China, India, Pakistan, and
United States: Strategic Trilemma in South Asia
Prof. Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
School of Politics and
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.