I was in Washington recently for an academic conference, and the main theme of the conference was containment of China by the new administration. It spurred this question in my mind how the region, which is the focus of my own academic research, will be impacted.
Here is my take:
President Trump, or at least President-Elect for another 5 days, who is immensely admired by large sections of the American population (despite equally large pockets of denial sections), has made China a top priority. He has also made Counter-terrorism a top priority. Call me one-tracked, but the first thought that comes to my mind is India-Pakistan.
So first, China –
– Almost-there-economic-Superpower, an ancient cultural superpower, and a gorgeous region that the world should be grateful to for its many gifts.
– Yet, viewed with suspicion due to suppressing democracy in its western Muslim dominated areas, Buddhist Tibet, and of course Hong Kong.
– Then there is the matter of Taiwan. Depends on whom you ask, the answer is nonetheless controversial and politically charged.
– Huge economic player with obvious global impact, but issues like currency manipulation and dumping cheap goods globally has not helped its image either.
– For strategic political reasons, it continues to coddle and protect rogue nations like North Korea, and turns a blind eye to indisputable terrorism activities by Pakistan. It is naive to believe that it is doing it out of goodness of heart, or the so called all-weather friendship. I don't know any North Koreans, but I do have a few Pakistani friends, and they are generally nice but somewhat emotional people struggling for western acceptance of their once-great but currently hugely maligned social and religious culture, and the insecurity of constantly being compared to its exponentially more successful neighbor, India. China is as shrewd as they come, and is exploiting this insecurity to the fullest by offering carrots like CPEC, voting against India on NSG, voting against declaring known international Pakistani criminals like Saeed and Azhar to be declared terrorists, and so on.
– Reputation for being a ruthless businessman who will stop at nothing to grow economically. Fair enough for a superpower!
– Border disputes with several neighbors, including India.
– South China Sea island building and militarising, which has considerably aggravated and alarmed the US
Next, Pakistan –
– Awesome people, extremely polite and hospitable, with delicious but somewhat spicy food. You have not lived if you have not had Pakistani kebabs and biryani! Seriously!
– I have already mentioned their attributes in being emotional and insecure.
– Keeps repeating the cardinal mistake of latching on to Superpowers in the mistaken belief that it is their path to economic salvation, instead of developing internally and leveraging own and neighbourhood resources (in another lifetime, India and Pakistan would be besties and immensely benefiting from each other economically). Pakistan absolutely must recognise that Superpowers like disposable use and throw commodities to suit their short term needs, and being used in the name of all weather friendship is not to its long term interest.
– CPEC is the big buzz word associated with Pakistan, and at a personal level I wish it is a huge success for Pakistan. The development is long overdue and will greatly improve the lives of its people. Yet .. Yet, I also wish Pakistan had considered China's brutal track record and been more cautious of China's cunning in being its trade partner and putting so much at stake. In its impatient zeal to get onboard this lucrative trade deal, Pakistan has very poorly negotiated this deal and in some ways set itself up for failure. In doing so, Pakistani leaders have effectively mortgaged their country to China! The terms of the $46 Billion loan are extremely stringent with exorbitant interest rates, and Pakistan will only get a tiny fraction of the proceeds, while China will continue to dominate the region with its cheap (sometimes quality) products. It will destroy local Pakistani industry for sure, wreak environmental havoc, make corrupt Pakistani politicians richer and keep the poor Pakistanis poor. Naturally, Pakistan's indigenous industry will be suppressed (In contrast, Modi's Make in India initiative is an absolutely brilliant strategy of safeguarding Indian long term interests. But, I digress ..). Anyway, back to the loans, what will happen when the loans are due and Pakistan is likely unable to pay? It is a very real and rather scary prospect that few Pakistanis have pondered upon. China will collect, one way or the other, and it will certainly not be to Pakistan's liking. Pakistan has made a deal with the devil and will end up shortchanged the way it was during the Soviet invasion.
Finally, India –
– Again awesome people, very genuinely humble, have the most delicious and even spicier food. I cannot imagine anything spicier, or more addictive. I personally prefer the spicier south-Indian vegan variety!
– India has mastered the balancing act of political non-alignment. For crying out loud, it is on best friends terms with BOTH adversaries of the longest running Cold War between the US and Russia. It has economic, defence, security, technology, anti-terrorism, and just all sorts of agreements with both superpowers (and yes, Russia is still very much a superpower). All the while, any manufacturing done through any deal is tied to the Make in India initiative. Does anybody remember the big deal in the 1990's, when India successfully blocked Pakistan's purchase of F-16 jets? The payment had been made in full, not loans, and yet Pakistan did not get its jets. How rude! Those very same jets are now being manufactured in India as Modi recently successfully negotiated with Lockheed Martin and Boeing to move production to India! It doesn't matter if Putin and Obama are feuding, or if Putin and Trump are commencing their very public bromance, neither situation is awkward for India.
– Similarly, and really quite astonishingly, India is also best friends with BOTH Iran and Israel. This is perhaps the masterstroke of diplomacy and the kind of political success that should be taught in top universities. Incidentally, India has also maintained this balance with Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states. I don't know how India does it, but it does, and its leaders have earned my respect for achieving the unachievable in this regard.
– India's reaction to CPEC is perhaps more wariness of China's intentions, and less of envy at Pakistan's anticipated success. Quite frankly, $46 Billion is small change for India these days, so it should not (hopefully) be petty-minded envy for more business. The corridor goes through Pakistani occupied but India claimed land, so of course India must show its displeasure. Despite the lack of trust and goodwill, and some media reports from Pakistan that India is out to sabotage its efforts to finally be somebody, I doubt anybody except extreme right-wingers will genuinely even bother about the economic implications for Pakistan. The kind of diplomatic maturity India has demonstrated in its US-Russia and Iran-Israel relationships makes one assume that it understands that an economically prosperous Pakistan is actually a GOOD thing for India.
So back to the original question – what happens to India and Pakistan with the US policy to contain China?
China has the muscle to fight back, and fight back it will, tooth and nail. It will suffer economically too, especially if Chinese products are sanctioned in the US. Any sort of trade sanctions will also bring serious repercussions for both sides. However, that is just the boring bit of trade wars. What is much more critical and a very frightening possibility, especially after the US announced today that it will block China from building new islands in the South China Sea AND block its access to existing ones, is military conflict. In that case, the difference between an actual Superpower and an almost-there-Superpower will be painfully visible and China will likely pay a very heavy price on several fronts.
Pakistan will likely pay a much higher price indirectly as its currently closest ally would be severely distracted to support it economically or politically, and certainly not militarily. As China's own global political influence wanes, it's political support for Pakistan will in turn be less valuable. The CPEC corridor in itself will be a moot asset if the Chinese economy is struggling and its manufacturing facilities severely impacted by the war. China might even like to recover its loans to Pakistan more aggressively.
India has recently signed a defence pact with the US that allows the US to use its airbases and other military assets as its own in case of war or other conflicts in the region. Obviously, this was done with anticipation of a conflict with China, and India has already negotiated huge concessions and steps towards self-preservation, not to mention economic rewards. While the finer details are not known, it is clear who India intends to side with in a US-China conflict. It is also clear that the US will emerge victorious, if somewhat bruised, and India will benefit long term on many fronts, including economically and militarily, but not in the least by a subdued China.
I welcome your comments as always, and your upvotes/downvotes. JD