Sino-Indian Conflict – Options for Pakistan, Russia & the United States

Image source: Reuters

Prelude

After the 9th Corps Commander Meeting; China & India decided to disengage militarily from the Pangong Tso Lake area signalling the current border confrontation which was going on since May-2020. While more meetings will take place to further disengage at other flashpoints including Depsang, Demchok & Gogra.

Although it may look unnecessary on the part of China to bring India this far to contest for a stretch of barren land but China has its most important Road Network going through this land which India claims as its an inseparable part of the territory. Whether it is G219 Road connecting Tibet & Xinjiang or CPEC connecting Gwadar Port to Kashgar; both going through either Aksai Chin or Gilgit-Baltistan are claimed by India. Hence China’s effort to occupy the strategic heights surrounding the Depsang Plain & Daulat Baig Oldie Airstrip along with strategic Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road Network is only intended to unnerve India’s foothold in the region. For India, it is “Kargil Redux”. Therefore any conflict that India may force or choose to enter with China shall require Diplomatic & Military Support (spares & hardware). Three countries are going to be extremely critical considering India’s Military & Diplomatic Preparedness; Pakistan, Russia & the United States.

This article argues the options; these countries can exploit.

India-Pakistan border/ Image source: NYT

Pakistan’s Paradigm

The Geopolitical Blunder made by India during the First Kashmir War in 1947-48 by allowing Pakistan to occupy & retain Gilgit-Baltistan jeopardized India’s Physical Security by getting disconnected from Afghanistan through the strategic Wakhan Corridor. At the same time, it allowed Pakistan to link up with China after the latter’s occupation of Tibet. Failure of Pakistan’s Economy & Military both in comparison to & in confrontation with India pushed it more towards China’s lap. Pakistan has become China’s relief towards its Geographical Stagnancy to reach the warm water. In return, China arms & lends Pakistan to confront the common rival; India. Pakistan’s debilitating economy & disabled civil administration has made it into a Client State of Chinese. Hence it is too obvious that in any Sino-Indian conflict; China will activate Pakistan against India to give India the nightmare of the Two Front War Scenario.

Now such a move by both China & Pakistan together being opportune is too obvious & very much predictable for New Delhi as far as preparedness is concerned. Also, this is not without the risk of Indian retaliation to such a Sino-Pak Joint Venture. A full-scale Indo-Pak war will only alarm China for the security of the infrastructure of CPEC against possible Indian Military Assault. Hence it will not be wise for China to initiate Pakistan for a full-scale war against India even during Sino-India Conflict which will only legitimize the Indian counterstrike on critical Chinese interest in Pakistan including CPEC.

On the other hand; Pakistan itself may not be a willing customer to buy a war policy to open the Second Front against India no matter how much lucrative it looks. It is true that Pakistan fought four unsuccessful wars with India but the policy that suits Pakistan best is to “Bleed India with thousand Cuts” launched by its Late President General Zia. Knowing its economic instability & diplomatic inviability; Pakistan will definitely not take the chance to engage India in an open war that too when the latter is militarily engaged with China. It will only draw Indian retribution completely based on Indian domestic political & popular dynamics. Also, it will further ensure Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation to an unprecedented degree. That said; it still cannot be discounted that Pakistan will simply sit idle or will be allowed to stay away by Beijing either. Pakistan will obviously use this opportunity to use all the hybrid means available to frustrate India on various issues including Kashmir, Terrorism, Religion, Internal Political Rivalry, Social Media, Internal Dissension, Diplomatic Issues & whatsoever. Militarily; it shall definitely calibrate the LOC as well as both the Airspace & Maritime Domain to draw more & more Indian Military Resources to ease pressure on China. Moreover, Pakistan’s experience in High Altitude Warfare at Siachen will come in extremely handy for PLA to survive & combat India’s battle-hardened troops in Ladakh.

Being the claimant of Superpower position; China will definitely wish to defeat India alone to satisfy its Great Power ego but it will definitely be in requirement of Pakistan’s hybrid support which will perfectly complement & comfort China to achieve exactly what it wants without sharing any credit percentage.

Image source: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian Roulette

Kremlin would be the most sought after Power Centre in any future Sino-Indian Conflict considering its warm relation with Beijing & being the mainstay for Indian Military Hardware let alone the diplomatic support it can offer to India. It is undeniable that the Foreign Policy of Russia under President Putin is far from the days of the Soviets & driven by a more REALPOLITIK approach. Fueled by Energy Trade & careful use of Kinetic Options in Syria, Libya set the Russians on the driving seat as a Major Power in World Affairs once again. However continuous American forward policy towards Russia & falling of former Soviet Republics one by one to the predatory appetite of ever-expanding NATO; has kept Russia in perpetual panic. And much to the delight of China; such an American effort only pushed Russia towards China’s strategic ambit. Both China & Russia chose to forge a strategic association which further matured & reaches the level of even joint strategic bomber patrolling.  

