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China, India, Pakistan, and United States: Strategic Trilemma in South Asia

  • 来源:反恐研究院
  • 发布者:反恐法学院
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China, India, Pakistan, and United States: Strategic Trilemma in South Asia

By

Prof. Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Professor

School of Politics and International Relations

Quaid-I-Azam University

Islamabad, Pakistan

 

The emerging global geostrategic environment seems complex and volatile due to the disorderly mixture of turbulence and drift in relationships among the leading powers and key regional states. The United States declared China a strategic competitor and India as a viable strategic partner in the 21st Century. The Americans have been encouraging and assisting India to play a decisive role in the 'Indo-Pacific' region, which emerged as the world's geoeconomic and geostrategic epicenter. Besides, Washington is facilitating New Delhi to establish its hegemony in South Asia at the cost of India's small neighbors' security.

 

The great powers' struggles of the 21st Century have been unfolding in the region and posing a severe challenge to the South Asian states to revamp their foreign and strategic policies. They have been struggling to maintain cordial relations with China without frustrating the United States. Indeed, it is a challenging task for Pakistani decision-makers to distance with their seven-decade strategic ally—the U.S., which constituted a strategic partnership with its archrival India and determined to thwart the steady rise of its all-weather friend—China. Moreover, India and China's tension on the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh region diverted Indian military attention towards China, resulting in lessening the probability of the Indian military's adventurism against Pakistan. Hence, China’s military deployment on the Indian border is to Pakistan's military advantage.

 

China is an important neighbor of many South Asian states. It maintains good relations with all the South Asian states, except India. Both the United States and India are uncomfortable with China's rise and its economic connectivity with the Indian Ocean littoral states and investment in constructing the Indian Ocean Region ports. The Sino-U.S. strategic competition and increasing Indo-Sino mistrust make China a critical actor in the South Asian strategic triangular dilemma. Strategic Trilemma, among three South Asian nuclear weapons, states China, India, and Pakistan. Precisely, there are three hostile pairs in South Asia: Pakistan vs. India, India vs. China, and China vs. the United States.

 

Since the beginning, it was an open secret that Indo-US strategic partnership was constituted to check China's increasing clout in global affairs, particularly in Asia-Pacific. The U.S.-India relations thrived during President Donald Trump's tenure, which gave India an important place in U.S. national security thinking, offered it previously unavailable advanced military equipment, and supported it comprehensively in its crises with Pakistan and China. The American National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 had manifested about the U.S. competition with China, flattered India, and snubbed Pakistan. It reiterated Washington’s commitment to strengthen India’s military power and enhance its role in the Asian strategic setting. It also applauded India's “leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region” to counterweight China in the Asian strategic setting. Besides, NSS 2017, other U.S. defense-policy documents such as the 2018 National Defense Strategy, 2018 Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018, Indo-Pacific Strategy declassified in July 2019, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020-Annual Report to Congress, clearly documented China’s threat to the Americans. So, China and U.S. have engaged in competition at multiple geographic theatres (South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America) and various vectors (trade, investment, technology, espionage, international institutions, health policy, naval, airpower, missiles, and territorial disputes). In this strategic competition, the Americans' trust in India and mistrust in Pakistan have been steadily aggregating.

 

India brought a shift in its military doctrine that was transformed from defensive-defense to offensive-defensive and modernized its armed forces accordingly. India's doctrinal choices are two-front war-fighting capability and controlling or 'a security provider in the Indian Ocean; strategic posture is Cold Start doctrine and proactive military operation strategy, and tactical planning is a 'surgical strike.' The Indian military system has been gradually expanding in size, creating new agencies, commands, positions, and purchasing new advanced weaponry. The Indian ruling elites' perception of China's threat is documented in India's policy documents such as the “Act East” policy, the "SAGAR" initiative, and the “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” New Delhi and Washington inked many deals for a far-reaching strategic partnership to balance the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) objective to become a "world-class" military by the end of 2049.

