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From Blog
Changing Geopolitical Dynamics in South Asia
Myra Saqib (Intern at IRS)


There are no permanent friends or foes in international politics. States utilize and change their alliances in order to achieve their national interests. After the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the world shifted from a bipolar system to a unipolar system, creating a New World Order with the United States as the sole superpower. As a result, new alliances were formed, primarily focused on issues, as opposed to defence; thus, not very comprehensive in nature. In the context of South Asia, there has been a history of foreign alignments, focused on the divide between Pakistan and India. Currently, South Asia has attracted extra-regional players: China, Iran, Russia, and the US, and has become the centre stage for great power politics. Resultantly, there is a major shift in regional dynamics, shaping various new alliances.
One of the primary reasons for this shift in the international system is the economic growth of Asian states, as power is not solely based on military strength but also in economic terms. China’s peaceful rise and significant role in international politics poses the major geostrategic challenge of this era, threatening to displace the US-led world order. Furthermore, China and the US have opposing geo-economic and geostrategic interests, coupled with a longstanding ideological divide. Despite China’s socialist economic structure, it has been able to rise as a competitive force. Resultantly, the US is creating hurdles in China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) projects around the world, curtailing China’s maritime expansion in the Pacific and its longstanding claims and violent territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. Additionally, China’s pursuit to great power status, such as the Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), an alternative to the Bretton Woods system, is also threatening the US led international structure of seven decades.
The aforementioned geopolitical changes have resulted in the formation of new alliances. In the current political environment, the US-India relationship has strengthened with cooperation in defence, economy, and politics to balance China. In contrast to the distrust and estrangement during the Cold War, the convergence of India and the US is primarily focused on mutual interests in the region, i.e., countering China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. Bilateral relations have particularly transformed with the onset of the 21st century, as India was granted a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow nuclear trade in 2008 and the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Furthermore, President Trump’s visit to India in February 2020 consolidated their strategic partnership, with the Indian acquisition of American defence technology and equipment. The US is also India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade of US$142 billion in 2018. Moreover, the US-India alignment is not solely focused on balancing China; it also allows India to increase its influence in the region and tilt the balance of power in its favour, rooting out the threat of Pakistan.
Growing US-India relations and the shift from Pakistan to India to assist in the War on Terror has weakened the longstanding transactional relationship between the US and Pakistan. Despite Pakistan’s geostrategic location and longstanding assistance to the US in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts, the Trump administration has cut off economic aid to Pakistan, increased India’s role in Afghanistan, and supported Pakistan’s placement on the FATF grey list. Additionally, the US-India defence cooperation directly threatens Pakistan’s national security and position in the longstanding territorial dispute of Kashmir. Resultantly, Pakistan has begun to diversify its alliances and strengthen the existing ones.
Pakistan’s geostrategic location has attracted its all-weather ally China to further strengthen relations. Providing the shortest route to the Arabian Sea, China has proclaimed CPEC as its flagship project of the BRI. Moreover, the Pakistan-China strategic alliance allows both states to counter India’s ambitions and regional hegemony. Subsequently, Beijing continues to provide its unwavering support to Pakistan on all key issues at both regional and international forums. Although their cooperation has primarily focused on economy, most recently Pakistan and China have enhanced their bilateral defence collaboration. On 30 November 2020, China’s Minister of Defence General Wei Fenghe and Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa signed the Pakistan-China Defence Cooperation Pact in Islamabad, paving the way for military cooperation. Thus, the Pakistan-China nexus counters the threat of growing US-India relations and interference in the region.
With constant threats to China’s BRI projects and territorial claims in the South China Sea by the US and India, China has also strengthened relations with another major player in the region: Russia. The convergence of Russia and China is to counter their common adversary, i.e., the United States. Alongside China, the re-emergence of Russia as an important global player, is the second threat to US national security, elucidated in the US National Security Strategy (2017). Although Russia is economically and militarily inferior to the US, it has the ability to intervene in global conflicts and thwart US interests. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and war in the Ukraine have led to the US adopting tough policies towards Russia.
Additionally, Pakistan and Russia have also grown closer in the midst of changing regional alliances. The United States has categorically proven that it no longer considers Pakistan as its major ally in the region. Consequently, Pakistan has strengthened its ties with Russia, through various defence and security deals, joint military exercises and energy cooperation. Russia has also begun to diversify its alliances, particularly after the strengthening of US-Indian relations. Thus, Russia’s recent rapprochement with China and Pakistan balances the US-India strategic partnership. More importantly, it highlights the importance of Pakistan as the region, as two-extra regional powers are aligned with a regional state. The primary focus of China, Pakistan, and Russia strengthening relations is to counter the US-India strategic partnership and the US presence in Afghanistan and its subsequent instability in the region.
The recent US elections can impact the geopolitical dynamics of the region, as Joe Biden’s victory could result in changes in certain policies. Firstly, president elect Biden may not be in favour of a complete departure from Afghanistan. Similar to Barack Obama’s policies in the region, he might keep a small presence of troops in Afghanistan, which could potentially anger the Taliban as it goes against the US-Taliban Peace Agreement. Subsequently, the gradual withdrawal of troops could lead to further instability in the region. In terms of Pakistan, it is unlikely that Biden will restore economic assistance as, like his predecessor, Biden supports a strong partnership with India. Moreover, Biden’s previous engagements with Pakistan were during the Obama era, when Pak-US relations were tense. The longstanding distrust and baggage could take time to diminish. However, Pakistan would still have an important role in the peace process and combatting terrorism in the region. In contrast to his predecessor, Biden has been very outspoken about discrimination against Muslims as his campaign website criticized the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and called for the restoration of rights of Kashmiris.
Although Biden does not share the strong personal relationship that Modi and Trump had, the US-India strategic partnership is likely to remain strong to balance China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Cooperation in areas such as defence and counterterrorism are likely to continue under the Biden administration. In terms of China, it is unlikely that the US will revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)and rivalry against Beijing will continue.