A tense geostrategic scenario is building up in the Indian Ocean Region. Signs of a new great game are on the horizon. China is geared to increase its involvement in the region to enhance its economic penetration, its trade linkages and naval potential. This strategic design is the underlying idea behind its investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The United States, which sees China’s rise as a threat to its global power, is now backing India to contain China. For the US, sustaining and developing India, is a necessary part of its strategy to maintain balance and stability in the region.
“the future of global politics will be decided in Central Asia, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the US will be right at the center of the action”
To offset CPEC, India had already launched a rival plan, to sustain its regional hegemony, by investing $500mn in Iran’s Chahbahar port. It intends to use this to approach the Gulf States, Central Asia via Afghanistan and ultimately Europe. However recently Iran’s expression of interest in Gawadar and CPEC complicates the scenario. By all indications, it seems that Pakistan’s future now involves being sandwiched between the US and Chinese rivalry.
China is using CPEC via Pakistan to stabilize and enhance its regional power. In this particular situation, Afghanistan will play an important role and tension will continue on Pakistan’s western borders, as India tries to curtail Chinese influence in the region through active engagement with Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly blamed Indian agencies for using proxies to sustain anti-Pakistan elements inside Afghanistan.
The new evolving troika relationship: China, Russia and Pakistan
The meeting between Pakistan, China and Russia in late December was thus indicative of a new “Great Game” in the region – a reversal of the old alignments. 19th Century Great Game was British power trying to restrain Czarist Russia from reaching warm waters. Now China – another Central Asian power – supported by Russia is trying to establish itself in Indian ocean through Pakistan.
Unlike 1979, when Pakistan joined the US and western alliance to fight Soviet influence, country now visibly threatened by Indo-US nexus is now seeing this Russian desire in its own geopolitical interest. Normalization of ties between Russia and Pakistan thus support the future and stability of CPEC. As Hilary Clinton once stated “the future of global politics will be decided in Central Asia, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the US will be right at the center of the action”.
But this new emerging reality is not one that the US will want to take lightly. In such circumstances, Pakistan will bear the brunt of new standoff among world powers. The presence of Russian and Chinese naval influence in the region is an open threat to the U.S regional interests.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $54 billion mega project, is part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, through which China is expecting to reach 65 percent of the world’s population and 75 percent of world’s resources. Pakistan, through its Gwadar port, will ensure China’s approach to Indian Ocean.
This is why India and the US are starting to view these as a threat to the United State’s global and India’s regional interests.
Michael Kugelman, fellow at the Wilson center, argues that China is not building the corridor as charity for Pakistan. Rather, China wants to support its land-blocked and long-deprived western province of Xinjiang; and to connect it with other parts of the world. In fact, it now seems that Pakistani government, desperate to take political credit for what was essentially a Chinese initiative, has short changed itself – by taking loans – to pay for something that was essentially a Chinese strategic need.
CPEC will develop Xinxiang’s relations and connections with Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. China is giving a special focus on its western border provinces with new hopes and targets to develop it. Increased Chinese trade through this route will provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to overcome Islamic militant extremism in this region, poverty in western part of the country and to reduce anti-Chinese government sentiments. China will be provided with free trade zones in Baluchistan to connect Xinjiang with Gwadar, the Arabian Sea.
Read more: Official Website for CPEC Launched!
US containment strategy
To contain China the US and India will have to increase their naval and military activities in Indian Ocean. By 2020, it is expected that the US will shift a lion-part of its naval power to the Indian Ocean. Improvement of relations with Iran should also be seen in this light. For the past 40 years Iran, has gradually become a strong ally of Russia. Putin’s intervention in Syria has demonstrated an effective coordination with Iranian interests. Obama administration’s Iran Nuclear Deal represents an attempt to change this relationship and pull Iran back in the US influence as was the case during the Shah of Iran’s period.
It is this US rebalancing strategy which is sandwiching Pakistan between two rivals in the region. China perceives the U.S strategy as an attempt to derail Chinese presence in the Indian ocean region. It also sees the US posturing against China’s in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as an attempt to de-stabilize China’s peaceful rise.
Future of Pakistan
“Donald Trump, during and after the presidential campaign, has continued with a very harsh stance towards China and it’s policies”
Pakistan which is already badly affected from terrorism, economic deterioration and sectarianism; will face an even more intensified situation with US and China rivalry in the future. The Indian Ocean, is the third largest water body and contains large number of sea lines; as well as historically existing as the maritime silk road between Rising Asia and the Middle East. Due to the strategic importance of this region, one can foresee the potential of an armed conflict. This will have deleterious effects on all countries in the region including Iran, Pakistan and India.
The nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India, rising geostrategic and geopolitical tensions between China, U.S and Russia and their combined interest in the Indian Ocean are key factors that will set Pakistan in middle of a new era of proxy war in the region. US scholar, Robert Kaplan also made the observation about the region being center stage in the 21st century global politics.
China’s rise as an economic and global power has increased polarity in the world. The US, India & Iran have or will have increased interests together while, Pakistan, China & Russia will be on the other pole. It is these two geopolitical and geostrategic alliances that will define the next thirty years in this region at least.
US strategy is not expected to change much in this region. Donald Trump, during and after the presidential campaign, has continued with a very harsh stance towards China and it’s policies. US stringent actions against China, if continued in the same manner, may end up disturbing or delaying the peaceful completion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It is expected that new Trump administration will continue to support India with the same rigor as was set by Obama/Clinton duo in 2009. However as Trump – who had taken a strong position against the US-Iran Nuclear Deal – settles down in the White House and grasps US options against China, he will come to see Iran as a useful ally. For Pakistan, the risk is that its focus maybe detracted from CPEC by increased militancy, since flames of sectarianism, and ethnic nationalism could be easily fueled by ever new proxies in western part of Pakistan. Pakistani agencies are already puzzled by the sudden rise of ISIS – basically a middle eastern phenomenon – in the region. If as a result of this new great game CPEC ends up delivering less than expected, through delays, then hopes pinned on it may start to fade away.
Abdul Rahim is pursuing his M. Phil in International Relations, with focus on Talibanization and Imperialist designs in 21st Century, as Research Scholar at International Islamic University, Islamabad. He tweets at @Rahim_realist.