India-China border dispute has implications for Pakistan and region

Taking into consideration the zero-sum nature of Pakistan-India relations, Islamabad maybe compelled to acquire arms in a tit-for-tat response to New Delhi, writes Maham S. Gillani for South Asia Monitor

Maham S. Gillani Jul 15, 2020

The militaries of two of the largest nations in the world - China and India - stood eyeball to eyeball for over a month in the sub-zero temperatures of the Himalayas. Simmering tensions between Beijing and New Delhi came to a boil when hand-to-hand fighting broke out between the security forces of the two adversaries, leaving 20 Indian and purportedly an undetermined number of Chinese soldiers dead. Many South Asia observers have dubbed it as indisputably the worst Indo-China military crisis since 1962 when the two countries fought a border war. Pakistan, a major player on the geopolitical chessboard of South Asia, has potentially both to lose and gain from the renewed hostility between its archrival India and 'iron brother' China.

For Islamabad, the silver lining that has emerged from the China-India border spat is that it has brought to the fore the seminal move made by New Delhi in August 2019 – abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The scrapping of the article stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special autonomous status and bifurcated it into two new union territories - Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. While Pakistan vociferously condemned the unilateral move, India has termed it a "domestic issue". But in recent weeks, international attention has again been diverted to India’s controversial actions vis-à-vis Kashmir, since Ladakh is the site of the current border tiff between New Delhi and Beijing.

China is the second-largest military power in the world – boasting two aircraft carriers, over 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles, a credible fleet of both diesel and nuclear-powered submarines, one of the largest air forces in the world, and so on. Thus, China’s conventional military might far exceeds that of India, creating power asymmetry. This renewed hostility with Beijing provides New Delhi a perfect pretext for expediting the modernization of its military through arms acquisition. 

Arms race in subcontinent?

Pakistan remains loathe to the idea of India hammering arms deals or purchasing weapons from global actors. Taking into consideration the zero-sum nature of Pakistan-India relations, Islamabad may be compelled to acquire arms in a tit-for-tat response to New Delhi. This may unwittingly lead to an arms race between the adversaries, thereby upsetting the regional strategic balance. This will not bode well for Pakistan as it is already struggling economically, and a renewed arms race with India will put extra strain on Islamabad’s finances.

Another possible development that might unfold and remain detrimental to Pakistan’s security in the coming years is New Delhi forging closer ties with Washington. While India has historically eschewed third-party involvement in dealing with China on border issues, the age-old mantra ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ echoes in New Delhi and Washington louder than ever before. The US is wary of Chinese actions in the Asia Pacific region and has been receptive to the idea of propping up India as a counterweight to China to check what it terms Beijing’s expansionism. India, faced with a well-armed, economically stronger, and technologically advanced China, is also likely to contemplate further deepening military engagement with the US. An accentuation of Indo-US ties would unnerve policymakers in Islamabad and jeopardize the country’s efforts for trying to pursue a more expansive relationship with Washington.

Implications for Pakistan

South Asia is a unique region where, in most cases, foreign policy of one state is intricately linked to that of another. This means that any warming up of ties between the US and India would bind Pakistan to its longtime ally China even more closely. The China-US rivalry also has to be taken into account in this tug-of-war. Washington might be skeptical of forging close ties with an ally of its top strategic rival. As a corollary, Islamabad may choose to express its displeasure with Washington’s policies vis-à-vis India in a third country – Afghanistan - where the US is embroiled in a long war and needs Pakistan’s assistance in implementing a flimsy peace process.

Like a forest fire, sparks on a distant border between the two states can potentially spread to the entire region and beyond. Although Chinese and Indian generals have reached an agreement to deescalate border tensions in the Himalayas, the possibility of future military confrontations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors cannot be ruled out. After all, the same military leaders had met before the June 15 clash and vowed to defuse the tensions, only to confront each other a week later – fighting with fists, rocks and iron rods encrusted with nails. The border escalation is certainly a bellwether in China-India ties – its potential long-term implications for geostrategic competition at the regional level warrants a policy review in Islamabad.

Pakistan has to tread carefully, maintaining its regional clout while not getting bogged down in the arms race that its economy cannot currently sustain. Moreover, the country needs to balance its ties with its all-important ally China and the global superpower the US.

(The writer is a research associate at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad.  The views expressed are personal)

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