Will U.S.-China Competition Divide South Asia Along Great Power Fault Lines?


On February 8, 2021, U.S. President Joseph Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed in a call to continue “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” U.S.-Indian cooperation has strengthened considerably in the past year against the backdrop of an increasingly tense security situation in South Asia and an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China.

On October 27, 2020, the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense met with their Indian counterparts for the third annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, an initiative to strengthen the U.S.-India strategic partnership and to “promote synergy in their diplomatic and security efforts.” The meeting culminated in the signing of five agreements, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), an intelligence-sharing pact between the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Indian Ministry of Defence, and the last of four foundational defense agreements between the United States and India.

The signing of BECA comes amidst the concurrent intensification of three rivalries in South Asia: the United States and China; China and India; and India and Pakistan. Although the United States has historically tried to balance relations with India and Pakistan, partnering with both to achieve its strategic objectives, the rise of China has upset that balance. With heightening regional tensions and the rippling consequences of BECA, two opposing blocs—the United States and India versus China and Pakistan—may emerge in South Asia, further complicating the prospects for regional peace and cooperation.

Intensifying Rivalries

Tensions between China and India reached a boiling point in June 2020 after fighting erupted in the Galwan Valley, the worst border clash between China and India in over 40 years. India’s stance towards China has become increasingly hardline as Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah asserted that the entire Kashmir territory, including Aksai Chin, belongs to India and that India would “sacrifice life for this.”  

Dispute over Aksai Chin, claimed by India but administered by China, has occurred for decades. In 1956, China began building a road through Aksai Chin to connect Tibet with Xinjiang. In 1962, China and India fought a brief war over Aksai Chin, resulting in a Chinese victory. Since then, both countries have continuously stationed troops around the disputed territory. China and India have signed various agreements on keeping troop levels to a minimum and not opening fire along the disputed border as confidence-building measures. However, these measures failed to prevent decades of border “transgressions” from boiling over into the Galwan Valley.

The situation worsened in September 2020 when China and India accused each other of firing shots along the border. The United States demonstrated its support for India by sending an aircraft carrier group into the Bay of Bengal for an exercise with the Indian Navy. Tanvi Madan, Director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, described the move as “symbolic” in that it “signal[ed] to China and others that the United States is standing by India.”

India further announced a restructuring of its military into five commands by 2022, including a Northern Command focused on China. Tensions between China and India have only heightened since as Chinese and Indian troops clashed in another border skirmish on January 25, 2021.

The China-India conflict is just one of three competitive relationships that define the complex security landscape in South Asia. The second is the relationship between the region’s two nuclear-armed rivals, India and Pakistan, which engaged in a border clash in November 2020 that killed at least 15 people. India and Pakistan continued to exchange fire over the Line of Control into January 2021. The third is U.S.-China competition, which has fueled regional polarization. India expanded cooperation with the United States as its relations with China soured. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan have strengthened bilateral ties in a time of deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relations. These shifting relations threaten the delicate balance of power in South Asia.

Jeff Smith of the Heritage Foundation called the United States’ friendly gestures and China’s aggressive moves towards India “complimentary forces” that “are pushing India toward sort of more overt balancing activities and more confidence in establishing a meaningful strategic partnership with the US.” The signing of BECA is one such gesture.

In particular, India’s move towards the United States signifies a growing break from its historic reluctance to move too far into the U.S. orbit. During the Cold War, India championed non-alignment, having just won independence after almost 200 years of colonial British rule. India’s anti-imperialist stance actually aligned it more often with the Soviet Union than Western powers. India has continued the policy of non-alignment into the present day under the banner of strategic autonomy, “a mutation of realism and India’s traditional non-aligned posture.” However, the conversation on strategic autonomy has begun to shift as increasingly more Indian experts see partnering with the United States as a security measure against China. 

Agreeing to Disagree

Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars called the signing of BECA “a game-changer” as “India had long resisted signing.” Indeed, BECA had been under negotiation for over a decade. Following then-President Donald Trump’s February 2020 visit to India, the United States and India decided to fast-track BECA.

BECA allows the United States to share sensitive satellite and topographic data with India to better enhance the accuracy of India’s automated hardware systems and weapons, such as missiles and drones. BECA is designed to increase the interoperability of the U.S. and Indian militaries and facilitate U.S.-Indian cooperation in countering growing Chinese influence over the Indo-Pacific. The shared satellite data includes crucial information to that end, such as data on the movement of Chinese forces in the contested Ladakh region. The United States will also “provide advanced navigational aids and avionics on US-supplied aircraft to India,” according to an India defense source.

India’s willingness to partner with the United States to this extent demonstrates a clear shift in Indian strategic thinking and the regional balance of power. The United States’ willingness to partner with India, on the other hand, demonstrates a continued focus on curbing Chinese influence, as can be understood through the 2018 U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific. The framework states, “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China.” It also details desired end states for the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy: “India’s preferred partner on security issues is the United States. The two cooperate to preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern.” Although the United States has long sought to cooperate with India on security issues in the region, China’s growing influence has accelerated the need for a strong regional partner.

Sharpening the Iron Brotherhood

China and Pakistan have not been silent in the face of BECA. On November 30, China and Pakistan signed a military memorandum of understanding (MoU), a move that experts believe was to counterbalance enhanced U.S.-India defense cooperation. While the exact details of the MoU are not yet public, Pakistani media reports suggest that the MoU includes stipulations on intelligence and technology sharing to track Indian troop movements along the shared border.

Pakistani Senator Anwaar ul Haq Kakar said that the MoU “will counter the onslaught of India backed by the United States and it will give more confidence to Pakistan that in its hour of need Beijing will stand with Pakistan.” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also called for “closer strategic cooperation to raise the iron-clad Pakistan-China brotherhood to a new height.” As iron sharpens iron, increasing U.S.-India cooperation has given China and Pakistan greater incentive to strengthen their military cooperation. 

Pakistan’s security is particularly important to China because of shared economic interests, most notably through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Launched in 2015, CPEC is a collection of development projects throughout Pakistan valued at around $87 billion and is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to China, the projects have employed an estimated 75,000 Pakistanis, significantly reduced Pakistan’s rolling blackouts through new power plants, and resulted in infrastructure improvements in highways, railways, and the deep-sea port of Gwadar.

Prime Minister Khan has endorsed CPEC as “a manifestation of Pakistan-China friendship” and vowed that “the government will complete it at any cost.” He even asserted that “Pakistan’s future is tied to China. We should be clear on this that our country’s [economic] development has now been intertwined with China.” Now, “CPEC 2.0” is underway, with a focus on “industrialization, agriculture, and socioeconomic development,” with  “a particular emphasis on special economic zones.”

Both militarily and economically, China and Pakistan’s interests are intimately tied and will likely continue to deepen in light of U.S.-India developments.

Emerging Divisions

The signing of BECA between the United States and India and the military MoU between China and Pakistan signify a growing split in South Asia, though current alignments are still relatively loose. The United States continues to maintain strong trade relations with Pakistan and requires Pakistan’s assistance in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the United States and India are not formal allies, and varying levels of trust between the two militaries cause experts to question their actual levels of mutual commitment.

Nevertheless, the two military agreements signed between the two global-regional power pairs in South Asia are indicators of accelerating bipolar blocs in the region. It is too early to tell whether or not those blocs will ultimately solidify, and what effect they will have on regional security. South Asia need not be divided along great power fault lines, though the tremors of U.S.-China competition in the region are already being felt.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.



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