When most United States’ combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, it will symbolize the end of a war that has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape in Central Asia. In particular it will highlight the demise of Western influence over the region, and the rise of Asian players, especially The People’s Republic of China. In this paper we will analyse the main geostrategic shifts that are visible in the area, and how the main global protagonists, namely the United States and China, are likely to adapt to them. Even though the situation clearly requires major changes in policy with respect to Central Asia in both capitals, there are internal obstacles in both countries that will likely weaken their respective positions. Other local players such as Russia, Iran and India are likely to benefit from a failure by the two global rivals to adequately react to the changing circumstances.
The ability, or lack thereof, of China and the U.S. to find and accept this new balance of powers between them will decide the future of the region. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, would benefit both powers as well as enhance local stability. If there is a resurgence of the “Great Game”, with geopolitical competition manifesting itself in Afghanistan and its surroundings, China and the U.S. are both likely to lose terrain to other regional actors. Therefore, their main challenge will be to overcome internal obstacles to clear the way for an effective power balance in the region.
The geostrategic situation in central Asia is likely to change dramatically in the next few years, and especially after 2014. Two main events will trigger this: the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan– leaving a power vacuum in the region-, and the already growing economic dominance of China, as well as India. The consequent rivalry for resources and influence in the region between is likely to have large consequences.
In this environment, the Kashmir conflict will be a scenario where the intentions and political strategy of China for this new context might be revealed. The solution of the conflict in this region between India and Pakistan remains complex, with no real prospect of a long-lasting agreement. The relative calm in the region seems to have been the result of the situation in Afghanistan and US pressure to put the conflict on halt to not exacerbate the difficulties it is facing already. Now, with the US removing itself from the equation, Beijing will become a more prominent variable. It has welcomed positive developments between Islamabad and New Delhi, but it has been reluctant to show its cards. The fate of Kashmir is now in the hands of three, rather than two, regional and nuclearly-armed rivals. India seems to have more to gain from this than Pakistan.
CHINA’S KASHMIR POLICY OVER TIME
Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir has been the main battlefield for the projection of their rivalry. However, the Kashmir territorial dispute has been also a global concern, as it caused nuclear proliferation and cross-border terrorism.
China has not remained indifferent to the conflict either, even if its involvement has not been consistent. China´s Kashmir policy has rather flowed through different phases, each one determined by its own current interests in the region, its relations with Pakistan and India, and its general Asian strategy.
From neutrality in the 1950s, Beijing moved to a clear support of Pakistan during the 1960s and 70s, as a result of the take-over of Tibet and its own war with India in 1962. But since Deng Xiaping took over direction of China´s external policy in 1978, China returned to neutrality, as its relations with India improved. By early 1990s China´s position is that Kashmir conflict is a bilateral matter, and currently China clearly supports a peaceful solution to the conflict: Beijing is interested in a stable Asia and better relations with India.
The above stated different phases of the Beijing’s Kashmir policy are sketched by a network of complex interests and bilateral relations that will also influence China’s future position on the conflict. The most obvious of those interests is its own entanglement: India claims the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin of approximately 35,000 square kilometers as part of the territory in Ladaakh, Kashmir. This border area, even though it has no natural resources, has been strategic territory for China as it connects Tibet and Xinjiang. However, with the completion of numerous road and rail links to Lhasa from other parts of China, Aksai Chin has lost part of this significance for China.
Security and economic concerns are paramount to Beijing. Both elements are present in its relations with Pakistan and India, and the evolution of those is the key element that will define China´s approach to Kashmir´s conflict.
FROM INTIMACY TO MISTRUST
China´s cooperation with Pakistan has been strong over time. Pakistan is important for Beijing, both as a counter to India and also because of Chinese’s fight against separatist movements in its northwestern territories.
The conflict with Pakistan has distracted India from increasing its influence in the region, and has also been an obstacle in its relation with the US. In this sense China needs a strong Pakistan to contain India, to keep alive the situation of balance of power in South Asia. That is why China supported Pakistan renewed alliance with the US after 11/9. It was the only means to avoid Pakistan growing isolation in the international sphere, given its links with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Recently, however, fear of Islamic fundamentalism originating in Pakistan has also been a major concern for the Chinese. Terrorists helped radicalize Uighur separatists in Xinjiang in the 1990s and the Uighur still today find a safe haven in Pakistan´s tribal areas. The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan will increase Beijing´s fears of terrorist destabilization of its western border; China needs a capable Islamabad of controlling this threat, and until now Pakistan has not proven a real ability or willingness to do so.
Economic interests are also part of the equation. China has invested in Pakistan infrastructures and transport routes –a significant example is the maintenance of the KKH road or the construction of the port complex at the naval base of Gwadar – as an important part of the Chinese strategy to reduce its dependence on oil supplies through the Malacca Straits and create alternative routes. In recent years the economic cooperation has continued growing, with increasing Chinese investment in different sectors, especially in energy and trade.
In the Boao Forum for Asia celebrated in April, China and Pakistan renewed their close relationship, thus formally showing the stability of their alliance. But even though Islamabad is still seen as a key piece in regional security, China has become increasingly weary of its reliability as a partner. It does not seem to be able to offer Beijing concrete results.
Chinese relation with India has been much more tortuous over time. Characterized by border disputes in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, the rivalry between the countries has resulted in several military confrontations in 1962, 1967 and 1987. However, in the last two decades they have relaunched their diplomatic ties.
The most powerful engine that promotes their improved relationship are the growing mutual economic interests. Trade and economic growth of both countries in south Asia has led towards cooperation in security issues as well: they share the necessity to confront the threat of organized crime, terrorism and domestic instability of countries in the region. They also share a common interest- both being rising powers- to limit United States influence in their own backyard, as well as in improving their representation in international institutions.
Even though it is true that India is an increasingly important strategic ally for the US, mainly as a possible counterweight against China in Asia, there are also concerns about their relationship. Obama’s protectionist economic policies, the US close relationship with Pakistan and its renewed emphasis on non-proliferation all put pressure on India. Just like China, India has begun to wonder if its neighboring rival could be a more useful partner than its natural friend. Some specific efforts at solidifying these mutual interests were already attempted in the past, such as the “Strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” agreed by Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh in April 2005.
Of course, the Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus remains a concern worry for India. China is the main provider of military capabilities to Pakistan and that is a clear threat to India, as well as seen as a display of Beijing´s hostility. Similarly, the militarization of their disputed border areas, though stable, is a focus of tension between the countries. China´s growing presence in Myanmar and in other small countries in south Asia are interpreted as a struggle for dominance of the Indian Ocean. China wants multi-dimensional (including military) cooperation with most of the region for economic and strategic reasons. Some of the countries (Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, etc.) are in the traditional sphere of influence of New Delhi, creating even greater tensions between the two most populous nations in the world
WHERE DOES CHINA GO?
With the nuclear threat ever surrounding the Kashmir conflict and its three regional rivals, the direction that China chooses in the next years is no trivial matter. Its natural ally, Pakistan, is increasingly seen as untrustworthy and unable to support China in it ambitions. Whereas in theory its position is strong, practice has created serious doubts on whether it really has anything tangible to offer.
Its natural rival, India, is still very much a source of strategic concern and practical headaches, but is also respected in Beijing. The fact that they have so many areas of contention paradoxically also means that they have a lot to offer each other. Mutual cooperation might allow dealing at the detriment of Pakistan and the United States. Diplomatic support in the Kashmir conflict is a bargaining chip that China might very well be willing to offer India in exchange for more important issues on the People’s Republic’s agenda.