Pakistan, India, China: A Planetary Realignment in Southern Asia

Slowly, silently, the old alliances forged during the Cold War in Southern Asia are shifting. Pakistan, India and China are modifying their foreign policies, no longer according to ideological considerations but to what they perceive as their national interests.

Islamabad, 14 February 2020. — Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a ceremony to sign agreements
Office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan/AFP

Since the middle of the 1950s, the principles had been well established: in the name of their shared anti-communism, the United States could rely on Pakistan which in return received the unstinting support of Washington. Islamabad also knew it could count on Saudi Arabia, in the name of Islamic solidarity, to keep afloat the young nation, born in 1947. There was a spectacular illustration of that triple alliance early in the 1980s when it backed the Afghan mujahedin in their battle against the Red Army.

As for India, though officially non-aligned, it actually had a strong penchant for the Soviets who had provided it with massive support following the armed clash with China in the Himalayas, which had ended with an Indian debacle.

The Sino-American rapprochement, initiated by President Richard Nixon in the seventies, completed the picture: Beijing and Washington had in common an uncompromising anti-Sovietism, and so there was nothing to prevent China from concluding a counter alliance with Pakistan, especially aimed at India which shares two of its longest borders with the only two countries that have waged wars against it since it won its independence in 1947.

Islamabad says “no” to MBS

The first noticeable tensions between Riyadh and Islamabad appeared in 2015. In April of that year, a few days after Saudi Arabia, at the head of the coalition attacking Yemen, had unleashed the campaign of bombings dubbed operation Decisive Tempest, Pakistan officially declared that contrary to information supplied by Arabia, it was not a party to that coalition. In order to clarify matters and back up the efforts of the Islamabad government to resist Saudi pressure, a motion was passed in the Pakistani parliament outlawing the country’s participation in any such coalition. A few months later, Arabia’s strong man, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who at the time was “only” Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince, announced on 14 December 2015 the formation of an “anti-terrorist coalition” composed of 34 Muslim countries. But in the days that followed, three of the countries cited by MBS informed the world that they had not agreed to join: Lebanon, Malaysia and again Pakistan. In order to allay irritations detrimental to both sides, the Pakistani government finally authorised, in March 2016, its chief of staff, Raheel Sharif, recently retired, to take the military command of the coalition. Each country saved its face but none of the basic conflicts were settled.

For many years Pakistan’s alignment on the policies of Saudi Arabia was one of the axioms of the region’s geopolitics, especially in the days of General Zia ul-Haq who ruled from 1977 to 1988 and had accentuated the Islamisation of Pakistan with the backing of the Saudis. The Pakistani army had maintained a discreet presence in the Kingdom so as to ensure the regime’s stability in the event of problems within its armed forces and in return Arabia helped Pakistan make ends meet every month, which included financing the nuclear research that ultimately led to the production by Pakistan of the “Islamic atom bomb”.

While the strategic interests of Riyadh and Islamabad were on the whole identical, the inevitable disagreements were settled behind the scenes. However, from the moment when the bulk of power in Arabia fell into the hands of MBS, who is not particularly known for his tact or patience, a veritable sea change occurred. A man capable of taking the Lebanese Premier hostage because he disapproved of his domestic policies was obviously not going to feel obligated to respect Pakistani sensibilities if the country failed to fall in line with Saudi policies. As was to be expected, the brutal and highly visible pressure he brought to bear on his Pakistani ally backfired and led to the public humiliation constituted by its repeated refusal to join in the two coalitions assembled by MBS.

Moreover, Pakistani leaders did not fail to observe the lack of enthusiasm which the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) displayed in condemning the Indian government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir. And very recently, it seems, Arabia has demanded the reimbursement of the three billion dollars lent to Pakistan in 2018. In spite of the country’s financial difficulties and instead of asking for a delay, Pakistan complied, and by December 2020 had already repaid two billion dollars, with the remainder scheduled to follow during the month of January 2021. In other words, not only is the ideological and strategic marriage contracted half a century ago on the rocks but appears on the verge of annulment.

Counter alliances

For many years, India had been on good terms with just about everybody (except China and Pakistan), even though its nonalignment was obviously favourable to Moscow. Without actually announcing a reorientation of his country’s diplomatic priorities, nationalist Premier Narendra Modi has noticeably inflected India’s foreign policy.

This Hindu nationalist, said to be hostile to Muslims and sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, surprised observers, at the beginning of his term of office, by multiplying his visits to the Arab Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates. At the end of each visit, a joint press release not only denounced terrorism but the countries which favour and support it. Pakistan understood full well that it was targeted and soon discovered the efficacy of Modi’s realpolitik: what had once been its close ties with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were definitely weakened. These counter alliances targeting Pakistan have caused it to experience serious difficulties with those long-standing allies.

