Andrew Korybko's blog

The New Cold War’s Evolving Strategic Dynamics in South Asia

February 8, 2022

The New Cold War will inevitably creep into South Asia, which all regional stakeholders need to be prepared for. This analysis will briefly cover the top strategic dynamics at play. The most critical challenges affecting peace and stability in South Asia are the spread of the US-Chinese New Cold War’s competitive dynamics to the region, India’s attempt to multi-align between its traditional Russian partner and its new American one, and Afghanistan’s impending humanitarian crisis following the US’ withdrawal from the country a few months ago.

China’s CPEC in Pakistan is an apolitical project that inadvertently triggered a security dilemma with India. India in turn doubled down on its commitment to the US-led Quad in an attempt to contain China. This complicated India’s traditional relations with Russia. Russia in turn sought to diversify its regional partnerships through a rapprochement with Pakistan that was initially driven by shared security concerns stemming from Afghanistan. The resultant Indo-Russian distrust was finally cleared up during Lavrov’s trip to the region last spring, which paved the way for President Putin’s visit last December.


Source: Embassy of Pakistan, Beijing

The 2019 Indo-Pak clashes and the next summer’s Indo-Chinese ones over the Galwan River Valley significantly impacted regional dynamics. They were the natural result of preexisting tensions finally spilling over and didn’t occur by chance. The Chinese-Pakistani axis strengthened, the US politically supported India against China, and Russia twice reaffirmed its support for India’s position towards Kashmir. While the first two outcomes further divided the region into two distinctly emerging blocs, the last-mentioned one didn’t adversely affect Russia’s ties with China or Pakistan.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was another major event in the region that saw the Taliban sweeping back into power. Geostrategically located Afghanistan finally experienced political and military stability, but terrorist concerns remain acute as does the risk of a humanitarian crisis. The second-mentioned is exacerbated by the US’ weaponization of financial instruments aimed at coercing the Taliban into making unilateral socio-political concessions. If this humanitarian crisis can be averted, regional countries can take advantage of Afghanistan’s strategic role for facilitating Eurasian integration.

In particular, this has to do with February 2021’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan railway that can casually be referred to as PAKAFUZ after each participating country’s first few letters. There’s also the so-called “Persian Corridor” between China and Iran, which reached a 25-year strategic partnership deal earlier last year, via Tajikistan and Afghanistan. PAKAFUZ can in theory extend as far as Russia and even involve India in the event of an Indo-Pak rapprochement while the “Persian Corridor” can pioneer overland connectivity between West and East Asia via Central-South Asia.

Interestingly, the US could also participate in PAKAFUZ if it has the political will. This project’s transregional integration vision aligns with the US’ “Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025” that was promulgated in February 2020. Last July’s announcement of a so-called “New Quad” between the US and the three PAKAFUZ countries adds credence to this strategic observation, but it’s dependent on the evolution of US-Taliban ties after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which remain troubled. Any progress in this and the subsequent PAKAFUZ direction would contribute to regional stability.

Be that as it may, the US is still expected to comprehensively expand its military-strategic ties with India through the “Traditional Quad” between those two, Australia, and Japan. The three US-Indian military “foundational acts” of the past few years create a solid basis for jointly containing China. Nevertheless, India’s decision to go through with buying S-400s from Russia can slow down this trajectory if the US imposes sanctions like it threatened, even if they’re mostly symbolic ones in order to “save face”. India also fears becoming disproportionately dependent on the US, hence why it’s balancing with Russia.

Its multi-alignment isn’t perfect but it’s more stabilizing than if India surrendered its strategic sovereignty to become the US’ junior partner. Russia is fiercely competing with the US when it comes to meeting India’s military needs. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report in March 2021 noting that there was a 53% drop in Russian arms exports to India between 2011-15 and 2016-20, yet head of Russian arms exporter Rostec’s International Cooperation and Regional Policy Victor N. Kladov said in August that they reached $15 billion worth of deals in the last three years.

The Russian-American arms competition in India will prompt Pakistan to continue developing its indigenous military-industrial complex and strengthening related ties with China. Perhaps the most disruptive trend for observers to monitor is the possible proliferation of hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles to South Asia. It should be taken for granted that India and Pakistan are both researching these technologies as part of the latest phase of their decades-long arms race with one another. Whoever develops and deploys these arms first will have a serious strategic edge over the other.

Although all parties involved deny it, there has been lingering speculation that the Soviet Union helped India develop its nuclear program just like China did the same with Pakistan. Since each pair’s military relations continue into the present day, influenced both by inertia and each extra-regional country’s intentions to use their regional partner as a means for maintaining balance in South Asia, it’s possible that Russia and China might help India and Pakistan respectively in developing hypersonic technologies just like they speculatively did in the past when it came to nuclear ones.

Even if that’s not happening, one or the other might be compelled to belatedly do so if their partner’s regional rival became the first to develop and deploy these arms, with or without external assistance. If India is the first, then it should be taken for granted that China would help Pakistan catch up to retain the regional strategic balance. But if Pakistan is the first, then it’s unclear whether India would turn towards Russia or the US in this respect. Both Great Power rivals would intensely compete with one another for this opportunity, with India’s ultimate choice determining its strategic trajectory for years.

Going with Russia in this speculative scenario would greatly limit its anti-Chinese military-strategic coordination with the US; but going with the US would ruin the basis for India’s multi-alignment policy and thus risk making the country America’s junior partner. It would also considerably worsen South Asian instability a lot more than if India simply stayed the course by continuing to rely on its historical Russian partner and thus retained the decades-old regional model. Hopefully no such hypersonic-related scenario will transpire, but it still can’t reasonably be dismissed considering the dynamics involved.

To sum it all up, there are several negative and positive regional trends. The first concern the entrance of bloc-based geopolitics to South Asia, Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, and the risk of a hypersonic arms race which might even see China helping Pakistan and either Russia or the US helping India. As for positive trends, these involve regional connectivity projects such as CPEC and PAKAFUZ, India’s continued multi-alignment between the US and Russia out of fear of becoming the former’s junior partner, and Russia’s regional balancing act. All told, the strategic dynamics remain tense and uncertain.

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