June 5, 2015 | Commentary on International Conflicts, Afghanistan War, Terrorism, Trade

China, India and Pakistan - the power players in South Asia

Relationship dynamics between China, India, and Pakistan will shape the future of the region's security, writes World Review expert Lisa Curtis.

China’s increasing political, economic, and military influence in South Asia may have a negative impact on democratic development trends but could help stabilise the long-running Indo-Pakistani conflict.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has completed his first year in office, has taken a tough stance on the China-India border disputes and taken an aggressive outreach to other Asian nations - particuarly Japan - all of which is strengthening New Delhi’s hand in its dealings with Beijing. This was evident from Mr Modi’s successful visit to China in mid-May 2015.

Meanwhile, China will continue to deepen its partnership with Pakistan both to blunt Indian regional power, and to promote stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region through economic investment and infrastructure development.

Prime Minister Modi spoke candidly during his visit to China about the two countries’ border disputes while also courting Chinese trade and investment.

China is India’s biggest trading partner with bilateral trade totalling around US$71 billion in 2014.

One of Mr Modi’s key goals for his trip to China was to narrow their large trade deficit by convincing China to open up its pharmaceutical, auto parts, and agricultural sectors to Indian imports.

The two countries signed 24 agreements and nearly US$30 billion in business deals. Prime Minister Modi stopped short of accepting China’s invitation to join its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative which seeks to enhance connectivity and cooperation among countries from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, however, demonstrating the two Asian heavyweights will continue to compete for regional influence.

The economic focus of Mr Modi’s visit demonstrates that both sides would like to reduce the emphasis of border disputes, even though no immediate resolution is in sight.

Although the two sides have held border negotiations since 2003, China has hardened its position.

The success of Mr Modi’s negotiations with China could be viewed as vindication of his firm position on the border issue.

Just prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit, Chinese President Xi had travelled to Pakistan, where he pledged US$46 billion in infrastructure investment, a sign that Beijing wants to solidify long-term ties with Islamabad, its historic defence and strategic partner.

China views a strong partnership with Pakistan as a useful way to contain Indian power in the region and divert Indian military force and strategic attention away from China.

The China–Pakistan partnership serves both Chinese and Pakistani interests by presenting India with a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country.

While these geostrategic goals still frame China’s thinking on Pakistan, its offer of massive infrastructure assistance is also driven by its concern that the instability and terrorism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan could impact Chinese security.

As US and Nato forces draw down from Afghanistan, Beijing is taking sharper notice of the challenges posed by the Taliban and other extremist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and showing greater willingness to actively engage in diplomacy and economic cooperation with both nations.

To the contrary, India’s relations with Pakistan have been on a downward trajectory since Prime Minister Modi called off foreign secretary-level talks in 2014 due to a Pakistani official’s meeting with Kashmiri separatists.

In a hardening of India’s position from that of the previous Manmohan Singh government, Prime Minister Modi has said any dialogue would be based on Pakistan's steps to rein in terrorist groups.

The rhetoric of Indian and Pakistani officials alike has sharpened in recent weeks with both sides accusing the other of supporting attacks within their borders.

While leaving the door open for improved economic and trade ties, Indian officials are not pressing the issue, probably because they recognise that the civilian government’s hands are tied by the powerful Pakistan Army, which continues to call the shots on core national security issues.

 - Lisa Curtis analyses America's economic, security and political relationships with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations of south Asia as a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in World Review