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There was an interesting article in Force magazine a fortnight ago regarding China’s role in the dynamics of the India-Pakistan rivalry. In a nutshell, it questions India’s policy of holding China responsible for Pakistan’s braggadocio but accepts the notion of a strategic triangle between the three countries, albeit with each side weighted differently. China, as the strongest power, occupies the apex of the triangle; its relations with India form the competitive leg while its ties to Pakistan constitute the cooperative leg.

The most rational action towards stability, the author suggests, is that Delhi focus its attention on Islamabad than Beijing – since China’s policies are governed by yet another strategic triangle with the United States and Russia, Indian strategy would be buffeted by these global winds rather than concentrated on its more immediate problems. If Delhi would mirror with Islamabad, Beijing would feel less anxious in its own relations with the former and perhaps persuade its client to reciprocate to Indian overtures.

The implication is that China does not regard India as a threat and the latter’s aggressive military buildup is converting a dyad between itself and Pakistan into a more complex triangle as China is forced to take steps to neutralise the larger South Asian country. The addition of China into the equation, though an improvement upon the traditional US understanding of the South Asian calculus as an India-Pakistan rivalry, nonetheless falls short of comprehending the dynamic between India and China.

The South Asian rivalry is better understood as a set of forced dyads – while India sees itself as a rival to China for regional leadership and international influence, Beijing has measured itself alongside superpowers; similarly, Pakistan’s rivalry with India is noticed in Delhi only for its use of asymmetric warfare from behind a nuclear shield. Thus, India has sought to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan while China has tried to manage South Asia from the sidelines.

Pakistan initially sought to balance India with US help; it ingratiated itself into the US-supported CENTO and SEATO pacts, but was soon disillusioned by Washington’s attempts to take an even-handed approach in South Asia. India was clearly the grand prize for the United States, even if Delhi spouted some half-baked idealism. As relations between India and China worsened over the late 1950s, Islamabad tried to court Beijing, particularly after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Beijing’s threat to open a second front during the Second India-Pakistan War in 1965 alarmed Delhi, and preparations were made well in advance of hostilities in 1971 to negate Pakistan’s China card.

Ever since India’s wake-up call, the Sino-Indian War of 1962, Delhi’s defence spending and military priorities have been closely tied to its northeastern neighbour’s movements more than its western one. It is interesting to note, for example how many discussions of nuclear weapons in the Lok Sabha between 1960 and 1974 were carried out in the context of China (~all) and how few with respect to Pakistan (~none). Of course, steps had to be taken to keep Pakistan at bay, particularly after India’s own nuclear test in 1974. Yet be it deep strike aircraft or long-range missiles, “Enemy No. 1,” to use former defence minister George Fernandes’ words, was China.

The same anxiety was not evidenced from the other side of the Himalayas probably because of the rapid receding of India as a military threat – China’s first nuclear test in 1964 was followed quickly by its successful test of a thermonuclear device in 1967 and its first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1971. By the late 1980s, China’s economy was also soaring. To compare, the operationalisation of India’s nuclear deterrent took over two decades and the Agni V is yet to be inducted, not to mention the myriad other problems India’s armed forces have been experiencing. India’s economy not only embraced the market ten years later but also does not have the benefit of unified command. Furthermore, with China’s diplomatic heft as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it can hinder India’s smooth rise even short of military force. Thus, it was sufficient for Beijing to distract India via Pakistan than divest effort from its own strategic triangle.

As for Pakistan, it has relied on terrorism since the late 1980s and post-1998, its nuclear arsenal to gain India’s attention. India’s bitterness at the otherwise shrill non-proliferation lobby’s silence on Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme thirty years ago and the United States’ deliberate ignorance of the issue may clouds its assessment of the potential for good relations with its neighbours. Thus, whether China still assists Pakistan with its nuclear weapons is of less salience to India than its concern that Pakistan can get away with relatively little punishment for violating non-proliferation norms as it did in the aftermath of the AQ Khan case.

Pakistan has its own agenda against India, but it has also played a vital role in China’s strategy. It has been said in jest that Pakistan is a military with a state, but there is some truth to this; the Pakistani state’s raison d’etre has been a strident anti-India position than anything else. Beyond that, Pakistani nationalism was more a hope than a motivating force. Little wonder then, that the military which has ruled the country for most of its existence, finds it difficult to negotiate with India on issues that contribute to their identity, like Kashmir.

With the United States’ renewed interest in Asia, Washington has sought to prop up India as a counterweight to China’s rising influence. While India has so far been the blushing bride, if the country’s foreign relations become more assertive as many hawks wish to see, China may indeed start to take India seriously for the first time in half a century. This would only result in entrenched support to Pakistan from China. India will not accept Chinese domination of Asia, and as its own power rises, will push its two rivals closer to each other.

It is difficult to picture Pakistan as the driver of Indian policy; the Islamic republic does not pose an existential threat to India as China could. However, the new rivalry of the 21st century will certainly feature India, either as a challenger to the Chinese story or as an irritant as China tries to catch up with the United States. Delhi’s world has rarely revolved around Islamabad, and it would be a grave misunderstanding if Washington thought so.


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on August 24, 2013.

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