Unfolding South Asian rivalries -Express Tribune

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The haphazard American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the sudden takeover by the Taliban, is an evident indictment of twenty wasted years of state building. These surprising developments have also placed the entire region in a state of flux.

Yet, the evident elation in Pakistan, prompted by the Taliban’s victory, may prove premature. Pakistan may find it easier to work with the Taliban than the previous Afghan government, and it may also be able to facilitate Chinese interactions with the incoming Taliban administration. However, it would be faulty to assume that Afghanistan will become a stable state, which will forever side with Pakistan against India. While India may have been inflicted a major blow because the Afghan government that it used to back has now been dislodged, India is not going to remain a silent bystander in Afghanistan.

India is trying to step up its efforts to build a rapport with the Taliban, and it will also continue working with the US and other key players to remain engaged in Afghanistan. Yet, India’s suspected ability to use Afghanistan as a proxy arena against Pakistan may diminish, which would be a positive development for regional stability.

Pakistan and India have also eased tensions on the Line of Control over these past few months, but this ceasefire remains tenuous. In addition to the threat of re-escalation sparked by the ongoing restiveness in Kashmir, the growing American reliance on India to counter China, and Pakistan’s close ties to China, place another layer of strain on this protracted rivalry.

While China’s position as a global power is now undeniable, India under Modi’s leadership is also aching to achieve a similar stature. The US, under the Biden administration, is continuing to bank on India to compete with China as the predominant power in Asia. The escalating confrontational stance between India and China has the potential to seriously undermine stability for the entire South Asian region.

The emergent Sino-Indian rivalry is, however, not only due to the great power competition between the US and China. Tensions between the two neighbouring Asian giants have been brewing for a long time. It is ironic that despite Nehru’s socialism and his attempts to build strong ties with China, the two countries were not able to overcome lingering border disputes. Instead, it was the Islamic republic of Pakistan which managed to build a relationship with Communist China.

China’s hostility with India motivated it to lend military support to Pakistan. Pakistan, in turn, welcomed the opportunity of Chinese support that enabled it to maintain some semblance of military parity in what would otherwise have been a completely asymmetrical rivalry with India.

For the past few years, we have seen the US step up efforts to side with India in the effort to counterbalance China. This growing American strategic partnership with India is heightening the risk of major conflicts in the region.

Yet, under Modi’s leadership, Indian policies in Kashmir and military escalations with China and Pakistan have already demonstrated an atypical streak of nationalistic ambition and risk taking. American scholar Daniel Markey cautions that feeding these aggressive Indian tendencies would increase the likelihood of repeated land border conflicts between India, China, and Pakistan.

Instead of thinking of South Asia as a Cold War-like proxy arena for great power competition, it is vital that US diplomats reinforce regional restraint and seriously facilitate nonviolent management of Himalayan territorial disputes between India, China, and Pakistan. The need to do so remains vital given the ongoing glacial melt in the Tibetan ‘third pole’, which is the source of river systems which sustain life across much of South Asia.

Given the emergent ground realities in the region, the US should rethink its confrontational strategy of pitting India against China. It should focus instead on supporting regional energy and trade projects and help contend with impending climate threats. If the US itself cannot transcend its confrontational mode, at least regional players, including Pakistan, should be savvy enough not to fall prey to a detrimental proxy conflict in South Asia.