In a geostrategic scenario, India would want a sustained U.S. presence in the continent and actively perform its role of a net-security provider in Asia. Particularly, India would want the United States to act as an offshore balancer to an assertive China in the region. Even though there was a perpetual “thaw” in Sino-Indian relations, the Chinese incursions in Doklam Plateau earlier this year have raised alarm bells in New Delhi. In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), too, Beijing has been trying to move into what New Delhi has traditionally seen as its own backyard. Through the “Maritime Silk Route” initiative, China has been trying to reach out to countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, right in India’s immediate neighborhood. To escape this geopolitical siege and loss of leverage in the region, India requires American help for maintaining the balance of power in South Asia.
A Possible Place for Pakistan?
Till this point, the basic premise of this essay has been to reinforce the mutual utility of an Indo-U.S. partnership. However, in such a scenario, where does Pakistan figure in America’s foreign-policy imaginations? Even during the Cold War, the United States never prepared for a policy for Pakistan in isolation from India. Only when the stakes for backing Pakistan rose enormously, would the United States antagonize India. The highpoint for Pakistan in this triangular dynamic came during the years of Johnson and Nixon presidency when Pakistan was the intermediary in the arrangement of the opening to China and the publicly stated pro-Pakistan “tilt” by United States during the 1971 war with India. Now with the transformation of American foreign policy towards South Asia, the triangle seems to be working the other way, with India and the United States cooperating against Pakistan. The more the United States integrates with India, the less relevant Pakistan will be in American foreign policy. Under Indian pressure, the United States might rescind Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status or, at worst, designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. This will invariably push Pakistan closer to China, which would mean bad news for both the United States and India. For the United States, Chinese gain is America’s loss. Pakistan is still a reasonable actor in the region. From its role in Afghanistan to the balance of power it brings to Asia, Pakistan’s role as a possible “swing state” cannot be underestimated. Similarly, India requires a stable western frontier in order for the United States to have considerable leverage over Pakistan.
A prudent foreign policy is about building as many coalitions as possible. That means the United States should continue to shift towards India in its effort to make a full realignment of its alliances in South Asia, but with the broader goal of rallying behind as many Asian states as possible—including Pakistan. Indians should not see U.S. rapprochement to Pakistan through a narrow prism since any American leverage over Pakistan would be equally beneficial for India. To counter the Chinese, the United States needs Pakistan as much as it needs India. It is in India’s best interest to reciprocate the United States’ exceptionalism to it by providing the United States the required space to deal with Pakistan independently.
India’s power falls far short of what it would need to compete with China. To what extent is the United States ready to fill this power differential and build India’s trust in the United States? The answer to that question will eventually decide the fate of South Asia and beyond. The task ahead for the United States is to rally both traditional and new partners against the threats of regional expansionism by China. It needs to build a strong coalition of middle powers that can effectively resist China’s excursions in unison. India will be the common denominator in this scheme. Even though the transactions with “like” powers similar to India, Japan, and Australia would be easier, yet the U.S. administration equally needs to align with dissimilar powers like Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, and Cambodia to counter the Chinese expansion.
Minaam Shah is a student of international politics based in Kashmir and editor of the Asian Peace Review. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets at @minaamshah.