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Cricket Cold War?

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of security arrangements for cricket matches. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

The West’s desire to counter China may have played a part in New Zealand and the U.K. abandoning their scheduled tours of Pakistan

New Zealand pulled its cricket team out of Pakistan last week after refusing to allow it to play its first match of a three ODI and five Twenty20 match series because of a “security threat.”

The brief statement issued by New Zealand Cricket did not clearly explain the threat and where it was coming from. Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief executive Wasim Khan was a bit more forthcoming, saying the New Zealand tour of Pakistan was abandoned after Wellington received an alert from the “Five Eyes” intelligence group about a “direct and imminent” threat to its team. The Five Eyes, he added, was an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

After that, predictably, England too called off an upcoming tour to Pakistan of its own cricket team. Reportedly, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even protested the England Cricket Board’s cancellation of the tour. Meanwhile, no one in Pakistan appeared to comprehend what had happened to cause the two cricket teams to suspend their tours of Pakistan. Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad hinted at “gloved hands” behind the tour abandonment, touching off speculations about connection with global politics and the emerging cold war in the region.

A legacy of terrorism

Terrorist incidents in the past had rendered Pakistan a pariah of international cricket. The New Zealand team’s visit to Pakistan was its first in 18 years—time Islamabad spent combating terrorism from within and without.

Pakistan’s abandonment by the international cricketing community began in 2009, when a visiting Sri Lanka national team was attacked by 12 gunmen in Lahore, leaving six players and six Pakistani policemen injured in addition to killing two civilians. The attack was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Punjab-based organization allowed to become powerful enough to challenge the state of Pakistan.

More recently, in July 2021, nine Chinese engineers were killed after their convoy was bombed near the site of the Dasu Dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In Balochistan and Sindh, state sovereignty also continues to be challenged by terrorists. In fact, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is said to have been delayed because Chinese firms investing in Pakistan are concerned about their security here.

The new Cold War

Many in Pakistan, however, have interpreted the NZ-UK boycott as the initial salvo in a new regional cold war between the U.S. and China. This assumption relies on the emergence of the Quad—the U.S., India, Japan, Australia—an alliance of four states taking on an “aggressive” Chinese power in the region. In recent years, the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad concept have been gradually introduced. Former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe, in meetings with Indian Prime Minister Modi, had often promoted the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” to “balance” China. On the one hand, he praised India’s “Eastward Action” policy; on the other, he expressed the Japanese need to strengthen cooperation with India. Then-U.S. president Donald Trump’s visit to Japan in May 2019 formally inaugurated the “Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

Catching on to the “politics” behind the NZ-UK cricket call-off, daily Dawn editor Fahd Husain noted: “Pakistan has done well to coordinate diplomatic efforts with regional countries, and especially the ones that border Afghanistan. But the threat of scapegoating is from the U.S. and its Western allies, which means the main thrust of our diplomatic offensive needs to pivot that way.”

The West vs. China

Western nations are uniting behind the superpower U.S. once again, fearing China’s rise as a trading giant spreading its control over states in Africa and the Middle East, including the strategically important Gulf. Seen as harmless, Pakistan was once allowed its India-balancing equation with China, but that began to change after the inauguration of CPEC. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative seeks to join Pakistan with Afghanistan and Iran while allowing Beijing to utilize the new route across Pakistan to trade with Gulf states, where it has emerged as the most important trading nation.

According to one estimate, “roughly 80 percent of China’s imported oil transits through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait and that in addition 95 percent of China’s trade with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe passes through the Indian Ocean.” Particularly alarming for the West has been China’s construction of a 330-meter-long pier large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier at its naval base in Djibouti—the country’s only foreign military base, strategically located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea.

Fake email from India

Pakistan’s position on the cricket tours became clearer on Sept. 22, when Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain told journalists that a threatening email had been sent to the New Zealand cricket team from India. He claimed Pakistan was facing a hybrid, fifth-generation war and alleged that a social media post that had been shared using the name of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan was “fake.” (A voice note allegedly shared with reporters by Ehsan claims the account was not fake). The post stated that the New Zealand cricket team should not go to Pakistan as Daesh or IS-K, located close to Pakistan in Jalalabad in Afghanistan, would attack it.

The minister also cited an article published in The Sunday Guardian on Aug. 21 by the paper’s bureau chief, Abhinandan Mishra—who Fawad said had enjoyed close relations with former Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh—as furthering the “fake” agenda. The report cites Ehsan’s post and claims the New Zealand cricket team could get attacked in Pakistan. Mere days after its publication, on Aug. 24, Fawad said a threatening email was sent to New Zealand batsman Martin Guptill’s wife from an address using the terrorist Tehreek-e-Labbaik alias. The email, sent using secure email service ProtonMail, said Guptill would be killed if he traveled to Pakistan.

Post-U.S. withdrawal region

As the U.S. plans its withdrawal from the Middle East it can clearly see which power is going to control the region after it has departed, adding it to the already “threatened” Pacific Ocean where traditional U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea and News Zealand—and new entrant India—feel uneasy even while trading heavily with China. In January 2021, the Paris-based Naval News website reported that Chinese ships “have been carrying out a systematic mapping of the Indian Ocean’s seafloor. This may relate to submarine warfare.” Hence, the inclusion of nuclear-powered submarines in a new trilateral security arrangement between the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

The Global Times—which is a daily tabloid under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper—noted: “Hostility against China is rising precisely due to Beijing’s increasingly assertive moves in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, an outward thrust that the Biden administration and its allies are broadly countering in the name of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.” U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris meanwhile stated: “In the South China Sea, we know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea; and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

Deadlock in Dushanbe

Then came the 21st meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Council (SCO) of heads of state in Dushanbe, chaired by Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and joined “virtually” by Russia, China and India. Indian ex-diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar noted in Asia Times on Sept. 20: “The 8,300-word document produced by the SCO summit devoted hardly 170 words to the Afghan situation.”

What was targeted was the SCO itself, and the state standing behind it—China. Bhadrakumar noted: “This is a setback for the SCO insofar as it has so little to say and even less to contribute to the resolution of the single biggest crisis in regional stability and security the grouping has had to face in its entire history. How did this happen? The short answer is that India chose to be a lone ranger tilting at the SCO windmills.” In two separate speeches, Prime Minister Modi came down emphatically on the transition of power in Afghanistan, which he said happened without negotiation and, therefore, raised questions about the acceptability of the new system and the legitimacy of the Taliban government. Any recognition of the Taliban government, he said, should be led by the U.N.—in other words, by the Quad leadership, with the SCO playing second fiddle.

The geopolitical lines are being drawn, with China and its allies on one side and the U.S. and its partners on the other. Pakistan, despite a stated shift of priorities to geo-economics, is once again caught in the middle. Maneuvering Islamabad out of this quagmire might well make the difference between international cricket returning to, and staying in, Pakistan—or several more years of the dreaded “isolation.”

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