On the other hand; Russia no longer considers India as its Key Partner in South Asia unlike during the days of the Soviet. Russian indifference for Indian cause was quite visible on past occasions such as its refusal to name Pakistan as State Sponsor of Terrorism during the BRICS Summit in 2016. Russia took a dubious stand during the Closed Door Meeting of UNSC proposed by China on the abrogation of Article 370 by India. Russian Foreign Minister expressed concern on Indo-Pacific Strategy twice during Raisina Dialogue & during RIAC meet in January & December; 2020 respectively deemed it as containment plan for China. A key issue of Russian Annoyance is India’s reducing Defence Import from Russia & its resolve to be self-reliant in Defence Production. India’s partnership in defence procurement is steadily growing with a number of countries but most importantly with the US including high-end American Defence Technologies & that too at the cost of Russian Business with India. Still heavily reliant on Russia but the reliance is thinning out each day.

Hence considering the decaying state of the Indo-Russian Relationship; it is obvious that Russia definitely would not come to India’s aid diplomatically in any event of Sino-Indian Conflict. But Russia can cause a debilitating impact on India’s warfighting ability by putting an embargo on Indian Defence Imports although it would be suicidal for Russian Defence Business with India too. Because Russian Arms Industry is far more dependent on India for the latter’s requirement on Big Ticket Weapon Platforms let alone the business of spares. Hence any Russian effort to scuttle or delay military supply to India during the Sino-Indian conflict will only further nail its future business prospects. So logically India may not get Russian Diplomatic support but it will get the Military Assistance as usual.

US President Donald Trump with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi/MEA India

The United States & the Thucydides Trap

The rise of China is no longer a welcome marvel for American Foreign Policy. Using American appeasement; Beijing consolidated its position in every sphere including the South China Sea. Things only started to change during the Trump Presidency where appeasement was replaced by realpolitik. Although Trump was most unpredictable of all the American Presidents but above all, he proved himself difficult as far as China is concerned. It was under his presidency; Washington has identified the necessity of India to have it on its side. Be it in Doklam or in Galwan; American cosiness have grown with India to an unprecedented level.

On the other hand, it is the reality that unlike other QUAD Members; only India shares a long common border with China. Most importantly India probably is the only country that is standing against China with a resolve to settle matters with force if necessary. With a disciplined democratic system, strong economy & powerful military; India is the instinctive choice & necessary vantage point for the US against China. Although India has already been a Defence Partner of the US-based on the Foundational Agreements including GSOMIA, COMCASA, LEMOA & BECA. But the QUAD when it formed; aligned itself with the security concern towards China of all the member countries. Under American Leadership & Indian resoluteness; QUAD is fast becoming an option for the like-minded nations in entire geographic limits for free & open “Indo-Pacific” Region.

Now, how far the US would go to support India in an event of the Sino-Indian Conflict? Since India does not enjoy any security guarantee unlike Australia & Japan; the Americans fighting side by side with the Indian Army is near-impossible situation to envisage. However in terms of Military Hardware, Intelligence Sharing (both Tactical & Strategic), Special Operation Assistance, Joint Military Training & Strategic Level Force Deployment could very much be on the plate to offer. But the most important support the Americans could provide is in diplomacy. China is not Pakistan. Therefore the US would be playing an extremely critical role on the diplomatic front by dismantling Chinese Propaganda & its global diplomatic outreach.

Conclusion

Early 20th Century British Diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe once said Should the war come & England stand aside; one of two things must happen. Either Germany & Austria win, crush France & humiliate Russia. What would then be the position of friendless England? Or France & Russia win. What would then be their attitude towards England? His understanding of Pre WW-I equation between Nation States of Continental Europe could be treated as an applicable model to all the three countries herein in case there is a Sino-Indian conflict.

China is the lifeline of Pakistan in all respect; Economically, Militarily & Strategically. The survival of Pakistan depends more on China than Pakistan itself. Traditional Pakistani allies like the Saudis, the Emiratis & the Americans are now beyond the reach of Islamabad due to its cosiness with Turkey & China. Therefore by the theory of Sir Eyre Crowe; what would be Pakistan’s situation if it does not support China & the latter loses to India in the Sino-Indian conflict? Also, what would be Pakistan’s credibility if China survives the conflict without Pakistan’s support even when it was required?

For the US; India’s survival is not only required to showcase the success of democracy & economic growth in parallel but also in Asia it is the most credible US Ally that can stand against Beijing. So by the questions as raised by Sir Eyre Crowe; if India survives the Sino-Indian conflict, that too without the US support then what would be its attitude towards Washington? Similarly what would be the position of the US in Asia if India does not survive the conflict?

The only country that may escape the distressing question of this cunning British Diplomat is Russia. China is Russia’s most important strategic partner to counter the American effort to corner Moscow. Hence alignment with China is more important to Russia. Thus any Sino-Indian conflict is only an opportunity for the Russian Arms Industry as far as India is concerned as argued. But if the US joins the conflict physically on India’s side; Russia would then definitely decide on its course of action based on the same theory of Sir Eyre Crowe. What will be Moscow’s position if China fights it out against both India & the US without Russian aid when asked? Also, what will be Russia’s situation without China if it has to stand against the entire NATO & EU if China loses to India & the US?

So it may have started at some point of dusty windy mountain terrain of Eastern Ladakh but the heat of any Sino-Indian conflict will definitely be felt not only in New Delhi or Beijing but also in Islamabad, Moscow & Washington DC.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Abhishek Das

Abhishek Das is an Independent Researcher on the subject of Geopolitics, Gunboat Diplomacy, Counter-Terrorism although having no Institutional Affiliation

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