India’s retaliatory strikes on Pakistan. Australia–Indonesia trade deal. China’s National People’s Congress. The new Arab Spring. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Surgical Strike 2.0 sees tension escalate

Pakistani Peoples Party activists burn an effigy of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in Karachi this month.
Pakistani Peoples Party activists burn an effigy of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in Karachi this month.


India: In January, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party began holding free screenings of the film Uri: The Surgical Strike, an action thriller that depicts an Indian commando raid in Pakistani-held territory in Kashmir in 2016.

The screenings were intended to remind voters ahead of this year’s election that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has taken a tougher stance against Pakistan-based militants than his predecessors and has ordered retaliatory strikes inside Pakistani territory.

So, when a suicide bomber last month conducted the deadliest attack in Kashmir in decades, Modi, by his own standards, had little choice but to respond with a new level of force. He eventually launched a strike against a militant training camp in Pakistan, the first such air attack by India since the last full-scale war between the two countries in 1971. In India, it was labelled “Surgical Strike 2.0”.

But Pakistan retaliated, leading to an aerial dogfight, which India lost. An Indian pilot was captured and later released by Pakistan as a “gesture of peace”.

Modi’s ploy had not just shown the weakness of the Indian military, which mostly relies on old Soviet equipment officially described as “vintage”. It also showed the riskiness of his hardline approach, which has escalated the conflict between these two historic enemies.

In recent days, the two nations – both nuclear powers – have fired streams of mortar shells across the Line of Control, the unofficial border in Kashmir. Some of Modi’s supporters have been calling for a further attack to allow India to leave the dispute with a win.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, called for dialogue, asking: “Can we afford miscalculation given the weapons you have and we have?”

And this was Modi’s final humiliation: making his Pakistani counterpart appear statesmanlike.

In the past, the United States has tried to mediate between these two historic foes, but Donald Trump, preoccupied with domestic affairs and averse to adopting a global peacekeeping role, has remained silent. The fighting continues, without any significant international intervention.

In India, Modi’s election prospects have only strengthened. His supporters have refused to accept the growing evidence from satellite images and witnesses that India’s latest “surgical strike” failed to hit its targets.


Indonesia: On Monday, Australia finally signed a trade deal with Indonesia after talks that began eight years and four prime ministers ago.

Successive Australian leaders have presented the deal as a way to finally develop closer ties with Indonesia, a country of 270 million people that is predicted to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2030. Ties between the two neighbours are appallingly weak. Political relations have often been fraught. When it comes to commerce, Australia does almost twice as much trade with Singapore, which has a population of fewer than six million people.

But analysts were sceptical about the extent to which the deal will alter the relationship. This is largely an agreement about commerce and tariffs, as a quick scan of the detail reveals: Australians, for instance, will be able to sell mandarins tariff-free from 2039.

The deeper problem with the Australia–Indonesia relationship has been the mutual invisibility: the leaders, businesses and people on both sides have little interaction, which breeds misunderstanding and further disengagement. This was evident from the latest quarrel following Scott Morrison’s declaration last year that he would consider moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The announcement angered Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, and further delayed the trade deal. Notably, Morrison stayed away from the signing ceremony this week in Jakarta.

Still, the deal should at least give a much-needed, if limited, boost to trade and financial links. It may encourage Australian universities to set up campuses in Indonesia and will gradually increase the number of Indonesians who can visit on working holidays from 1000 to 5000, which still seems paltry.

It is a modest start. Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, who attended the signing ceremony, said the deal will lead to “deeper, richer, cultural, diplomatic security ties”. Building these ties is crucial but will require more than the hopeful flow-on effects of future citrus sales.


China: Thousands of delegates arrived in Beijing this week for the meetings of China’s advisory body and its National People’s Congress – the so-called “Two Sessions”, which was described by China’s Xinhua News Agency as the “people’s democracy”. Actually, the sessions mostly involve party members who, increasingly, unite each year to serve as a large-scale rubber stamp.

Yet this year’s event had a surprising air of uncertainty.

Last year, the 2963 congress delegates, with the exception of three abstentions and two votes against, eliminated presidential term limits to make Xi Jinping leader for life.

Since then, China’s weakening economy and trade war with the US – as well as public anger about air pollution, food safety, pensions, and a scandal in which hundreds of thousands of children were injected with faulty vaccines – have led to questions about Xi’s leadership and even prompted some open calls for term limits to be reinstated.

On Tuesday, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, addressed the congress and revealed targeted growth for the coming year had been reduced to 6 to 6.5 per cent, the lowest in almost three decades.

“We must be fully prepared for a tough struggle,” he said.

The congress is expected to make some concessions to the US, including ending rules that force foreign firms in China to share their technology with domestic partners. Xi is expected to meet Donald Trump on March 27 to try to resolve their trade war. Both leaders, facing growing domestic pressure, appear keen to reach a deal.


Algeria: Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has not spoken in public since he had a stroke in 2013 – and is currently believed to be in Switzerland receiving medical treatment – but this has not stopped the 82-year-old seeking another term to extend his 20-year rule by another five years.

The announcement of his decision prompted protests that have continued for weeks. Many Algerians are angry about the parlous state of the oil-rich nation’s economy, which has slumped in recent years following a fall in oil prices.

The protests came as fellow north African autocrat Omar al-Bashir, of Sudan, has faced months of daily demonstrations sparked by rising food prices. Bashir, who has been in power for 30 years, has declared a state of emergency and responded violently against the protesters. At least 50 people have been killed.

These two sets of protests have been described by some commentators as a “new Arab spring”. Both leaders survived the first Arab spring but their grip on power is weakening.

Bouteflika, or the circle of military and civilian figures who rule for him, has offered to step down after the election. Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for overseeing a genocide in Darfur, has left his post as head of the ruling party but refused to resign as president.

The protests in both countries encompass all ages and walks of life. In Algeria, they sing football songs; in Sudan, they chant, “Down, that’s it.” In both nations, the ageing tyrants seem near their end, yet recent experience in this neighbourhood and elsewhere suggests that the new regimes, once entrenched, often look much like those they replaced.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 9, 2019 as "Surgical Strike 2.0 sees tension escalate".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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