US China Rivalry in South Asia
During the Cold War, South Asia was largely considered a peripheral theatre. US-Soviet competition affected the countries in the region and shaped their choices, but the Subcontinent itself was not generally the primary, or even secondary, arena in the superpower rivalry. It was only with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the region came into the Cold War spotlight for any length of time. The landscape today is different. The region is already involved in, and affected by, competition between the two major powers, i.e. China and the United States – a dynamic that is only likely to intensify in the future as Beijing has been increasing its presence and influence in almost every South Asian country – and in the Indian Ocean region.
The US-China rivalry will have the biggest effect in, and on, South Asia. Amidst the intensification of this great-power competition in the Indian Ocean region, both players, that is Washington and Beijing, see each other’s role as unhelpful, if not harmful.
On the one hand, the United States sees China’s rivalry with India as destabilizing, but it has opened the door for a closer US-India partnership, on the other. This has been useful in the context of US competition with China, in which officials and analysts have envisioned India as a geopolitical counterbalance, economic alternative or democratic contrast to China. This view has contributed to the last few US administrations seeing India’s rise to be in US interests and worth supporting.
India, for its part, has also seen the United States as crucial to its strategy of managing China. Its China approach has included cooperation and internal and external balancing. Each of these elements has involved a role for the United States which has, directly or indirectly, helped enhance India’s military, economic, and technological capabilities. Moreover, it is a crucial part of India’s network of partnerships that can help maintain a favourable balance of power in the region.
On the other hand, India has found that its ties with the United States have, at times, given China an incentive to interact with India. China, because of its concern about the US’ convening a countervailing coalition, takes India more seriously.
Thus, the competition between the United States and China and that between China and India have paved the way for deeper US-India ties, driven by their shared concerns about a rising China. This has particularly been the case in the defence and security space over the past decade and a half, and recently was evident in Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to India in March 2021 and the Indian external affairs minister’s visit to Washington, DC, in May 2021. A set of agreements, regular dialogues and military exercises, and the Indian acquisition of US military equipment have facilitated, inter alia, cooperation, military interoperability, and intelligence-sharing. The two countries are also cooperating in third countries, with other partners (for example, via the US-India-Japan trilateral, the Quad, and one-offs such as a US-India-Japan-Philippines group sail through the South China Sea), and in regional and international institutions.
The United States has also worked with India to overcome Chinese resistance in international institutions. This has benefited Delhi through a Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver that opened the door for India to import certain technologies and equipment; the greylisting of Pakistan at FATF, which requires it to take action against money laundering and terrorism financing; the United Nations’ 1267 Committee designation of Pakistan-based terrorists that had targeted India; and the blocking of China-Pakistan efforts to raise Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council.
The United States has had a mixed view of China’s partnership with Pakistan. By giving Pakistan a non-US option, China has reduced US leverage with Pakistan and made the Pakistani leadership less willing to take action the United States desires, especially on counterterrorism.
At times, though, Washington has found that Beijing’s influence with Islamabad can be useful if it coincides with US interests — for example, on Afghanistan or in India-Pakistan crisis management.
However, intensifying US-China competition can change views in Washington. For example, initially, the United States took a more sanguine view of CPEC, hoping it could contribute to Pakistani economic development, reduce Islamabad’s demands of Washington, and incentivize China to seek stability and security in Pakistan. In recent years, though, US officials have spoken out against CPEC, questioning its costs, effect on Pakistan’s debt burden, lack of transparency, and effect on employment.
The US view of the smaller South Asian states (SSAs) has also changed as a result of US-China competition. For one, this rivalry has put South Asia and the Indian Ocean region under a bigger spotlight because this is seen as an important arena in which China is increasing its activities, presence and influence. Indeed, the Chinese port project at Hambantota in Sri Lanka contributed to Washington’s seeing BRI from a more competitive prism.
The greater US concern about China in South Asia, and especially the Indian Ocean region, has led to increased attention to the SSAs. In a five-month period during 2018–19, then-Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hosted the foreign ministers of Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In 2020, the United States signed a defense agreement with the Maldives, and then-Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, spoke with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Pompeo visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives (announcing plans for a new embassy in the latter), while then-Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, travelled to Bangladesh. His successor, Wendy Sherman, recently held a consultation with the SSAs on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. With this attention has come some increased security assistance, help in dealing with Covid-19, and development assistance.
