Pakistan’s Geopolitical Interests In An Age Of Great Power Rivalry

Pakistan’s Geopolitical Interests In An Age Of Great Power Rivalry
Both US and Pakistani diplomats have made statements to the effect that Pakistan won’t be forced to take sides in a US-China confrontation that seems to be edging closer and closer to the inevitable. While the great power rivalry garners quite a bit of attention, it is not directly related to Pakistan’s geopolitical conundrum.

We will not be put in the quandary of taking sides between Washington and Beijing. As far as we are concerned, Sino-Indian political and military tensions are more relevant to the geostrategic situation we face in the region. The central question for Pakistan’s foreign policy is facing is how we will respond to a situation where political and military tensions between the two Asian giants will rise to alarming levels.

China and the United States are not in geographical proximity, and any possible conflict between the two would likely arise in East Asia—a far off region as far as Pakistan is concerned. Conflict between India and China, on the other hand, will likely take place in the geographical proximity of Pakistan’s territory. India and China are both militarizing their international borders, forcing the Indian military, according to reports in the international media and by American think-tanks, to rebalance its troops away from the border with Pakistan. This could be very tempting in purely military terms.

The central question for Pakistan’s foreign policy is how we will respond to a situation where political and military tensions between the two Asian giants will rise to alarming levels.

Pakistan has close and deep political and military relations with China. Since a frigid chill has crept into Pakistan’s security relations with the United States and its western allies after the May 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan has gradually turned toward China for its military hardware needs. There are clear indications that the Pakistan government and military are now strategically and militarily more closely allied with China.

Indian foreign policy, on the other hand, clearly indicates that it's moving into the western orbit and is in the process of using its military muscle to attract the smaller nations of Southeast Asia towards some kind of military or political alliance. Experts say that India’s strategic elite seems to have overcome its initial reluctance to militarily counter Chinese influence in South East and South Asia. It is exporting its indigenously built military technology to Southeast Asian countries which see China as a threat, thus showing its readiness to play to the tune of Washington and other western capitals.

American experts have recently put forward a concept of “integrated deterrence” to rope in New Delhi to take responsibility to counter China’s assertiveness in the regions in India’s vicinity. The resulting military and political situation in our region could be severely destabilizing for all of South Asia, but especially so for Pakistan.

What are the options? Can Pakistan choose to remain a bystander in a possible military confrontation or conflict? Since China has been augmenting Pakistani military capabilities significantly since 2011, will a neutral Pakistan live up to its closest ally’s expectations, especially in an environment in which India will be actively and militarily deterring China?

The December 2022 clash between Chinese and Indian troops along the two countries’ 2,100-mile-long contested border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is considered the worst during the last two years of China-India relations. The Americans assisted India with valuable intelligence information related to Chinese military movements and offered state of art military technology to New Delhi. American strategists consider India to be a valuable partner in its superpower rivalry with China, and they have been trying to rope it into its international alliance system like the Quad. Border tensions between China and India are not settled and experts point out that the tensions could escalate into a conflict.

So far, the military confrontation between two Asian giants has not devolved into an all-out war, and has remained restricted to local skirmishes. Increased military activity on Line of Actual Control has remained a constant feature of the tense relations between the two countries since. The Pakistani military has responded sensibly to rising tensions on the China-India border by not making any military maneuver of its own.

It is evidently clear that China-US tensions or the possibility of a confrontation is not something that immediately concerns us. However, the same cannot be said about the China-India confrontation, as it will have direct security and military implications for Pakistan which it will not be able to ignore. It is clear that whether any future military crisis in the region would remain a bilateral crisis between China and India or would it become trilateral crisis involving Pakistan will ultimately depend on how Pakistan responds to any future military tensions and how India conducts itself vis-à-vis tempting Western offers of co-option. It will also depend on whether India will embrace the concept of “integrated deterrence.”

The Pakistani economy has taken a pretty heavy hit by the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, a far-off land. How are we going to cope with a conflict in our geographical proximity, or a trilateral crisis in the region?

It goes without saying that a trilateral crisis, if one were to ever arise, will make life very difficult for South Asia. Pakistan’s military planners, foreign policy establishment and those in the business of running the day to day affairs of governance will have to take into account the danger of further nuclear proliferation or vertical proliferation in our region. There are reports that China is in the process of upgrading its inventory of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in response to American upgrades.

What will happen if India responds to this by upgrading its own nuclear inventory? Or by way of buying more systems for reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance? Does Pakistan have the financial wherewithal to enter into a regional trilateral arms race? There are reports that Indians are already in the process of acquiring modern systems for reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance. India is also in the midst of integrating advanced US weapon systems into its military. How will Pakistan intend to respond in the time of financial meltdown?

The economic impact of military tensions in a trilateral crisis should be front and center in our attention. The last major full blown military confrontation between Pakistan-India was so expensive for Pakistan that, according to some Pakistani experts, military planners in Pakistan decided to induct tactical nukes into our war fighting plans. We should start pondering how expensive a trilateral crisis is going to be. The Pakistani economy is passing through a severe crisis, and there is no chance that economic activity will pick up in the country anytime soon. Some people argue that the campaign in India to boycott Chinese goods will appear as an opportunity for Pakistan to increase trade volume between the two countries, which will likely have a meagre impact relative to the cost of a military confrontation in the region. The Pakistani economy has taken a pretty heavy hit by the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, a far-off land. How are we going to cope with a conflict in our geographical proximity, or a trilateral crisis in the region?

Military mobilization also carries its own pains; we are still facing the threat of a prolonged battle with indigenous militant groups in the north west and south west of the country. Part of our military is deployed in areas afflicted with active insurgencies. A military mobilization to counter the Indian threat will prove devastating for our economy and our political system.

The Pakistani state is too preoccupied with its political problems and the ongoing domestic economic meltdown to seriously ponder over these strategic dangers lurking just around the corner. The Pakistan military leadership has demonstrated some sensitivity towards the possibility of such danger arising in our geographical vicinity, when it tried to reach out to Washington in the midst of a deep and intense strategic embrace with China, sometime in the middle of last year. But even this will be futile.

The Americans themselves are flirting with the idea of using military tools in our region to counter an ever more assertive China. There are voices in India that are advocating saying no to a military confrontation with China - they argue that India will be left alone to feel the heat in the time of crisis as Washington is not a reliable military ally. Even banking on this strategic calculation is not a viable option for Pakistan: India’s domestic politics is in the tight grip of Hindu extremist forces who want to thrive in the impending age of confrontation, tensions and conflict and will not hesitate in resorting to jingoism.

Diplomacy for peace will, nevertheless, serve Pakistan’s interests best.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.