China and Iran vie for the subcontinent

Iran’s destabilising influence in Afghanistan is just the tip of a geopolitical iceberg.

It emerged this week that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has been accepting "bags of money" from Iran, reportedly as transparent aid to help cover palace expenses. Although Iranian money and weapons for use against Nato forces have been pouring for many years into Herat, in western Afghanistan, the nonchalance of President Karzai's response to Iranian cash in Kabul raised eyebrows in the media.

Perhaps they weren't looking far enough afield. The worry is that Iran has similar designs on Pakistan and that the methods will be the same – drip money into the Pakistani Taliban in a long-term effort to destabilise the state. Even if the tactic doesn't work – and there are strong arguments that it will not – it may make things more complicated.

For one thing, it is not known the extent to which Iranian money is swishing around in Pakistan, though much of it will be linked to drugs. From an Iranian point of view, too, their neighbour to the east may look vulnerable.

India's bulwarks

Sectarian and political violence has reared up over the summer in Karachi – both the starting point of Isaf supply lines and the region's major drugs port. Pakistan is also dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic flooding; much of the agrarian economy is destroyed for this year. And the government is constantly portrayed as weak, even if things may not be quite as bad as they seem.

The fragility of Pakistan comes with caveats, something that the Iranians may not have observed. AP reported in September that there had been 3,600 deaths from extremist Taliban attacks in Pakistan since 2007 – the majority of them chronicled in the western press – a relatively low figure, given Pakistan's population of 175 million. In Karachi this year alone, the city's sectarian and political violence has claimed 1,100 lives.

However, the country is resilient. David Pilling wrote perceptively last week in the Financial Times (registration required) that it's a country that refuses to fail. It is unlikely that Iran will be able to further their ambitions for aggrandisement this year or next. But, as with China, which has invested $248m in Balochistan's Gwadar port to protect its oil and gas supply routes in central Asia, the Iranians are in situ.

The concern is that, over the next decade, they will continue to stay there and that the western and eastern regions of the subcontinent – India's bulwarks – will find themselves under pressure.

Reversing the hostility of decades, India began negotiating with Bangladesh in 2009 to wrest the country out of China's insistent clutches. Delhi cannot budge on Kashmir, of which Arundhati Roy spoke bitterly this week, not because it fears Pakistan, but because it has long-term territorial concerns about China.

The building of an empire

Kashmir is India's land corridor to the borderlands of the Himalayas and there are four disputed areas, three of which border Tibet. The fourth, Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east, next door to Bhutan, is claimed by China. India's state security headache prima inter alia is the Maoist/Naxalite rebellion in the north-east, which quite possibly receives funding from Beijing.

Historically, the Persians and the Mongol Chinese have been at it before, because the subcontinent is fertile, and has abundant land as well as the advantage of prosperous seaports. The ancient tribal and Dravidian people of the subcontinent had to put up with wave after wave of Arya peoples from central Asia over 3,000 years ago. Colin Thubron in the Lost Heart of Asia states – wrongly, I think – that five million died in India as a result of Tamerlane's incursions from 1398.

At the start of the 16th century, Babur, the quasi-Persian prince from Transoxiana, began his progress into the rich and properous lands of northern India which heralded the Moghul empire.

The subcontinent has a habit in the past of splintering under outside pressure. However, this time, in the 21st century, if Pakistan, India and Bangladesh can recognise the external threats, they might see that their future is bound up with each other.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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