04 May 2010

A South Asian Tri-axis, part 1: Overview

No, it's not really a word (according to the dictionaries I can find), so I'll coin it here: ''tri-axis,'' from the adjective ''triaxial,'' meaning ''having three axes or principal directions of orientation.'' With regard to South Asia, and currently, I'm referring to the state of unstable balance between China, India, and Pakistan over issues of both regional and global concern. I'm still reading Ahmed Rashid's superb Descent Into Chaos about the American and then international intervention in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but it's dense with information that takes me a while to absorb and I just couldn't wait until I was finished reading that. Besides, Rashid focuses primarily on the political-military issues in the Af-Pak region with a strong historical background in their ethnic disregard for arbitrary borders, which is exactly why American efforts to rout extremists have spilled over the border from Afghanistan into the northwestern frontier of what we officially consider Pakistan.

Maybe that's all relevant to a part of this story, especially in the strained relationship between Pakistan and India. The tri-axis describes three specific parties with three pairs of interactions that affect the balance of power in the region that is dominated by China, India, and Pakistan. Coincidentally, there are three things they all share, and in which they maintain different levels of conflict: nuclear energy and weapons, transboundary rivers, and Kashmir. The most overt conflict for international politics remains the nuclear issue; I was on a research cruise in the South China Sea, a day from land in any direction, when my shipmates and I learned of multiple nuclear tests performed by India and Pakistan in mutual response to each other having acquired the technology. It was not necessarily scary, but it was foreboding to note that China, India's principal military rival in Asia since the fall of the U.S.S.R., has had the bomb for decades. Now that I think about it, it might have been reassuring to note at the time that China did not also participate in the nuclear test competitions. China has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (as has the U.S.) but has not yet ratified it (as for the U.S.) and so might not have felt bound by its terms when its neighbors to the south and west set out to measure the sizes of their...uh...well, you know. Things have certainly settled down since then, though by how much one cannot always be certain. As Tom Barnett has said more than once, nuclear weapons have served humanity better in the deterrence of conflict than as a weapon in conflict.

That's almost enough about the nuclear issue - this is a blog on hydrology and water resources, and by now you should be wondering why I wax prosaic on that shared component of the tri-axis. It's this: water and energy are inextricably linked, in a ''nexus'' which I shall address in a future post, and in Pakistan there exists a problem for lack of both. It takes a lot of water to generate energy in almost every process that we have invented thus far, and it takes a lot of energy to move water where the people need it most, which is not necessarily in the places where it occurs most naturally. Pakistan relies a great deal on two particular energy generation methods: hydropower, which I'll talk about in part 2 of this discussion, and nuclear. Recently, Pakistan has been frustrated in trying to coax the U.S. into transfer of nuclear energy technology to their country, primarily because it's not too far from reactor fuel to more weapons packages, so they've gone and asked China instead, and their ''all-weather friendship'' is suddenly renewed. This is despite the fact that, as the linked article relates, China is a member of a Nuclear Suppliers Group and Pakistan is not, and according to the rules of the group China should have obtained a waiver in order to transfer technology to a non-member state, which they did not, claiming that this is just an extension of an earlier reactor project in which China supplied Pakistan, well before the Suppliers Group was formed. Lots of other politics surround the issue, including how Pakistan gained nuclear weapons technology in the first place, but let's sum it up with the recognitions that India is not happy about Pakistan's nuclear deal with China, Pakistan still wants the U.S. to help resolve JK territorial issues with India, and the U.S. seeks not to diminish its relationship with India in its quest to help Pakistan.

To top it off, India is also a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but in 2008 obtained a ''blanket clearance'' to re-enter the nuclear trade market without restrictions. India receives nuclear assistance from the U.S. in an effort to build up the Indian civil uses of nuclear energy so that the Indian nuclear weapons programs are de-emphasized. So why didn't Pakistan strike up a deal with India, instead of raising questions on the legitimacy of a ''renewed'' process with China? Oh, right - India considers Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, and has attributed to Pakistani militants the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Pakistan has had trouble dividing its own loyalties: the military, which practically runs the country, has declined more significant action against militants in the North-West Frontier Province (those most often crossing the border with Afghanistan) because to commit more troops to helping NATO there would pull military forces, and the militants they help and train, from the Kashmir region and the border with India, from whom Pakistan perceives a constant threat of imminent war. Even the official U.S. presence in Pakistan does not seem to alleviate these fears or change the Pakistani military's policies and practices.

Besides the mutual threat of a nuclear exchange (of the non-civil kind), Pakistan and India maintain differences in the Himalaya - Karakoram Range over the administration of Jammu and Kashmir (which I'll call JK), two mountainous and water-rich provinces steeped in history and claimed by both countries. Again, though, the map suggests that China maintains a territorial claim to a portion of the disputed territory. In the meantime, the Line of Control between Pakistan and Indian territories has remained unmoved since 1972, and another Line of Actual Control has divided the area claimed by India and China approximately since 1959, though not agreed upon in writing until the 1990s. In all of the interactions between China, India and Pakistan there are both settled and disputed boundaries. In the case of agreement between Pakistan and India, the border dispute has direct and lasting implications for the allocation of water resources originating in JK. I'll explore the details of the Indo-Pakistan agreeement in my next post.

And now, while India is distracted on its western frontier, China has moved forward with its own hydropower plans. A new dam is under construction in China on the Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra River when it crosses into India and joins the Ganges River in Bangladesh. Though recent floods have induced disasters of epic proportions in the region of eastern India and Bangladesh, upstream dams threaten just the opposite impact, and a sudden lack of water in a region so accustomed to plentiful supplies in its agricultural practices could be devastating. China could at least have included the downstream riparians somewhere in the decision process leading to this new project, an irony that will become more evident later. At the least, though, it seems that China's unilateral behavior on the Tsangpo River is consistent with its decisions in other areas of southern Asia...

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