Indo-Pakistani Enmity & the Reorganization of Asia: Strategic Opportunities for China and India

By Soleine Leprince Ringuet
Cornell International Affairs Review
2008, Vol. 1 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

South Asia is not in itself the primary zone of interest of China. However, China has since long used the region’s dynamics to achieve some of its most important strategic goals. Moreover, since India wishes to establish “its rightful place in the emerging world order,” South Asia may soon gain in strategic importance. The region being dominated by the enmity between Pakistan and India, China must strategically choose its position on the conflict.

How does China use the Indo-Pakistani tensions to achieve its strategic goals? And how may India redefine its stances in the region to advance its own strategic agenda?

The Indo-Pakistani tensions represent an opportunity for China to increase its leverage on the region, because both Pakistan and India are very sensitive to the positioning of foreign powers. But new events- the end of the Cold war, the nuclear tests and the beginning of the war on terror - forced China to reassess both its strategic interests and its position on the India-Pakistan conflict. Several contemporary developments may lead China to adopt a stance more favorable to India. India itself is now “a swing state” that can choose among several options how to diminish the importance of the Pakistani factor and reorganize Asia.

Centrality of the Indo-Pakistani Enmity in Strategic Thought About South Asia

In this section we show how central Pakistan still is in India’s strategic thinking. Despite India’s wish to be a regional power, whoever wishes to deal with India must first adjust his stance on Pakistan.

Pakistan’s preeminence in India’s strategic thinking

Since its very creation in 1947, “India’s ambition to play a global role has been constrained by interstate rivalry within the subcontinent” (Nayar). India’s concern for Pakistan is itself a puzzle : Why does India feel encircled and threatened, when it is seven times more populous, five times larger, and has the second largest army in the world? The response is that Pakistan’s very identity is a threat to India’s integrity.

The Indo-Pakistani dispute is a left-over from decolonization: Under the partition plan of 1947, Kashmir was free to accede to India or Pakistan. Its prince Hari Singh finally decided to accede to India despite Kashmir’s Muslim majority. But Pakistan believes that its State will remain incomplete until the country -established as a homeland for Muslims – receives all Indian lands where Muslims are the majority. India refuses this claim, asserting that it is the very existence of Indian Muslims which preserves the secular nature of the Indian state.

From the time of its establishment, Pakistan’s worldview has been dominated by the perception that it faces an existential threat from its enormous neighbor (Gill). This perception pervades all aspect of Pakistan government’s policy, to the detriment of economic and social considerations. Hence Pakistan is now a land of poverty and of high social instability, characterized by an “unworkable unitary system of government, and the alienation of Pakistan’s rulers from their people” (Cohen). But Pakistan is an interesting partner for China strategically. Pakistan is located in the region where South Asia converges with the Middle East and Central Asia; its coastline along the Arabian Sea is about 650 miles long.

Obsessed by national security, Pakistan relies on external allies to bolster its own defenses through arms supplies and diplomatic support.

Will India’s new ambitions lead to peace?

Since 1998, India has shown increasing assertiveness on the Asian scene. India’s “globally activist diplomacy provides the impression of a country that [is] beginning to matter” (Limaye). India has the ambition to become a mighty regional player thanks to high rates of economic growth. But India must also learn to conduct its foreign policy as a major Asian power and not just as a South Asian state.

Consequently, India now considers that peace with Pakistan would enhance its standing in the international system (Nayar), a reason that can explain the inauguration of a peace process in 2004. However, since the Simla Agreement of 1972, New Delhi advocates for a purely bilateral resolution of the conflict. A bilateral resolution is highly unlikely, though, as both sides keep rigid positions, with Pakistan still asking for a plebiscite and India claiming the unacceptability of border change.

Other regional powers deal strategically with a zero-sum game

Even as India tries to assert itself in Asia, it is extremely sensitive to any move of a regional player towards Pakistan. One can model this situation as a zero sum- game, where any positive gain with Pakistan constitutes a loss in the country’s relationship to India.