The changes introduced by Modi are not confined to the Middle East. The rapprochement with the USA, already visible when the Congress Party was in power, has been accelerated since 2014 and even more so since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Besides the personal ties established between the two leaders, it is the Chinese menace which provides the woof and the web of this development, signalled principally via the reactivation of the “Quad.” In 2004, Japan, Australia, the USA and India launched the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known by its diminutive, the Quad. But this informal grouping, denounced by Beijing as an Asian NATO, quickly fell into desuetude when Australia and India steadfastly refused to make it an openly anti-Chinese alliance.

Three years ago, things changed, primarily because of the policies pursued by Xi Jinping, perceived as threatening by all his Asian neighbours. In November 2020, the marines of all four countries participated in their largest joint naval exercise in the Indian ocean, within the framework of the “Malabar” manoeuvres. The Quad is still not a formal Alliance but is gradually becoming one, which has made Beijing furious but also annoys Moscow, which has never accepted the “Indo-Pacific” concept either, since it implies a bond between many other countries on the shores of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including France. This strategic and military approach, ostentatiously targeting China, is also aimed at sidelining Russia.

This whole context no doubt explains the indefinite adjournment of the annual Russo-Indian summit scheduled for last Autumn and which has been held every year since 2003, when the India-Russia Strategic Partnership Declaration was signed. The official reason adduced—the Covid-19 pandemic—should not be taken too seriously. During the last months of 2020, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Premier Narendra Modi had many video conferences with the principal world leaders. We have indicated above the causes for Russia’s discontent. As for the Indians, it would appear that they did not appreciate Russia’s attempt to act as a mediator in the border conflict between India and China in the union territory of Ladakh. Indeed, Moscow is suspected of being over-sympathetic to the Chinese viewpoint.

Crisis of confidence with Moscow

At this point we need to emphasise a capital factor: most of Pakistan’s foreign policy and security concerns are determined by one single element: its hostility towards India, combined with the dread of a military intervention on the part of its huge, powerful neighbour, which is far from theoretical. This dread is kept alive by the belligerent and warlike rhetoric of many leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the media close to it. And, of course, it strengthens the grip of the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) on Pakistan’s institutions.

It is in the light of this world-view and of the recent changes that have taken place, that we must interpret the present attitude of the Pakistani leadership. The country is busy adapting itself to the new situation. It has a terrible image in the West, as it is well aware. Its actions (or lack of action regarding the terrorist movements) are largely responsible for this, but are not a reason to underestimate its capacity for drawing the necessary lessons from the dynamics of recent events. India has drawn closer to the USA? Pakistan has done the same with Russia. For a long time Moscow has been, through thick and thin, India’s ally. The one India could count on after the 1962 debacle in its confrontation with China. The country with which it signed in August 1971 a “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” just prior to the war of secession in Eastern Pakistan which gave birth to Bangladesh thanks to India’s armed intervention and Beijing’s decision not to get involved, considering the existence of what was, in all but name, a politico-military alliance between its two giant neighbours.

Russia, however, having been ousted from its role as India’s principal purveyor of weaponry by Israel, France and the USA, has also turned to Pakistan, selling it a few helicopters and fighter planes, and opening negotiations for the sale of some tanks. Needless to say, the Pakistani market bears no comparison with the Indian one, but the signal sent to New Delhi was sufficiently clear for India, at Washington’s great displeasure, to place a recent order for the Russian S-400 aerial defence system, of a cost estimated at 5.4 billion dollars. Be that as it may, in the subcontinent the relationship between India and Russia is no longer as exclusive as it once was, an indication of the crisis of confidence that has set in over recent years between Moscow and New Delhi.

Deprived of the guaranteed backing of the USA (and other Western countries), as well as the Gulf monarchies, Pakistan has nonetheless got other options up its sleeve. Looking around, it observes that other Muslim nations (non-Arabic, like itself) manage to hold out against Saudi Arabia and challenge its influence. Thus, quite logically, Pakistan has strengthened its ties with Turkey and Malaysia, while doing its best to eradicate the sources of tension that have marred its relationship with Iran.

It seems that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have tried to pressure Islamabad into joining the ranks of the Muslim countries that are normalising their relations with Israel. Until now the Pakistani government has refused to do so, and this is no doubt why it recently leaked the surprising news of secret visits to Israel by Pakistani officials, including members of the opposition.

While Narendra Modi’s India has undertaken to recompose the region’s geopolitics, Pakistan intends not to be outdone and has responded in its own way to the new US-Saudi-Emirati-Israeli axis with a kind of alliance made up of China, Turkey, Iran and Malaysia plus efforts to win the benevolent neutrality of Russia.

Hence the current geostrategic arrangement, composed of actions and reactions which resemble a zero-sum game in which most of the players, except probably the USA and China, are careful not to put all their eggs in the same basket. When India gets openly too close to the USA, Russia takes a step towards Pakistan. When the latter’s former allies (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) seem to be siding with India, Pakistan draws closer to the opponents of those Gulf Monarchies. There are no brutal sea changes at any basic level, but relative shifts in a moving set of equilibriums; hostility or distrust can nonetheless make room for some degree of cooperation, even between India and China. But at the end of the day, it is indeed a planetary-like realignment in keeping with a new paradigm which we are witnessing in Southern Asia.