Opinion World

Troubled Times in South Asia

The USA has taken a back seat. China is getting active. Pakistan has strong allies. South Asia just became a lot more challenging for India.

The region of Southern Asia is poised for a series of great power realignments. These realignments will have dramatic implications for the nature, evolution and stability of the regional sub-system. Some of these system-shaping changes are already visible, as are their implications. There are four identifiable factors that have contributed to the remaking of the regional geopolitical landscape: American geopolitical reluctance; the rise of an aggressive and ambitious China; the emergence of the Chinese geopolitical bandwagon, and; the (re)balancing strategies in the region.

American Geopolitical Reluctance

The apparent American geopolitical half-measures are significantly contributing to the shifting regional dynamics. US policies towards the region under the Trump administration have not been sure-footed and determined, nor are they consistent and clear. Washington’s policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan since the arrival of Mr. Trump in the helm of affairs in the White house is a typical example. Even though the new administration was keen on reducing American commitment in Afghanistan, it eventually, and reluctantly, decided to stay on. Its policies towards Pakistan have been even more confusing. From blaming Pakistan for its troubles in Afghanistan to praising its efforts to eventually reducing its military aid to Islamabad, Washington’s Pakistan policy has come full circle. Trump’s China policy has also lacked clarity. Its deal-breaking tendencies, especially in the context of the Iranian nuclear deal, have further diminished American influence in the region.

The Rise of China

The second factor that has contributed to the regional realignments in Southern Asia is the rise of China. For the Chinese, American geopolitical reluctance couldn’t have at a better time.  There is a new-found Chinese strategic resoluteness, and its growing economic and military strength is backed by strong political will. Beijing has emerged as the undisputed hegemon of the region, leaving India far behind. China’s GDP is four times larger than India and its defense spending three times more than that of India. Not only is China’s naval foray into the Indian Ocean worrying for New Delhi, its entry into India’s traditional sphere of influence has been ringing alarm bells in New Delhi.

Almost every country in the region is a participant in the China-sponsored Belt and Road (BRI) megaproject. Beijing has also been concluding free trade agreements with the countries in the region: China-Pakistan FTA has been concluded, China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was recently concluded, exploratory talks are underway for the China-Sri Lanka FTA, and a feasibility study has been proposed for the China-Bangladesh FTA.

That there is a great deal of support for the Chinese regional initiatives, most significantly BRI, in the region shouldn’t surprise us. For one of the world’s least inter-linked region, Chinese promises of connectivity and infrastructure development are exactly what the small and poor countries of the region have always wanted. The jury is still out on whether Beijing would be able to fulfill its promises, and at what cost.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s not only Washington’s geopolitical space that Beijing is keen on encroaching into, but also the former’s role of an arbiter in the various regional conflicts. While New Delhi and the US refused to get involved between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue, Beijing took the opportunity by trying to negotiate a deal between them. China is today closely involved in the Afghan peace process. If this trend continues, Beijing will play a major role in the regional conflict resolution processes in the years to come.

Regional balancing games

China and India-Pakistan relations

Today, the Sino-Pak alliance is a major force to reckon with, stronger than ever. For Islamabad, again, the timing has been perfect: The troublesome US is on the back foot, China is an all-weather friend who is now promising to transform the Pakistani economy, Russia is becoming friendlier by the day, and the Taliban is on a winning spree in Afghanistan. The international community may have issues with Pakistan, but there is no global policeman to read the riot act to Pakistan. With a lot going in its favour, Pakistan knows that Kabul can be dealt with eventually.

In short then, in this larger geopolitical context, it seems Advantage Pakistan. One direct implication is the shrinking ability of the US and India to contain Pakistan, with China and perhaps even Russia potentially offsetting it. Moreover, the question of terror will be put on the backburner.

Moscow’s dependence on Beijing

From one-time rivals, there is a robust economic and strategic relationship between Beijing and Moscow today. China is Russia’s largest trading partner. Russia is the largest crude oil exporter to China, and the flow of Chinese FDI into cash-strapped Russia is on the rise. The closer Moscow gets to Beijing, the more the distance between New Delhi and Moscow is bound to increase. 

Cooling off of Indo-Russian relations

India-Russia relations are moving towards a state of ‘indifference’, not because there is any bad blood between the two countries but because they are not as invested in each other as they used to be. None of the two countries have any major stakes in the other. Today, India-Russia trade is just around 3% of India’s total trade (which is far less than Sino-Indian trade). More importantly, Russia once used to be India’s biggest arms supplier, earning a great deal of foreign exchange, but not any more. In 2014, the United States surpassed Russia to become India’s biggest arms supplier. In the same year, defense cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad began. While Russian arms going to Pakistan will worry New Delhi, there is nothing either side can do to change it.

Russia has not just been selling weapons to Pakistan and holding military exercises with it. It is also keen on the American exit from Afghanistan, and has been reaching out to the Taliban, which indirectly helps Pakistani interests. While New Delhi considers Taliban to be a threat to the region, for Russia ISIS is the main concern, and Taliban is someone one should talk to. In short, the two counties will eventually lose interest in each other due to structural factors.

Implications for the region

These developments have serious implications for regional stability. For one, we should expect a great deal more conflict in the region than cooperation. The increasing trust-deficit and the ongoing hard balancing and counterbalancing will ensure that hard-nosed realist statecraft will trump diplomacy, conflict resolution and cooperation. Secondly, we should also expect terrorism to spike in the region. Afghanistan will see a lot more violence thanks to the unveiling new strategies of many interested parties there. What if the Taliban manage to wrest many more rebel-held provinces from Kabul? Would Pakistan be more radicalized in the years to come? If JUD chief Hafiz Saeed manages to contest elections in Pakistan later this year, we must expect some unsavoury socio-political churning there.

This will also have grave consequences for India. An emboldened Pakistan and the absence of an Indo-Pak dialogue could potentially mean a sharp rise in terrorist infiltration in 2018, a restive LoC, and a ‘hot’ summer in Kashmir. Given that the BJP-government’s dialogue with the Kashmiris has not progressed much and the infiltration of terrorists are not declining, the Kashmir uprising might come back to haunt New Delhi in a few months’ time. Could an active insurgency in Kashmir and the spiking of ceasefire violations on the line of control escalate India Pakistan tensions further?

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About the author

Happymon Jacob

Happymon Jacob is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Prior to joining JNU in 2008, Dr Jacob held teaching positions at the University of Jammu in J&K and the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, and research positions at the Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi Policy Group and Observer Research Foundation, all based in New Delhi. Jacob is a regular op-ed Contributor to The Hindu, India’s leading English language daily.