of CPEC is seen on world canvas.
The CPEC is considered a game changer. It would accrue Pakistan tremendous economic benefits as well as new meaning to its geo-strategic position in the region. For China, it is a vital plank of their Belt and Road Initiative; a primary and cost effective gateway for trade between China and the Middle East, Eurasia and Africa. It would unhinge US Policy of Asia Pivot, aimed at containment of China and Russia because it gives access to China to the areas where, at present, US has the hegemony. To India, it is a shattering experience. It would upset their vaulting ambition of regional power beyond measure. To the UAE, it means a major cut in their virtual monopoly over trade in the Gulf. To Iran, it is a serious case of ambivalence and to Afghanistan, a bugbear because it is most likely place from where anti-CPEC schemes would be conceived and unleashed.
In realpolitik, an undertaking of such overbearing proportions seldom sees smooth sailing. It is bound to encounter threats and threat to it, may have emerged with instant build up at stone throw distance from its opening to sea; Gwadar seaport. This must have sounded alarm bells in quarters which hold the responsibility of high offices. Unfortunately, main office is held by a man who was more interested in the office of Chief Minister Punjab than assigned office of Foreign Affairs. Of late, he has been seen overly active in matters of new province, South Punjab and feels content while issuing statements on foreign affairs from his native place, Multan. He is also prone to self projection and tends to indulge himself in overoptimistic and loose cannon phenomena in exuberance. This is not an unfounded view. A number of instances could be cited on this score.
It is an established fact that internationally trade takes place by flag only. It implies that trade Caravans could move uninterrupted of those nations only which have the clout to deter intruders. This is an unexceptionable principle since time immemorial. China is a giant economically but lags behind in military muscle and political influence worldwide. The economic strength supplements military and political power of a country but it is not a deterrent power itself. The political power is function of numerous sinews of national power and military power flows out of barrel of the gun. Presently China lacks in perfect match with US in military means. In terms of political influence, situation is no less different rather, it has suffered serious blow when a large number of Chinese invested projects of BRI hit the snags in the recent past. China needs to take stock of the situation wholesale to balance the equation. Given conditions, CPEC presents Pakistan a challenge and opportunity. We could make it a boon provided we handle it astutely in right timeframe and space.