How future wars between India and Pakistan could draw in the US and China

The effect of a miscalculation could be more devastating than we can imagine.

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In 1960, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani president Ayub Khan signed the Indus Waters Treaty, an agreement on the shared use of the outflow of the Indus River system. In the six decades since, despite several all-out wars between the two sides, the treaty has continued to operate. That continuity is a reminder of the contradictions inherent to a relationship born of a painful and violent divorce in 1947. 

The tensions came to the fore on 26 February when a terror attack in Indian-administered Kashmir 12 days prior, which India suspects was sponsored by Pakistan, led to an Indian air raid on Pakistani territory, and the subsequent capture of an Indian air force pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, who was later released on 1 March. For now, both Pakistani president Imran Khan and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi appear to have concluded that de-escalation is the wisest policy, even if Modi’s pre-election anti-Pakistan rhetoric continues to curdle his voters’ blood.

Yet the current tensions have emerged as Asia’s regional order changes. During the Kargil War of 1999 – the last occasion when Indian and Pakistani troops met in open conflict in Kashmir – the US was still the world’s only true superpower, while China under Jiang Zemin was focused on economic growth rather than geopolitics. Two decades later, American power in Asia has waned under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, while China’s has risen, highlighting a long-standing and uncomfortable reality: the Indo-Pacific region (a term now used for the huge stretch of Asia between Pakistan and Indonesia) has few institutions that bring it together in any overarching framework, and it is unlikely to develop one.

Europe is dominated by the EU and Nato, and has dealt with post-conflict and reconstruction issues through institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In Asia, there is an alphabet soup of forums and organisations across the region (Saarc, Apec and Asean to name but three), yet so far, they have failed to create a genuine, deep transnational network to manage conflicts or deepen economic and political relationships. 

The lack of a fixed order is not for want of attempts to turn the institutional soup into a more solid meal. In 2001, China and Russia established the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was supposed to enable greater economic and security co-operation between those two powers and their central Asian neighbours. On 9 June 2017, both India and Pakistan were granted full membership of the SCO at a ceremony in Astana, Kazakhstan. Yet this institution, which now includes all the major Asian powers, has ended up rather like the Holy Roman Empire, which, in Voltaire’s words, was neither “holy, nor Roman nor an empire”. Similarly, the SCO is not based in Shanghai, doesn’t co-operate all that much and doesn’t appear very organised. The US, however, has had little more success in creating new alliances. American efforts to forge a “Quad” of like-minded powers (the US, India, Japan and Australia) have only been partially effective, with India ambivalent about how far it wants to develop the relationship. 

Yet with China’s relentless rise, regional alliances – and rivalries – may be changing. For Pakistan, China provides a new source of comfort as its other partners, most notably the US, feel uneasy about Islamabad’s commitment to areas such as anti-terror co-operation. A Chinese diplomat recently described Pakistan and China’s relationship as being like “steel”. There is plenty of that, along with concrete and glass, in the $62bn being pumped into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative – Beijing’s aspiration to bring up to $8trn of investment to a region stretching from Eurasia to East Africa. 

Aspects of that development have proved increasingly worrying for India. Gwadar, the hitherto sleepy Pakistani town where Chinese funds are paying for a new container port, will become a major hub for Chinese merchant shipping.  In addition, there are numerous rumours that a port nearby might become a Chinese overseas naval base, to accompany the base in Djibouti, which China opened in 2017 – a prospect that alarms politicians in New Delhi. The planned supply route for Gwadar is through Pakistani-administered Kashmir and into Xinjiang in western China. Since India also claims the parts of Kashmir under Pakistani control (just as Pakistan claims the Indian parts), this would mean a scenario in which a key Chinese economic pathway runs substantially through disputed territory, with all the diplomatic and security implications of such a decision.

It’s not implausible to envisage a situation, perhaps just a few years away, when an attack on Pakistan would seem to impinge directly on China’s interests.  For now, China has declared that it does not intend to internationalise the Kashmir issue, although it also controls a disputed area of the region known as Aksai Chin and has confronted India over it within the past year. The country’s relative restraint  may not last when economic investments are at stake. And events such as the terrorist attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi on 23 November last year show that, despite China’s protestations of neutrality, it is regarded as a player in Pakistan’s politics and is vulnerable to sudden violence from non-state actors. 

Meanwhile, the rise of China will certainly add urgency to US attempts to make the Quad more effective. The Indus Valley Treaty, of course, is a reminder that disputes between South Asia’s fractious neighbours don’t have to descend into confrontation. 

Is a future dispute between India and Pakistan that draws in the US and China unlikely? Overall, yes. But politics in all those countries is volatile. And the effect of a miscalculation could be more devastating than we can imagine.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at St Cross College, Oxford University

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at St Cross College, Oxford University.

This article appears in the 08 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash