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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Competition Spills into South Asia

Apr 28, 2021
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

President Bill Clinton, on the eve of his visit to the South Asian subcontinent in March 2000, called the Line of Control (LOC) that divides the state of Jammu and Kashmir between Pakistan and India "the most dangerous place in the world". The LOC is a perpetual point of conflict that rarely makes the news but has the potential to set off a major confrontation between the two nuclear armed states. With China and the U.S. each backing one side, the region is exposed to the risk of a full-blown superpower conflict.

As China grows towards becoming the world’s leading economy, it is naturally driven by aspirations of international leadership. While the American military deployment in the western Pacific might constrain that aspiration, a rising China needs assured energy supplies and passage for its exports into the Indian Ocean and beyond without being bottled in by the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Singapore. Though China courted India early on as a regional partner, geo-strategic realities and far sighted realism made China pursue stronger relations with Pakistan. As such, both China and India see relations with Pakistan as pivotal. 

The U.S. has its own complex relationship with Pakistan, and would be happy to see Islamabad distance itself from America’s global adversary. Of course, Pakistan cannot oblige, hoping to retain China’s favor against their mutual foe in India. Atop all this, the U.S. wants India positioned as a key regional player to contain the rising China’s influence. 

Beyond military posturing, China’s heavy investment in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has elevated relations between the two countries to a new peak. Both the U.S. and India are wary of China’s economic reach. Pakistan is China’s principal strategic partner in the larger Asian region, providing China secure access to the Indian Ocean and ability to project power in its waters, countering and thus challenging American presence in the same seas. And as the U.S. continues to throw its support behind neighboring India, Pakistan grows more and more dependent upon China who both find a common adversary in India.  

The Indo-U.S. strategic partnership has taken on undertones of military alignment against China, beginning with the nuclear deal under President George W. Bush, followed by four foundation military agreements between the two nations. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to India so early in President Biden’s term sends a clear message on their military partnership and how it is likely to be used against the Chinese interests. 

In response, China has used its powers to deny India membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an international body that controls the transfer of nuclear technologies and weapons.  

To woo India in pursuit of its strategic interests, the U.S. has also declared support for India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council - a proposal which is going nowhere in the face of China’s and Pakistan’s opposition. They obviously do not want an adversary sitting as an equal, or in case of Pakistan, in a position where it can continuously jeopardize its interests. 

By starting its term with a focus on India, the Biden administration has demonstrated where its foreign policy priorities lie. Pakistan, whose leader is still awaiting a customary phone call from the new American president, may feel the pull of China grow stronger each day it waits. 

In the face of this emerging new ‘cold war’ the path to outright conflict is obvious. America will seek to compensate for a loss of Asian influence by pressuring India to actively deny China the freedom it seeks at sea, and on land in pursuit of its economic ambitions. In such a state a rising China will push back both directly and in association with Pakistan wherever it can. 

These four countries are among the largest in the world, while three out of four are among the biggest economies. All are nuclear power states. While the risk of conflict is still great, there is enormous opportunity if all sides can overcome their enmity and cooperate in several areas for the benefit of the region, 3 where one-third of the world’s extremely poor live in.  

Both India and Pakistan share the same glaciers that feed into their river systems. The glaciers are melting at an alarming rate and yet there is no attempt by the two to find solutions. Natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes that know no boundaries, need common approaches, yet the two operate in their own cocoons. The recent locust attack in South Asia was again tackled individually, when a joint action on the menace was a necessity. Shockingly, there is no attempt to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic together either. Surely, China and the U.S. can nudge India and Pakistan towards economic cooperation instead of an arms race. 

We can clearly see that the interests of China and the U.S. are causing friction in South Asia, which also sits beside some of the world’s biggest energy reservoirs in the Middle East and Central Asia. A better understanding between Pakistan and India will help reduce theatres of conflict, which can benefit the less privileged in South Asia. This growing conflict will ultimately be won through spheres of influence and economic partnerships, rather than the military power struggle that occurred between the Soviets and the United States. 

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