For these countries, US-China competition has thus brought with it some benefits and an ability to play one benefactor against the other to maximize gains and their strategic space. An additional benefit from some SSA governments’ perspectives (for example, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka): major power rivalry has reduced the extent to which US concerns about their internal political developments have impeded US interaction with their countries.
US concerns about Chinese activities — concerns that converge with many of India’s — have also opened the door to a greater degree of US-India consultation, coordination, and cooperation in the region.
Delhi has historically not liked to see extra-regional countries be active in what it considers its backyard. But, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, as China has become more active in the region, India has become more accepting, if not welcoming, of more US and Japanese involvement in the region if it brings additional resources and offers alternatives to China’s initiatives. This was evident in India’s response to the US-Maldives defence agreement and the Japan-Maldives coast guard agreement. This attitude has also opened the door to potential US-India cooperation (as they did in Nepal in the 1950s) or coordination (e.g. on Covid-19 response) in the region.
While the primary area of US-China competition will remain in East Asia and the western Pacific, Beijing largely sees Washington as part of its challenge in South Asia. It sees most US actions there, alone and in conjunction with other major and middle powers, as complicating the landscape and Chinese interests. Some analysts have argued that Beijing, in response, should take a more moderate approach to Delhi lest China-India tensions push India toward the United States even further. Others, however, have asserted that Delhi is already allied and colluding with Washington, and that should not prevent a tougher approach to India — and indeed should serve as an argument for it.
Publicly, Chinese analysts have often highlighted the US presence in the region as a net negative. They have even suggested to Indian counterparts that the United States is a source or instigator of China-India problems. There have been some exceptions to the Chinese view of the United States as a problem in the region, and the two countries have even cooperated or consulted in response to crises. However, their intensifying rivalry could change that dynamic, too.
a. Potential Areas of Conflict
The United States and China are already involved because they supply military equipment to India and Pakistan (as do France, Russia, and the United Kingdom). Beyond that, the United States and China generally prefer that India and Pakistan crises do not escalate (in part because those countries possess nuclear weapons). However, if the China-Pakistan and US-India alignments deepen in the context of heightened US-China competition, and if they think their credibility and partnerships are at stake, Washington and Beijing could view the situation differently. This could involve being reluctant to persuade or pressure their regional partner (India or Pakistan) to de-escalate or providing diplomatic cover for one or the other.
In terms of direct military involvement, China has been reluctant to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf in the past, but one unknown is whether the greater presence of Chinese citizens and facilities in Pakistan changes this stance (it could instead induce greater Chinese efforts to de-escalate the situation or greater Indian caution).
b. China-India conflict
Another scenario could involve a China-India conflict, or even a two-front war for India against China and Pakistan. Various contingencies could lead to war, but the boundary conflict is the most likely to do so.
In the present China-India crisis, Washington has provided Delhi diplomatic support and intelligence and fast-tracked military supplies. The United States does not have treaty commitments to India. But it could get more involved if a China-India conflict comes amid a US-China confrontation or more adversarial relationship, prompting the United States to think the regional balance and its credibility are at stake.
c. The Indian Ocean
A third scenario could follow from attempts — real or perceived — by the United States, China or India to obstruct each other’s access in the Indian Ocean. These could stem from restricting freedom of navigation, gaining base access or limiting that of others, increased militarization, exploitation of marine resources that upsets local constituencies, activities of China’s maritime militia, or an accident or error.
The United States and China both see South Asia as important and they recognize that this region’s strategic geography and growing population, along with nuclear and terrorism risks, merit sizable allocations of attention and resources. South Asia is a key area in regard to Washington’s goal of building a free and open Indo-Pacific, and Beijing’s of revising the Eurasian political and security order and becoming the leading power in Asia. The emerging period of Sino-American strategic competition, which could last for decades, is likely to influence both the US and Chinese assessments of and engagements in South Asia.
The writer is a member of staff.