 

Modi government's attempts to demonstrate India's China military posture since 2017 to receive the Americans political, military, and economic favors resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and five Chinese soldiers in a border battle between China and India in the Galwan valley, Ladakh region on June 15, 2020. The Trump administration openly supported India's regional aggressive policy. Instead of condemning India's surgical strike against Pakistan on February 26, 2019, it validated the Modi government's irresponsible act against the nuclear–armed adversary. Similarly, the Americans expressed their solidarity with India on its border clashes with China. On October 27, 2020, after meeting with the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in Delhi, the U.S. secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, announced: "The U.S. will stand with India in its efforts to defend its sovereignty and its liberty. Our nations are committed to working together into expanding our partnerships across many fronts."

 

The increasing tension with China immensely improved India's strategic convergence with the United States. Consequently, the Americans have been transferring state-of-the-art weapons and sharing geospatial intelligence for military purposes with New Delhi to pursue their strategic objectives in Asia-Pacific, including checkmating China's steady rise globally and strengthening India's role in the Indian Ocean region. Indo-U.S. strategic convergence laid the foundation for multifaceted cooperation over a broad spectrum of areas, primarily covering defense, protecting the sea-lanes, terrorism, nuclear, space and high-technology trade, and economic cooperation. With this cooperation, the U.S. endeavors to fast-track India’s growth rate so that “it narrows the gap with China in the competition for investment, trade, and political influence in the extended region.” Shri Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, opines, "we have begun deepening our overall defense ties with the U.S. with the earlier signing of the logistics agreement (LEMOA) and most recently the inter-operability Agreement (COMCASA). Our military has been closely involved in concluding both these agreements, which signal a deepening of the India-US strategic partnership with a geopolitical message to our two principal adversaries- China and Pakistan." Despite the change of guards in Washington, the U.S.-India partnership will expand because of strategic convergence, and the elected President Joe Biden and Vice-President Harris link to India.

 

Russians, Chinese, and Americans in the region do not inflict Pakistan's interest; however, India's Great Power pursuits pose a serious challenge to Pakistan's national security. Therefore, Pakistan cannot ignore the Indian armed forces' modernization with the U.S.'s assistance. Theoretically speaking, the increase in one state's military capabilities always amplifies others' security dilemmas, especially the neighboring states. India's Indo-Pacific strategy, coupled with the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy under the umbrella of the Indo-U.S. partnership, seems detrimental for both China and Pakistan. 

 

Islamabad is under no illusions of any fundamental change or softening of incumbent President Joe Biden’s position on the strategic issues where Islamabad and Washington have continuing differing priorities. Indeed, the new Biden administration continues engaging Pakistan's military to pursue American interests in Afghanistan. The bipartisan report recently sent to Congress recognized Pakistan's pivotal role in the Afghan peace process and advised the Biden administration to work with Islamabad to end decades of war and destruction in Afghanistan. The Biden administration gave an impression to revive the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for the Pakistani military officers. Likewise, the Pakistan military would like to have access to specific fields of American defense technology and equipment because it still has some critical weapons and equipment of U.S. origin. It would like to keep them battle-worthy by having a reliable supply of spare parts of these weapons from the U.S. rather than looking for alternatives from other countries.

 

In reality, currently, the regional and global strategic environment trends are not conducive for close cooperation between the American and Pakistani militaries. It is because; the chances for the revival of IMET are remote. Secondly, the American military assistance to India is alarming for the Pakistani military because it believes that sophisticated military hardware being supplied by the U.S. to India would be used against it. Thirdly, the Americans voiced strong criticism of CPEC and its intended economic benefits for the people of Pakistan. Finally, in the current global strategic environment and the South Asian setting, the Pakistani political and elite military have consensus that China is a reliable strategic partner. They viewed China’s support—military, economic and diplomatic—as a counterweight against India’s belligerent policies against it.