Fears of Sino-Indian war worry West as India-Pak issue takes a back seat

Until recently, U.S. officials handling South Asia policy had focused the bulk of their conflict management resources on preparing for a potential India-Pakistan conflict, says a study. However, they are shifting their attention to the growing potential for an India-China military crisis, writes Riyaz Wani

The increasing frequency of India-China border intrusions and clashes have forced the US to shift its attention away from India-Pakistan tension to the growing potential for an India-China conflict, Center for a New American Security has said in its latest report. 

“Until recently, U.S. officials handling South Asia policy have focused the bulk of their conflict management resources and planning on preparing for a potential India-Pakistan conflict,” the report authored by senior security experts Lisa Curtis and Derek Grossman says. “However, they are shifting their attention to the growing potential for an India-China military crisis and will benefit from additional resources as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy to address the China challenge more broadly.”

What is more, the report recommends that the US should ask Pakistan to stay neutral in the event of a China-India conflict. 

“Message Pakistan—and enlist help from Pakistan’s other important partners to convey similar points— about the need to stay neutral in the event of a potential future India-China border flare-up,” the report says. 

It also urges the US to offer India the sophisticated military technology it requires to defend its borders and initiate co-production and co-development of military equipment in addition to assisting India in strengthening its maritime and naval capacity.

The report also advocates joint intelligence reviews with India to align assessments of Chinese plans and intentions along the LAC and enhance coordination with Indian officials “on contingency planning in the event of a future India- China conflict.”

Though the report acknowledges that Beijing’s initial motivation for launching the Galwan Valley attacks remains unclear, as does its long-term strategy for the region, it indicates that China is doing this to contain India. 

“Indian officials believe China is trying to contain India by forcing it to divert more resources into defending simultaneously both its western border with Pakistan and eastern flank with China and by weakening its willingness and ability to challenge Chinese ambitions to dominate the region,” the report explains. “Developments along the LAC in 2020 brought clarity to India’s strategic approach toward China, meaning India’s views of the China challenge are starting to converge with those of the United States.”

USIP report

In another report published by the United States Institute of Peace, its author Sameer Lalwani underlines the deepening China-Pakistan military relationship. 

“Geopolitical shifts in South Asia over the past decade, driven by sharper US-China competition, a precipitous decline in China-India relations, and the 2021 withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, have pushed the Chinese and Pakistani militaries closer together,” Lalwani says in the report. “The countries’ armies and navies are increasingly sharing equipment, engaging in more sophisticated joint exercises, and interacting more closely through staff and officer exchanges”.

However, despite this closeness, the report calls China-Pakistan only a “threshold alliance.” 

“Full China-Pakistan alliance is not inevitable, as Chinese missteps and other sources of friction could slow its consummation,” the report concludes. 

However, the report sketches in detail the growing cooperation between China and Pakistan, which “quantitatively and qualitatively rivals its (China’s) military partnership with Russia.”  

“China and Pakistan have accelerated the tempo of joint military exercises, which are growing in complexity and interoperability. Increasingly compatible arms supply chains and networked communications systems could allow the countries to aggregate their defense capabilities,” Lalwani explains, adding that the prospects for China projecting military power over the Indian Ocean from Pakistan’s Western coast are growing. 

“Chinese basing has meaningful support within Pakistan’s strategic circles. The material and political obstacles to upgrading naval access into wartime contingency basing appear to be surmountable and diminishing over time,” he adds.

Going forward, Lalwani sees a prospect for China to leverage its relationship with Pakistan in future great power competition and lays out “what US leaders can do to seek strategic clarity with Pakistan while helping it to maintain independence in its foreign policy.”

How this would pan out in the near to long term future is not clear yet. But Lalwani sees the intensifying great power rivalry creating a dilemma for the Asian countries, including Pakistan, who could be forced to choose sides. The consequences for Pakistan could be profound should it allow China to set up  naval bases on Pakistan’s shores which, in turn, will have major implications for regional security. 

But short of a formal alliance, China-Pakistan military relationship has grown closer with time. Lalwan estimates that by 2030,  50 percent of Pakistan’s major military platforms from each military services will originate from China. 

“They’re (Pakistan) all especially dependent on China for combat strike capabilities such as tanks, fighter jets, or combat ships (like frigates) with missile cells,” Lalwani posted on microblogging site Twitter. 

“In the past five years of data (2017-21), it seems China conducted more exercises with the Pakistan military than with the Russian military,” he wrote further adding that the quality of China-Pakistan military exercises is “arguably quite advanced.” .

Two alliances

Between them, the two alliances—India-US and China-Pakistan—could profoundly impact the course of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan, however, is maintaining an uneasy balance in its relationships with the US and China. India too is chary of a formal alliance with the US. The country is a member of both the US-led QUAD and China-led SCO groupings. 

During the ongoing Ukraine crisis, New Delhi has done a tight balancing act, playing to the west’s concerns and at the same time maintaining its longstanding relations with Russia, a close China ally.  The West has found it difficult to countenance this assertion on the part of India but has played along  as New Delhi is critical to its policy of containment of China. 

So, the situation, as of now, is very complicated. Both India and Pakistan are hedging their geopolitical  bets. But with the world almost barreling into a fresh cold war, this time  between the US and China, it is likely to become increasingly difficult for the other countries to stay neutral – especially the smaller and weaker countries such as Pakistan. 

Ukraine war has further queered the geopolitical pitch, and one of its most visible fallouts is being registered across Asia: The US seems to have doubled down on its efforts to contain China by recalibrating its policy in South Asia. While the tilt towards India remains very much in place, the US has restored a degree of its old warmth in its relations with Pakistan, ostensibly to halt Islamabad’s drift towards the China-Russia axis. 

Basically, with the Ukraine war on, geopolitics is in a state of flux. One thing is for sure: The war’s end and its outcome is certain to alter the world fundamentally. And possibly South Asia too.