China, US And The Balancing Act In South Asia

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Context
The South Asian chess game is unfolding in quite an intriguing way. Despite the rhetoric on both sides, the interdependence of Pakistan and India is only increasing. India needs Pakistan for its Look West policy to work, while the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan makes it is imperative for Pakistan to focus towards the East, and to benefit from the economic dynamism there.

This is not all; China and US both have tremendous stakes in the Asia Pacific and how the South Asian equation plays out. As an emerging power, China is pushing zealously to secure its influence in the immediate neighboring regions. On the other hand, US being an established player, is unlikely to relent easily. The recent high-level traffic from US and China to the region needs to be examined with in this context. In addition to other variables, the temperature of US-China ties will have no less of an impact on the Pakistan-India ties, and by this connection, even Afghanistan.

Will Pakistan and India go all the way in the interests of their respective strategic partners, China and the US, will be interesting to watch. Moreover, to what extents are these interests perceived as win-win or zero-sum, will pretty much define the next stage of these interlinked ties.

Analysis

The High Level Traffic

US Vice President Joe Biden’s completed a four-day visit to India in late July. The items discussed included trade, environment, and security. Biden’s visit to India took place soon after John Kerry visited the country in June. Presently Kerry is on a much-delayed two-day visit to Pakistan.

There is continuity of high-level exchanges between India and the US. A number of the think tanks in Washington have taken it as their mission to move the strategic partnership between the two nations along. The most US and Pakistan could pull together was the meagerly Dubai trade conference held in June, mostly attended by US embassy officials and businessmen from Pakistan, including Pakistani businessmen of American origin. The traders that did attend complained why the conference was not organized in Pakistan or the US and why the lack of a broad business interest from the US. The answer to this question, pretty much lays it all.

The recent high level American visits to India are matched by similar leadership contacts between China and Pakistan. The new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif completed a five-day official visit to China in early July. During the trip, deals worth billions of dollars were reportedly signed between the two, including the development of China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the associated Kashgar-Gwadar project. The project includes developing of rail and road links between Gwadar port and Kashgar. Pakistan had previously handed over the management of the strategic Gwadar port to China.

The Chinese Message

Earlier, in late May, the new Chinese premier visited the region, and before coming to Pakistan he first went to India. The trip took place soon after the confrontation between the two militaries in the Ladakh region. By visiting India first, and while Karzai was also there demanding Indian military help, China conveyed to all three nations it gives more importance to economic and trade relations as oppose to primarily security concerns. While Pakistan and China have a strategic partnership, China has also been deepening its economic and trade ties with both India and Afghanistan.

The implied message was likely meant to positively influence Pakistan’s ties with India and Afghanistan. However, the Chinese point is likely to be only valid as long as India does not play a countering role being part of the American pivot to the Pacific. If India does take on that role, the fate the fate of BRICS, and its full membership to SCO, will both be jeopardized.

The American Posture

On the other hand, US is increasingly looking at India to get involved in Afghanistan’s security affairs, and to maintain this prospect as a leverage against Pakistan’s alleged inaction. The country is, however, reluctant to take on this task wholeheartedly for obvious reasons. Acting as a strategic partner to distant powers and at the cost of adverse ties with immediate neighbors, is never a wise strategy.

Without improvement in India Pakistan ties, Indian economic or military role in Afghanistan, will continue to be looked upon with much suspicion in Pakistan. The dilemma for India remains; in absence of improved ties with Pakistan, it cannot allow Pakistan to be the beneficiary of what transpires in Afghanistan, and after having spent about $2 billion dollars in economic assistance.

Moreover, included in the Indian consideration is the impact of Afghan reconciliation on the rest of the jihadist panorama in Pakistan. After dilly-dallying for a while, the emerging American policy appears to have delinked the two for the time being. How India digests this American decision would probably decide if Indian political help towards Afghanistan would be forthcoming. Meanwhile, India may link its assistance in Afghanistan with the role US wants it to play in the Pacific.

Conclusion

In essence, how the US-China equation evolves will have a significant impact on Pakistan-India ties, and by that link, Afghanistan as well. In Afghanistan, US has allowed Chinese to invest, and has simultaneously been pushing for improvement in the Pakistan-India ties. However, when it comes to the Pacific, intentions are not as transparent. And, now China appears to be reciprocating in kind by getting more economically involved in Latin America.

As Singapore’s legendary leader Lee Kuan Yew puts it, “Peace and security in the Asia Pacific will turn on whether China emerges as xenophobic, chauvinistic force, bitter and hostile to the West because it tried to slow down or abort its development, or educated and involved in the ways of the world, more cosmopolitan, more internationalized and outward looking.”

As far as South Asia is concerned, the worse part is that both Pakistan and India have allowed themselves to be played and taken for a ride. The cost of this strategy has been much steeper for Pakistan than India, especially considering its security and economic perils. The two nations have much more at stake in creating win-win scenarios in the region, and to not allow their future to be relegated to the interests of other powers.

On the other hand, if US and China apply a concerted approach towards the Indo-Pak, the region can go through a transformation, where all developments are not perceived in the zero-sum context. This obviously will also make the American exit from Afghanistan much smoother. However, if we add the dynamics of Middle East and Africa to the mix, a more complex picture emerges.

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