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South Asia: shaky state of affairs, uncertain future

South Asia

Andrew Korybko |

South Asia is simmering as China and India wrestle with one another for influence in this strategic region. The two nominal BRICS and SCO allies have been engaged in a fierce rivalry with one another that’s dramatically at odds with their public statements of solidarity and friendship.

China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity envisages transnational infrastructure projects forming the tangible basis for the emerging Multipolar World Order, though its flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through the Pakistani region of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Chinese-Indian New Cold War is destabilizing South Asia to the US’ distinct advantage, and that uncontrollable Hybrid War processes are being unleashed which threaten the entire region.

This is problematic for India, which lays claim to this area per its maximalist approach to the Kashmir Conflict, and New Delhi has responded by alleging that Beijing is violating its territorial integrity by means of CPEC.

This narrative has been relied upon for the past two and a half years to “justify” India’s public intransigence in refusing to participate in OBOR and its suspected clandestine efforts in working to undermine it, including through Afghan-based proxies operating in Pakistani Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The US has seized the opportunity to court India into its camp by entering into an unprecedented military-strategic partnership with it in summer 2016 and consequently making its first-ever “Major Defense Partner” a member of the so-called “Quad” alongside Japan and Australia. India’s incorporation into what essentially amounts to a “China Containment Coalition” is perceived as a very hostile development by Beijing, which has repeatedly pleaded its case in vain to New Delhi that OBOR is all about win-win partnerships and not zero-sum gains.

Read more: India’s ethno-terror proxies: From East Pakistan to CPEC

The current dynamics of competition between China and India, with the latter egged on by the US, have given rise to the whole of South Asia becoming a realm of rivalry between them, and the Indian media is constantly full of over-hyped and ultra-jingoist reports about how China is supposedly “surrounding” their country and is therefore its top geostrategic threat. As “proof” of this in action, sympathetic voices point to Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives’ Silk Road cooperation with China, perceiving it as “anti-Indian” and demanding that their decision makers do something to reverse it.

The spread of Daesh to Afghanistan and the US’ urging for India to play a larger role there could exacerbate the pressure that Pakistan is already feeling along its western periphery and contribute to a more unstable situation for CPEC

The outcome was the clumsy execution of uncharacteristically direct and aggressive policies by India, including what former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa alleged was New Delhi’s covert involvement in democratically unseating him in the January 2015 election.

Later that same year, India implemented a de-facto blockade against Nepal in support of the southern plains-residing “Madhesi” people who were violently rioting in opposition to the former Hindu Monarchy’s new federal constitution, and it’s also extended implicit political support to former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed in his opposition’s quest to oust incumbent President Abdulla Yameen.

Furthermore, Indian media has disseminated the storyline that China’s Silk Road deals with these two island nations are lopsided debt traps, hoping that they can succeed in scaring them and others away from doing business with China and thus make its own Japanese-assisted investment project of the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” more attractive by comparison.

Read more: Why China needs CPEC?

The fragile peace between the two Asian Great Powers was almost shattered this summer when India dispatched troops to the Donglang Plateau in southern Tibet on Bhutan’s request to repel the Chinese soldiers who were active in this disputed territory. The months-long standoff was peacefully resolved before China hosted its BRICS Summit in September, but the bad blood between the two sides remained.

The current dynamics of competition between China and India, with the latter egged on by the US, have given rise to the whole of South Asia becoming a realm of rivalry between them.

The world was left with the impression – for better or for worse – that India will resort to brinksmanship in “containing” China, which whether it was intended to or not ends up playing directly into the US’ strategic hands. The resultant New Cold War between China and India in South Asia thus has the potential to turn hot, no longer being solely about competitive connectivity but possibly transforming into military clashes.

The coming year can be expected to see more geopolitical jousting between the two in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, but also in other parts of South Asia, too.

Bangladesh is still struggling to contain its terrorist threats and stop itself from turning into Bangla-Daesh, and the situation in neighboring Myanmar’s Rakhine State could suddenly deteriorate once again just like it did in August in becoming a transnational crisis. Not only that, but the possible public unveiling of the secretive details behind the 2015 peace deal with Naga militants in India’s nearby Northeastern State of Nagaland ahead of its local elections next year could jeopardize peace in this shatter-prone Balkan-like region.

Read more: Why is US against CPEC?

Lastly, the spread of Daesh to Afghanistan and the US’ urging for India to play a larger role there could exacerbate the pressure that Pakistan is already feeling along its western periphery and contribute to a more unstable situation for CPEC as a result. Altogether, it’s clear that the Chinese-Indian New Cold War is destabilizing South Asia to the US’ distinct advantage, and that uncontrollable Hybrid War processes are being unleashed which threaten the entire region.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia.