America Should Not Cheer on an India-China Fight

Soldiers drive Pakistan's Al Khalid tanks during Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Playing geopolitics in South and Central Asia can have disastrous consequences for U.S. national security.

Tensions have been building on the Himalayan frontier that separates China and India, even as a new round of political instability roils Pakistan. A recent skirmish in Kashmir, moreover, raises the stark possibility of a South Asian conflagration that involves not just two nuclear powers, but actually three (or even four). Some strategists in Washington are gleeful that Beijing confronts yet another brushfire on its flank—the more so to dissipate the energies of the resurgent Middle Kingdom. Indeed, it has long been fashionable in Washington to advocate for stirring up trouble on China’s unruly western borders in order to contain any ambitions that China might have on its eastern or maritime flank. However, such viewpoints are appallingly short sighted.

We have learned before, perhaps more than once, that playing geopolitics in South and Central Asia can have disastrous consequences for U.S. national security. Advocates for the ever deepening U.S.-Indian strategic partnership have long been in ascendance in the Pentagon. The recent Malabar exercise has become a potent symbol of New Delhi’s prominent role alongside Tokyo and Washington as the “Three Musketeers” that will keep the fire-breathing Chinese dragon in check. Not surprisingly, Chinese commentators interpreted the Malabar exercise, yet again, as aimed squarely at Beijing. Meanwhile, the new trend in Washington is increasingly to blame Pakistan for all woes in Afghanistan. Increasingly, it looks as if South Asia will be subsumed into the larger superpower struggle—a rather familiar and dreadful scenario from the Cold War. Such an outcome is hardly good for South Asians. Nor does it accord with U.S. national interest either.

Rather than opposing the spread of Chinese influence in South Asia at every turn, Washington and New Delhi should instead objectively study the details of China-Pakistan engagement and consider how these ties, for the most part, actually benefit global security. This is not the first time that this Dragon Eye column has considered the unfolding strategic situation in the Indian Ocean, but this edition uses a cover spring 2017 story from the influential Chinese magazine Caijing [财经/Finance and Economics] about the mystery port of Gwadar [瓜达尔港] that China has been building on Pakistan’s coast near the Strait of Hormuz to elucidate a fresh perspective.

The Caijing story does not sugar coat the current situation related to developing the port of Gwadar. The challenges are readily admitted in the subtitle, which states that a project with the “hidden potential to transform the Eurasian continent’s energy and trade landscape” [改变欧亚大陆能源和贸易格局的潜力] will require China to “cut through the brambles.” [斩棘] All kinds of difficulties are discussed in the piece, from the problem of electricity and fresh water shortages to the issue of illiteracy that is said to reach as high as 75 percent of the local population. Pessimists, the article notes, are doubtful that Beijing can show a return for all of its investments in the port and the whole concept of the China-Pakistan economic corridor is described as “facing a test.”

Pakistan’s internal fissures are said to hold the project “by the elbows.” [掣肘] “The overall deterioration of the security situation strikes a blow against investor confidence.” Indeed, it is observed that China is building its port in the most unstable part of Pakistan, the restive province of Baluchistan [俾路克斯坦省]. To boot, the port is located very near to Iran—not exactly a darling of global investors—and is dependent on Iranian energy supplies. The article relates how the shock of a May 2004 terrorist attack against Chinese workers that killed three has not been forgotten, so that an outburst of further violence in Baluchistan in April 2015 has again rattled Chinese confidence. According to the Caijing article, Pakistan has committed to deploying 15,000 soldiers to protecting the China-Pakistan economic corridor. But the author of this assessment also laments that having armed guards everywhere also may not make investors feel completely comfortable either.