The latest map row raised by Islamabad apart, the China-Pakistan alliance is, indeed, becoming a new diplomatic challenge for New Delhi. India, which has shown a tough resolve at the LAC against China, must align strongly with countries like the United States, Japan and the ASEAN nations to neutralise Chinese dominance in the region. Also India must keep a watch on Russia, which is now starting to play the “Great Game”, with the United States’ shrinking role in South Asia after its Afghanistan exit, says Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert and Deputy Director of Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. Excerpts:
Q: China and Pakistan have started working in the open against India? What is the message for New Delhi in this?
A: One of the most immediate manifestations we can expect to see is Pakistan and China expediting plans to develop China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in disputed areas claimed by India. Already, in recent weeks, there have been announcements of new CPEC investments in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The idea here is to push back against recent messaging in New Delhi about one day taking back these contested areas controlled by Pakistan, but also to telegraph more broadly that Islamabad and Beijing are actively partnering to undermine New Delhi in India’s broader backyard.
Q: How deep is China’s dependence on Pakistan and vice-versa when it comes to countering India’s growing stature and influence in the new global dynamics?
A: The China-Pakistan relationship has always been rather unequal, with Islamabad heavily dependent on Beijing’s largesse—which is not always as forthcoming as Pakistan would like. Pakistan’s dependence on China has only grown in recent months, given an economic crisis that makes Beijing’s financial assistance all the more important and given a period of geopolitical flux as the Kashmir issue has caused problems for some of Pakistan’s key partnerships, most specifically with the Saudis.
Q: Is a strong Pakistan-China alliance more because of growing India-US strong relationship? To what extent do the two countries feel threatened?
A: The Pakistan-China alliance is above all about a shared concern about India, but a growing US-India relationship certainly brings them closer together—and in fact this may have been one of the motivations for China’s provocations in Ladakh in recent months. There are other factors bringing the two closer together—India’s Article 370 repeal, the sense of both countries that they are under siege in a world that is conspiring against them, and the strategic imperative for both countries of CPEC.
Q: What more China can do with Pakistan in defence and security areas to disturb India?
A: I think the main ways that the two can inflict damage is through economics and diplomacy. China and Pakistan can build more infrastructure projects in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir to push back against India’s claims. And they can exploit India’s troubles in its neighborhood by trying to ramp up relations with countries at odds with New Delhi. We’re already seeing this happen with Bangladesh, and Nepal may be next.
Q: Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea are already battle ready. The LAC is still simmering. Your thoughts?
A: Asia is one big powder keg right now. Longstanding flashpoints, such as the South China Sea and Line of Control, are heating up, while new flashpoints, such as the LAC, are coming to the fore. These growing volatilities will amplify, for the United States, the importance of implementing its Indo-Pacific policy to ensure it has significant influence in the region and close ties with its traditional friends. Though in all reality, I doubt we’ll see much forward movement on the Indo-Pacific policy from the Trump administration as it heads into the final intense stretch before the November election.
Q: Is Asia on the boil? What is for India to do in current scenario?
A: Asia is certainly on the boil. At such a volatile moment, it’s important for New Delhi to scale up its relationships with existing friends—especially America and Japan—while doing what it can to strengthen cooperation with newer friends like Vietnam. For India, the key is to build trust and cooperation with countries of the Indo-Pacific that, much like New Delhi, worry about China’s growing power—and this would be most countries that fit into this category. Still, given the extent of China’s influence and footprint in the region, it won’t be easy for India to overcome the dragon’s clout.
Q: Does the US still have more to contain Pakistan to help India?
A: India and the US have both formally and publicly opposed BRI, so any additional progress with CPEC will be sure not to go down well. But Washington isn’t about to push back too hard against Islamabad, given the important role it sees Pakistan playing in Afghanistan as formal peace talks approach. In other words, the US doesn’t want to rock the boat right now, at such a delicate moment for its relationship with Pakistan.
Q: How will Russia play in this entire Great Game?
A: Moscow is a very big part of this story. It remains a key security partner for India, on the one hand. But on the other hand, the Russians have been ramping up their relations with Islamabad—mainly through their cooperation on the Afghan peace process, but there is also potential for cooperation on energy issues. It’s quite significant that one of India’s oldest partners is now reaching out to New Delhi’s bitter enemy. For Russia, its broader game in the region is all about building influence to complement the efforts of its Chinese friend, and taking advantage of a receding US role in South Asia (thanks to its imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan) and an uncertain US role in East Asia. Moscow senses an opportunity in Washington’s unsettled and unclear role in Asia, and it’s determined to seize it.