May 1, 2018
It is only natural for the Pakistanis to be reeling over the recent marathon strategic talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – especially given the fact the two leaders pledged to launch a joint economic development project in Afghanistan. The implications of the meeting are quite clear from Islamabad’s viewpoint: Pakistan’s chief benefactor and protector, China, is looking to enhance ties with Pakistan’s mortal enemy, India. However, an Indo-Chinese détente will not only complicate President Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy, it is likely to send a chill right through Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
There does seem to be a contradiction that undermines the entire premise. Pakistan, for starters, has been able to defy the United States even more than usual because they have Beijing’s financial backing. Islamabad has been able to shrug off U.S. freezing security aid over Pakistan’s reluctance to root out terrorist networks. Moreover, Beijing has also played the role of diplomatic defender. When Trump insults and threatens Pakistan for harboring militant extremists, for example, China is there to exhibit moral outrage at Washington’s supposedly baseless charges and vouch for Islamabad’s counter-terror efforts.
One could argue that if China draws closer to India and distances itself from Pakistan, Islamabad might be forced to once again look West to fill budget gaps. The flaw in this argument is uncovered by asking a simple question: Has Pakistan ever shown willingness to root out relevant extremist groups under any circumstances? Regardless the amount of money Washington pours into Pakistan’s coffers, the Haqqani Network and other Afghan Taliban will be afforded special status by Islamabad. For Pakistan, these are indispensable assets required for winning the long-term end game in Afghanistan to counter the existential threat known as India.
The larger issue here is that the United States sees China as a global threat and, specifically, as an economic threat in Afghanistan evidenced by Trump complaining that American troops spill blood on the very soil China mines for profits. Hence the reason the White House is exploring opportunities to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
This is why the United States sought to boost relations with New Delhi. Washington saw the move as a short-term punitive measure against Pakistan but longer-term U.S. policymakers see India as critical to checking China’s rise as noted in a previous report. The supposition was that a proxy war was at hand in Afghanistan, with China and Pakistan using the Taliban against Afghan forces backed by a budding U.S-Indian alliance.
Now this picture is not so black and white. The Great Game has become murkier. Afghanistan finds itself at the center of a larger struggle between global superpowers. The United States, for its part, is driven by a foreign policy establishment that strongly embraces a uni-polar world vision and believes that the U.S. must remain the global hegemon at any cost. Some believe this simply for selfish reasons (the realists) while some true believers may be either ignorant or arrogant enough to believe the U.S. as global Leviathan is in the best interests of mankind (idealists – the scariest types).
China and Russia, on the other hand, aspire to be dominant powers in their respective regions, which conflicts with the U.S. obsession to be the hegemon in every region. U.S. Grand Strategists are looking beyond the Afghan quagmire and see a long-term presence in the region as critical to countering China and, of course, Russia.
The Xi-Modi summit was alarming not simply because the two giant emerging powers decided to cooperate in Afghanistan, as the Times of India reported. Xi and Modi discussed a vision for the region and the world that runs counter to the core principles that underpin U.S. strategy.
“China and India should be good neighbors and friends,” Xi said as quoted by Xinhua, China’s official press agency. “The two countries should regard each other as a positive factor in the balance of global power.”
China and India, Xi added, as the world’s two largest developing countries, are key forces in promoting multipolarization and pushing the international order into a more “just and reasonable direction.”
Xi also said Beijing and New Delhi face similar tasks in their pursuit of development as socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era alongside the emergence of “a new India.”
While Beijing will face quite a challenge in dealing with a delicate geopolitical balancing act, they have the acumen and sanity to make it happen. Chinese diplomats are adroit enough to forge stronger ties with India while not abandoning Pakistan. As a result, Washington will soon be hard-pressed to persuade New Delhi to take a hawkish stance against Beijing. Besides, local rising powers are less of a threat to the region than an unstable global hegemon who is not even from the neighborhood.