The recent public disclosures about US policy of accelerating India’s rise through diplomatic, military and intelligence support to contain China indicates that the US-China strategic competition will continue in 2021, along with the trade war, as a long term policy, with Joe Biden’s Administration as well. It is understandable that uniting America and fighting pandemic will be highest on the priority list of the new President, but his office bearers have given enough hints to work with allies and strategic partners as essential part of US strategy against China, having recognised it as a competitor and vice versa.
China, despite internal pressures like protests in Hong Kong and some jolts in economic and infrastructure ventures, has been posing a brave front. It has been able to gravitate Russia and Iran towards it and is in the process of colonising Pakistan. This leaves India in a state of strategic balancing between the US, Russia and Iran to get the best out of such a strategic scenario. The diplomatic task of doing so is becoming increasingly difficult as Putin indicates possible alliance with China (perhaps to put caution on New US Administration), Iran signs $ 400 billion deal with China and India struggling to maintain strategic autonomy, under pressure of CAATSA threat on S-400 deal, post sanctioning of Turkey and heavy dependence of military hardware and spares on Russia.
China will continue to assert more on the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and Eastern seaboard. In Indo-Pacific region, India will stand for freedom of navigation and flights, rule-based order, use of global commons in international waters, but any showdown with China is unlikely, because Quad, despite its upgradation to Foreign Ministers level, is still not a military alliance to threaten China. The ideas of Quad plus or grouping of democracies (D10) is yet to take any shape. South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will continue to witness aggressive military posturing, just short of a confrontation, as the redlines of Taiwan going nuclear or China attacking Taiwan have not been crossed. It gives room for US strategy of ambiguity of not formally junking One China Policy, strengthening various agreements with Taiwan, selling state of the art equipment and continuing FON missions in Taiwan Strait. The invitation to Taiwanese envoy to the oath-taking ceremony on Capitol Hill indicates no change in US stance from earlier administrations. This gets further confirmed as U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entering the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas” on the same day, when Taiwan reported a large incursion of Chinese bombers and fighter jets into its air defence identification zone in the vicinity of the Pratas Islands.
PLA will continue to improve its maritime and other capabilities for expeditionary roles in Indo-Pacific and beyond, to support its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and protect its SLOC. India in conjunction with other Navies will have to increase stakes for the PLA Navy in Indian Ocean, besides continuing with its own capability development. China is aware of its vulnerabilities in Indian Ocean and will avoid being drawn into any confrontation in this region, except visits of Chinese submarines to their potential bases/surveillance missions and some more build up on the bases acquired by them through ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. India will have to join other friendly navies as mentioned above, to make best use of Chinese vulnerability in the maritime domain in Indo-Pacific region.
SINO- PAKISTANI NEXUS AND TWO-FRONT WAR
The ongoing standoff at LAC, Chinese compulsion of pushing BRI/CPEC through, has further increased the strategic relevance of Pakistan for China. A major side effect of abrogation of Article 370 and internal reorganisation of J&K into two UTs, has been the strengthening of Sino-Pak collusion in military and non-military affairs, which led to China taking up the Kashmir agenda to UNSC twice and elections in Gilgit Baltistan. China has increased its efforts to develop military capability of Pakistan, use of its Army and its terror potential. China will ignore state sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, as it indirectly contains India’s growth and reduces its impact in South Asia; hence has managed to stop India from heading al-Qaeda sanction Committee in UNSC.
The terror industry and hybrid war by Pakistan will continue in 2021, notwithstanding their economic difficulties. Whenever Pakistan is on the verge of sinking, some country will bail it out, to foster its own interest through Pakistan, because of their strategic location/terror potential. As Year 2021 finds US troops reduced to 2500, Taliban may be in the driving seat in Afghanistan, with conglomeration of many terror groups like ISKP, al-Qaeda, AQIS, Haqqani network and others, which may develop capability to strike the US mainland and India, if not checked. Ceding that strategic space to China and Pakistan is against the security interest of India and the US. The recent statements of Secretary of Defence of US in Biden’s Administration indicate recognition of the role of Pakistan in dealing with Afghanistan as before, has a cost, because now Pakistan’s autonomy is hostage to China, which wasn’t the case when Democrats were in power last time. India will continue to be apprehensive of Biden’s reliance on Pakistan, which will have to be factored by the Pentagon, if China is the competitor.
It may be interesting to note that Pakistan’s terror industry is mainly sustained by a parallel economy involving drug trade, extortion and assistance from ISI, with material and operational support from Pakistan Army. The efforts of FATF and IMF may show some check on terror funding by formal economic resources, but not on the parallel terror economy, as the linkage between the two is not as tight as it is made out to be. Pakistan is unlikely to get blacklisted by FATF even in 2021, because it will be able to find three countries to oppose such move, which is adequate to avoid blacklisting, however it might continue to be in grey list, despite its best efforts to hoodwink FATF by sham arrests of some key terrorists prior to its meeting in Feb 21. Pakistan seems to have done well for itself in information warfare, initiating false propaganda against India, which has mitigated its criticism amongst domestic as well as global audience. Pakistan will continue to operate and plan terror operations against India in 2021, as in past, with greater effort to destabilise Kashmir to undo Indian effort for inclusive growth of Jammu and Kashmir.
The progress on CPEC is likely to continue despite Indian opposition and some domestic opposition inside Pakistan, although, BRI will continue to face many roadblocks globally. CPEC will fully make Pakistan a colony of China, which is already into a client- Patron relationship, where strategic choices of Pakistan are hostage to China. This brings out a long-term threat to India in terms of ‘Two-front war’ for which India has to be compulsorily prepared for. India’s intention to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) will need shaping of the international environment, affected population and waiting for appropriate time, giving higher priority to Ladakh standoff first.
Part 2 of the 3-part article.
The writer is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years’ experience in national & international fields and UN.