In 1998, the then US President Bill Clinton declared South Asia as “the most dangerous region on the planet.” A declaration now appearing much closer to the truth than what then was considered a boisterous claim due to the continued turmoil in the Middle East and rise of Islamic extremism at the time. The schizophrenic relationship between India and Pakistan of course is well known, and the longest current conflict on the planet. They have fought four wars and threatened each other with nuclear weapons. Moreover, India and Pakistan have yet to fully address the Kashmir issue with the political will necessary in order to bring the conflict to its rightful conclusion. However, the “unrecognized” players in the region, China and Iran, have made for strange bedfellows for both India and Pakistan. Whether it be China vs. India both economically and militarily, or Iran vs. Pakistan mainly due to sectarian issues, you can find conflict between at least two of the parties on any given day.
The alliance between Pakistan and China has reached its zenith. According to US intelligence analysts, China views “an attack on Pakistan, as an attack on China.” This was confirmed to me while speaking on a panel in 2008 with then Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Mahmoud Ali Durrani. Amb. Durrani told me that “Pakistan in the long term views its relationship with China much more important than relations with the US given the regional proximity and conflict with India.” At the time, China was a player in the Kashmir dispute, though for the most part a minority party. However, military and intelligence exchanges are now a regular occurrence, and a major reason for concern in the US Government. Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Chinese Government felt so comfortable that it asked Pakistan for the remains of the so-called “stealth” helicopter destroyed during the midnight raid. This for some people came as a surprise, and has raised suspicions on how much information regarding the chopper was shared between the allies. However, recent security agreements between Pakistan and China following Yusuf Raza Gilani’s visit to China in June, reveals something greater than originally envisioned by anyone.
The recently renewed security ties between Pakistan and China and the sale of 50 fighter jets, submarines and other naval technological transfers is viewed by security officials in Washington as “Pakistan’s rebuke of the US invading its sovereignty and [being] kept in the dark about the Bin Laden raid.” Additionally, Pakistan is considering granting China not only access to the Arabian Sea, but naval bases on the Pakistani coastline. This will drastically increase China’s presence in the region, as well as guarantee safe passage of their goods and energy supplies to and from Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, this will permit China greater access to the Indian Ocean with newly minted frigates, subs, and aircraft carriers—an issue officials in New Delhi already find themselves fretting over.
On the other side, you have India’s relationship with both Iran and the United States. Yes, the United States and Iran. Given the US presence in Afghanistan, “security agreements” with Pakistan, and leading the fight against a possible nuclear Iran, the irony could not be any greater. More surprisingly, the speed of increased ties between India and the US over the past five years on security related issues has caught many analysts by surprise. First, there is the controversial nuclear deal the US entered with India, ultimately forgiving India for disregarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and welcoming New Delhi as a part of the nuclear club. A source involved with the negotiations at the State Department for the then Bush Administration told me at the time that, “there is a push to get this deal done in order to send a signal to Tehran, Beijing and Islamabad that the US has not only an ally in the region, but an ally with a hardened million man army and cutting edge nuclear technology.” However, just this week I spoke with the same source who requested anonymity due to work with the current administration at a different agency involving South Asian security issues. The source said, “in no way could we have predicted the speed and scale in which the relationship between India and the US, or Pakistan and China, as well as India and Iran, would escalate in the way it has. At least in the end all sides will check each other on the nuclear front.” That without a doubt is an incredible hedge, given the fact the heart of the conflict between all states involved rests on two issues: energy and, more importantly, water.
You see, the fight over the disputed Kashmir region has very little to do with Mahatma Ghandi, Mohammad Jinnah, or Jawaharlal Nehru. It has very little to do with a Muslim majority in the Kashmir Valley of India or Hindu Jammu. It has even less to do with the disputed Amaranth Shrine that grabbed headlines a few years back thanks to overzealous Indian BJP hardliners. It has to do with water that flows in China, Pakistan, and India, providing hydroelectric power for close to a billion people and access to drinking water in the Siachen Glacier region for close to 3 billion people.
UCLA Prof. Stanley Wolpert, who wrote “A River Runs Through It…Kashmir”, originally brought the realization to US lawmakers back in 2008 at a conference on Capital Hill. “Without question, water is the most important commodity on the planet today, and the two quickest rising powers, who also house the worlds two largest populations, are seeking to stake their claims on the largest regional source, and will do so at any an all cost possible, including war. If your people do not have access to drinking water, then does war and nuclear fallout really mean that much to you at that point?” He went on to say, “Of course, you are not hearing of this in the international media and security reports, I mean water just isn’t a sexy issue like oil and religion…” His analysis was quite grim, but it does have a point.