SOME years ago, when asked about China’s relaxed response to India’s security challenge, a senior Chinese diplomat observed that “when the wolf [the US] is at the front door, [China] cannot worry about the fox [India] at the back door”. Now, that the wolf and the fox have agreed to join forces to counter China’s rise, Beijing will no doubt be less sanguine in its response.
For over a decade, the US has sought to use India to counter and contain a rising China and to exploit the trade and investment opportunities offered by India’s large and growing economy.
So far, India has been happy to receive the American largesse — defence and civil nuclear cooperation, advanced weapons and technology, support for its nuclear and regional ambitions, including permanent membership of the Security Council — without openly committing itself to counter China or compromising its traditional relationships with Russia, Iran and major non-aligned countries.
However, as signalled during US President Obama’s recent visit to India, under Modi, India is no longer reluctant to align itself with the US against China. Beyond the almost cartoonish fanfare and the ritualistic rhetoric about the “oldest” and the “largest” democracies, the visit witnessed substantive movement towards a strategic alliance between the two countries. India is now America’s largest arms customer; has access to the most advanced weapons and technology; will be able to acquire US nuclear reactors; while US companies are provided official incentives by the administration to invest in India.
Most importantly, it appears that Modi has fully bought into the US desire for joint action to contain China. India agreed to the US formulation in the joint communiqué affirming “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. To the delight of his American guests, Modi proposed the revival of military coordination between the US, Japan, Australia and India, the so-called Quadrilateral Initiative, which was launched in 2007 but shelved due to China’s strong objections.
Thanks to the US ‘strategic umbrella’, India has adopted a more robust posture towards China.
Apart from responding sharply to the South China Sea reference in the joint communiqué and throwing cold water on India’s proposed membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, China’s reaction to the Obama visit has been disingenuously dismissive. A Xinhua commentary opined that the Indo-US rapprochement was “superficial” and that the differences between them — on trade and climate change — could not be overcome in three days. But these differences are secondary to the reported shift in India’s strategic mindset, gleefully revealed by US officials.
While professing that they do not wish to confront or contain China, the US and India have already made several moves to do so.
The US is busy in building alliances around China’s periphery. Apart from activating military collaboration with Japan, Australia and India, the US has revived its military relationship with the Philippines; supported Vietnamese defiance of China; prised away Myanmar from China. And it has exerted pressure on Pakistan to normalise ties with India on India’s terms.
Encouraged by the US ‘strategic umbrella’, India has adopted a more robust posture towards China. Modi publicly embarrassed President Xi Jinping by raising a border incident at a joint news conference during the Chinese president’s visit to India last year. India has worked vigorously to exclude China’s influence in South Asia. Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh is a virtual Indian puppet.
Nepal’s opening to China was blocked by India’s covert intervention and threats of trade and economic restrictions. The nationalist Rajapaksa, who ruthlessly put down the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, was defeated in recent elections in part due to Indian and Western support for his rival. And, not least, India has reportedly supported terrorism by the TTP (which, incidentally, is associated with the anti-China ETIM) and the Balochistan Liberation Army to destabilise Pakistan from Afghanistan while that country had the presence of nearly 100,000 US troops.
It is safe to assume that China will respond, cautiously but concretely, to the Indo-US strategic partnership. Beijing’s best weapons are its huge trade and economic relationships with its Asian neighbours and even those aligned against it, including India, Japan, Australia and the US itself. Containing China will entail an economic cost.
China will further reinforce its ties — economic, military and diplomatic — with a Russia now locked in open confrontation with the West. It will intensify its strategic cooperation with Pakistan, Iran and others which distance themselves from the American alliance. And China will secure concessions when its cooperation is required to address global challenges such as climate change, financial stability, etc.
Pakistan too is required to review its strategic circumstances. It cannot afford hostility with the US. While resisting US pressure to make unilateral concessions to India, or accept discriminatory treatment, Islamabad can cooperate with Washington to eliminate terrorism, advance Afghan stability, and expand trade and investment. Yet, Islamabad must not be drawn into any scheme that is aimed at containing or neutralising the rise of China.
Pakistan should exploit emerging strategic opportunities. One of these is to build close ties with Russia in defence and other strategic sectors.
With America’s eventual total exit from Afghanistan virtually certain, Pakistan can promote long-term stability on its western borders by building a security consensus with China, Russia and Iran to preserve peace and stability in Afghanistan and exclude an Indian role there detrimental to Pakistan’s security and stability. Closer relations with Central Asia could be built in tandem.
Most importantly, Pakistan should intensify its cooperation with China, the strategic lynchpin of its foreign and security policy. China is well placed to ensure the development of Pakistan’s capabilities for conventional and nuclear deterrence against India. The implementation of the China-Pakistan economic corridor and conscious expansion of bilateral trade and investment should be accorded the highest priority. Dynamic economic growth will strengthen Pakistan’s ability to resist Indian domination and Western diktat.
While Sino-Pakistan relations are time tested, Indo-US relations are still young and fragile. The wolf and the fox, both predators, may well discover that they cannot trust each other.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn February 1st, 2015