Chinese President Xi Jinping, on four separate occasions last month, openly stated that he is preparing China for war. In light of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric, the importance of Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is ever more apparent. Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and India are key actors in the IPS and pose a formidable coalition that can “maintain stability and reject coercive exercises of power” in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Yet, the IPS has a significant weak point: The strategy’s alliance infrastructure is heavily skewed toward the Pacific. The main focus of the IPS is centered around a potential Taiwan contingency in the South China Sea and fails to address Beijing’s strategic advances in South Asia.
The current IPS relies primarily on India as the key partner within the Indian Ocean. India’s inclusion is certainly a positive, but the lack of any additional members of the IPS in its vicinity poses a significant weakness. Chinese military planners have realized this deficiency and are increasingly challenging Indian hegemony in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Laccadive Sea.
In order to minimize China’s position, U.S. policymakers would be wise to reconsider Pakistan’s inclusion within the IPS. Pakistan’s inclusion not only strengthens the overall U.S. position but simultaneously limits Beijing’s expansion. While the inclusion of Pakistan will be a herculean task in the face of Indian opposition, the alternative scenarios are much worse.
Recent Chinese successes in brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its rapidly increasing military footprint in Pakistan and interoperability with Pakistani forces, expansion of ground stations in Sri Lanka, and successful bouts of naval cooperation with both Bangladesh and Myanmar expose areas of weakness. U.S. outreach to Bangladesh to minimize Chinese influence and maneuverability in the Bay of Bengal indicates that the Biden administration is not taking Beijing’s activities in the region lightly, but current measures are not sufficient in light of Chinese determination.
In the Indian Ocean, the United States primarily relies on its partnership with the Indian Navy to support its IPS’s objectives. While significant improvements have been made in the India-U.S. relationship, New Delhi continues to adhere to the remnants of its old non-alignment policy, now rebranded as “strategic autonomy.” New Delhi’s reluctance to fully embrace Washington, along with the Indian military’s reliance on Russian military platforms, give pause to Washington policymakers. While the trust deficit is expected to diminish over time, significant work is still required.
In regard to capabilities, the Indian Navy acts as a considerable naval force capable of acting as a deterrent for subversive Chinese actions in its immediate vicinity. Yet the Indian Navy and its hardware are increasingly outmatched by Beijing’s naval capabilities in the event of a hot conflict.
In addition to the mismatch in naval capabilities, Beijing has also strategically supplied subsidized naval vessels and provided maritime infrastructure expertise to build the nascent naval capabilities of both Bangladesh and Myanmar. The most recent delivery of a Russian-made submarine to the Tatmadaw, as well as the construction of the deep-water port in Kyaukphyu, illustrate significant Chinese attempts to expand its influence in New Delhi’s backyard. Last month’s inauguration of the BNS Sheikh Hasina south of Dhaka, as well as the delivery of two Chinese-manufactured submarines, challenges India’s influence in Dhaka. The transfer of naval equipment and the training of Bengali and Myanmar naval personnel also allow Beijing the advantage of stationing Chinese naval personnel in the Bay of Bengal.
Rumors of Bangladesh’s embrace of the IPS are significant but are undermined by the recent political rhetoric of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh’s inclusion into the IPS adds a marginal benefit to the alliance network but is unlikely to change the country’s long-time tradition of non-alignment and maintaining autonomy. Lastly, Bangladesh’s limited naval capacity is unlikely to change the underlying power imbalance between Chinese and Indian naval capabilities.
South of India, much has been written on Chinese activities in Sri Lanka. New Delhi continues to enjoy significant influence in Colombo but is increasingly challenged by China. The impact of Chinese diplomatic efforts and rumors of Chinese-led construction of a military facility on the Coco Islands threaten India’s influence within Sri Lanka, as well as the surrounding maritime zone.
At the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean, Chinese efforts are also significant. A recent report by the United States Institute of Peace highlighted that Chinese platforms would compose around 50 percent of Pakistan’s major military platforms by 2030. Furthermore, the number of China-Pakistan joint military drills has increasingly grown in both frequency and complexity. The report suggests that Beijing’s arms transfers strategically increase the degree of interoperability between the two militaries.
As the interoperability between the two forces continues to increase in tandem with the complexity and frequency of joint military drills, so too does the risk of Pakistan allowing Beijing unfettered access to its naval and air facilities. The likelihood of Chinese warships operating out of Gwadar or Karachi remains largely hypothetical but the potential for such an eventuality threatens to radically undermine New Delhi’s position, and, subsequently, the strength of the IPS. A Chinese naval presence in both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea would divide both New Delhi’s attention and resources.
In order to combat Chinese efforts, U.S. policymakers must revisit Pakistan’s inclusion in the IPS. Entertaining Pakistan’s inclusion in the IPS while Islamabad becomes increasingly reliant on Beijing to meet its security and technological needs certainly poses a security risk. It was not too long ago that Washington’s interests in Afghanistan were undermined by Pakistani generals. Yet, Pakistan’s inclusion, even at a minimal level, into the IPS would signal to Beijing that its “silver bullet” is not as secure as it would like to believe.
Furthermore, if Washington were to successfully reengage military-to-military ties with Pakistan, it would not only prevent a major non-NATO ally from falling fully into China’s orbit but signal to a lukewarm India that Washington is willing to utilize a wide array of tools and alliances to meet its security concerns and will not be held to a double standard as it continues to engage with Russia.
While recent developments in the China-Pakistan relationship are likely to disincentivize Washington’s policymakers from pursuing Pakistan in the IPS, the risk of allowing Pakistan to fall fully into Beijing’s orbit is much greater. It is much better to have some influence as opposed to none. Opponents of Pakistan’s inclusion into the IPS are likely to argue that Islamabad is unlikely to support the IPS because it would damage its relations with Beijing. While Pakistan would be forced to walk a delicate balance if inducted into the IPS framework, the generals in Rawalpindi would relish the opportunity to hedge between the United States and China.
It must be understood that Pakistan’s reliance on China is not necessarily a relationship that is preferred over one with the United States, but one borne out of necessity. While the relationship with Beijing has come in handy for Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s political and security establishment has consistently been more comfortable dealing with the West. After all, Pakistan’s official language is English. But, due to its international isolation, economic woes, and fallout with Washington, Pakistan has been forced to rely on expensive financial support and inferior military hardware manufactured in China.
Despite having Beijing come to its aid, the Pakistani political and military establishment’s heart resides in Washington. Islamabad and Rawalpindi have realized that their love affair with Chinese investment was short-sighted and have slowly drifted back toward the middle by attempting to reengage with the West.
In the coming decade, the United States will see increasing levels of competition in the Indian Ocean. Washington’s increasingly close ties with New Delhi have only reinforced Beijing’s perception that the United States IPS is just an attempt to contain China. Furthermore, Pakistan’s exclusion from the IPS and minimal cooperation with Washington has only pushed it closer to its northeastern neighbor. Washington policymakers would be wise to reengage Pakistan through the IPS.
There will no doubt be significant Indian opposition to such a development. New Delhi will not readily stomach Pakistan’s inclusion. Yet, the thought of Chinese warships operating out of Karachi or Gwadar should offer enough of an incentive to prefer Pakistan’s inclusion.