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China plays its Iran hand (tribune.com.pk)

The world — the West — lost China on two counts. First when it targeted China quite insidiously for its own failures in handling Covid-19 — the US in particular; and second on the controversy of China’s 5G progress which beats hands down any other in the field. Nokia, and Ericsson in a limited way, are the only two Western suppliers up to speed with China’s Huawei. The trade deals that Trump espouses as reasons for a disturbed relationship are more a facade for concern on China’s march over others in the domain of data farming. The 5G war is the bigger war between the US and China. The latest example is Boris Johnson’s UK where telecom service providers have been asked to dispense with Huawei. How will the service providers shift the burden from an almost 50% equity from Huawei as their existing 5G infrastructure is anybody’s guess? The courts may eventually decide but it will save Boris Johnson some embarrassment and pretense. That is the name of the game.

On China then. All elements of modern power have come together in China at the same time. Let’s list: exemplary economic development with historic gains unparalleled in the history of the world — even the US never touched this zenith; a highly educated and STEM qualified workforce from top universities which can push economies to the leading edge of a modern, technology-driven world; a leadership, and a political system, which provides assured continuity and stability enabling predictable planning cycles for companies to plan long and make unmatched profits; a robust consumer market which has money to spare even if frugal by tradition; an inescapable cycle of production, consumption and interdependence which makes it painful for countries to break away from China — Germany has heavy industrial investments in China, and the US a trillion dollars worth bilateral investment; China’s increasing influence in the world through an unthreatening economic diplomacy which has found her perpetual presence in foreign capitals; China’s support of the less-developed economies through its BRI initiative to reinforcing international connectivity along multiple avenues; and a technologically strengthened military which has muscled out contrived opposition to it in the South China Sea and in Ladakh. In geopolitical terms China is now the world’s second pole.

When you have such an array of capabilities — money to throw (proverbially), military to flaunt — leadership and initiative usually come together to create opportunities and make the impossible happen. Add another factor: a dragon, some said sleeping, has been roused far too often through pricks and puns to finally break out of its self-imposed restraint. Those that couldn’t stand a challenge to their primacy thought it could be preemptively browbeaten instead found China’s response steadied and resolute. China would not be the punching bag of the world and decided to re-find her old glory with the sun blazing over the middle kingdom — the centre of the earth. Those that wished to throttle her progress by controlling the South China Sea have been pushed back. Instead, China is now asking questions of the rest. The Quad, the INDOPACCOM, the littoral states, blowing some life in the dead carcass of Taiwan, and hoping Vietnam et al will stand up to a woken dragon are just some of the steps taken in a hope to control China by proxy.

CPEC has broken that cauldron intended to bottle China. Pakistan was tested for it by imposing on it the need for extended logistics and military deployments by accentuating Pakistan’s vulnerabilities. Iran was inducted into the fray with promises of reverse investments in return for enabling India some nauseous freedom. Indian belligerence was physically threatening and geopolitically destabilising. Pakistan has stood up to all of India’s nefarious manoeuvrings securing her interests admirably. Meanwhile India licks her wounds in Ladakh and finds herself evicted from Iran. Her stakes in Afghanistan had already stood considerably weakened. On CPEC, the die is cast. The infrastructure is there. Only the spokes must now add to this longitudinal hub along the spine of Pakistan linking with China. Afghanistan is already a half-member by default. It has spokes connecting into CPEC and must keep those functional to keep her economy going. India tried tricking Iran away from CPEC but got trapped in its own design of deceit. She couldn’t break out of the straitjacket imposed by her new-found bosom-buddy, the US, and failed to follow through with her undertakings with Iran.

A sanctioned Iran had no qualms dumping unreliable India. Now China and Iran will trade in Renminbi — Chinese currency recently added to the basket of trade-able international currencies by the IMF. And, China will invest over $400 billion in the Iranian economy over a period of 25 years. One more nation added to the BRI list and saved from the US-imposed clinker. Turkey and Europe are the next stops as the BRI weaves its way through the labyrinth of weakened US presence and influence abroad. Germany and others want to keep out of this imposed stranglehold of America’s current administration because of active economic links with China but await the resettling of a disturbed order. If the US fails to make amends China will define the new contours of this order.

Post-unipolarity, post the WWII order and post-Covid, newer determinants will define the world. What will though endure will be an interconnected world which has realised unmatched prosperity on the back of a globalised economy and travel. This has also spawned newer challenges which include climate change and pandemics. Human conscience will be indelibly marked with the struggle against these. The Covid experience in particular has tested human virtue and underlined the importance of it. Where it prevailed, the societies have come out successful. Where not, the societies continue to suffer. Similar set of principles are the need in a world which needs cooperative effort against common threats. Virtues will continue to define human goodness and underline future societies, and reinforce international cooperation.

It is time to look at the world outside paradigmatic notions of alliances and blocs. Such a view is regressive and antiquated in a world where interdependencies define social and economic progress. Beyond virtual and perpetual connectivity China adds the physical links via the BRI to enable free movement of materials, goods and services through the entire world. So none — Russia, Turkey, Iran or China itself — is willing to break from this matrix of coexistence and mutual dependence. Pakistan too. Just this week Pakistan opened up the Wagah border for Afghanistan to transit through to Delhi even as she was dealing with the matter of Kulbhushan Jadhav. Diplomacy is meant to be just so nimble and multifaceted. That is what wins prosperity, growth and resilience to a society, not isolation. Opening doors and windows on all sides is what will bring fresh air or we only get stale. That doesn’t mean we relent on Kashmir just that we work on alternate avenues to reinforce goodness forging long-term peace. China’s initiative on Iran is one such element of peace and regional goodwill.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2020.

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