Hence the strategic thinking of a regional actor towards India is inevitably linked to its strategic thinking towards Pakistan and vice versa: “the most consistent policy in both states for over fifty years has been to seek outside allies against each others” (Cohen). The conflict therefore enhances the opportunity for outside powers to intrude and exert leverage on the region. How has China dealt with this quasi zero-sum game to achieve its strategic goals? What were the main turning points that transformed its strategic thinking towards India and Pakistan?

Turning Points, New Strategic Goals and the Transformation of the Indo-Pakistani Sssue

In this section, we examine how the end of the Cold war, the nuclear tests and the war on terror were three major tuning points that changed the strategic goals of China and its stance on the Indo-Pakistani conflict.

The end of the Cold War changes the very nature of the conflict

During the Cold War, the Indo-Pakistani conflict was seen as part of the struggle between the East and the West. Pakistan was backed by the United States and China. Beijing saw its relationship to Pakistan as fulfilling a double mission, resisting the Soviet Union and creating a two-front threat to India (Deepak): The internecine feud with Pakistan pulled India down to the level of Pakistan to China’s benefit. Therefore after 1965, Beijing provided more military assistance to Pakistan than it has to any other state.

In response, India, first non-aligned, strategically moved closer to the Soviet Union, hoping to fall under the superpower’s protection. The Indo-Pakistani conflict was endemic to the Cold War.

But the end of the Cold War changed the very nature of the conflict. China’s strategic interest in Pakistan declined, as balancing Russia was no longer a priority. The ties between India and Russia also went through a steep decline because balancing China was no longer a Russian strategic goal. The Indo-Pakistani conflict temporally became a South Asian conflict.

The nuclear tests give the conflict a new scale and call for the reassessment of India

India’s nuclear testing in May 1998 was a highly strategic move to demonstrate India’s new assertiveness. Surprisingly, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee used the Chinese threat as a justification for the test, writing to Bill Clinton that “India had an ‘overt nuclear weapons’ state on its borders, which was materially helping another neighbor.” Why would India do so when its ties with China were improving? India used this strategic move to appear as capable of challenging China, finally looking out of South Asia. India was also hoping to find allies sensitive to this Chinese threat, such as the US and Japan.

The nuclear tests had a great impact on Chinese strategic thinking. Of course, China, wishing to stay the only legitimate nuclear weapon state in Asia, first accused India of seeking “hegemony in the South.” But China then became reluctant to support Pakistan, and defended India’s stance that the problem be dealt with bilaterally. Why this shift? First, the nuclear tests led China to the reassessment of India’s importance (Rajamony). China became increasingly concerned with normalizing its ties with India. Second, advocating “self-determination” could play against China’s own strategic interest concerning the South China Sea islands. Third, China moderated its stance on Kashmir because China desired to appear as “a peace-making moderate” in order to be coherent with its “peaceful rise” paradigm (Cohen).

The war on terror, an opportunity for new alliances with India and Pakistan

September 11 represented a third major shift in the strategic thinking of China and India. Strategically, Pakistan chose to cooperate with the US: “By aligning with the United States in the global war on Terror, Pakistan prevented itself from being viewed, and treated, as part of the terrorist problem”(Andersen). Pakistan, in consequence, greatly improved its international status.

But the US tried to avoid the previous zero-sum character of US policy towards India and Pakistan by establishing in 2004 a “strategic partnership” with India that would “expand cooperation” in civilian nuclear activities, high technology trade, missile defense, etc.- probably in the hope to balance China.

This new “global partnership” between India and the United States, and the strengthening of the Japan-India relations (the Eight-fold Initiative for Strengthening Japan-India Global Partnership in 2005) worried China. China acquired an observer status in the SAARC, partly in order to balance India. Does this mean that China will go back to siding openly with Pakistan in order to balance India? Probably not.

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