The South Asian region- home to 25% of the global population – is marked by deteriorating socio-economic conditions and volatile domestic political environments. The region also lags behind in terms of connectivity and bilateral trade. One of the reasons for bilateralism and regional integration to thrive in the region is India-Pakistan’s nuclear rivalry and Afghanistan’s perpetual instability, which makes it ever difficult for long-term bilateral trust to develop between states. This makes trade, connectivity, diplomacy, and dialogue even more difficult for this conflict-prone region.
The region attempted regional integration and cooperation through frameworks like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and mega connectivity projects like Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Central Asia-South Asia Power Project CASA 1000, and Tajikistan- Afghanistan- Pakistan- India Gas Pipeline (TAPI). But the deeply shaken security dilemma and lack of collective security awareness in regional states result in delays in the completion of these projects or inefficiency of multilateral forums. With the protracted conflicts, ethnic unrest, and economic challenges still unresolved, the region now faces another challenge in the form of accelerated competition between the US and China, both of whom now aim to expand their respective spheres of influence and strategic competition beyond South Asia onto Indo-Pacific. This makes matters especially concerning for Pakistan, as it faces the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in the form of refugee flows, and trans-national terrorism resurging in the volatile border areas. Meanwhile, the growing US-India defense cooperation and strategic alignment for greater Indo-Pacific cooperation make it even harder for Pakistan to lower its threat perceptions towards this partnership.
As much as Pakistan wants to resist becoming a casualty of great power competition, it is placed at the delicate epicenter of South Asia, and Central Asia via Afghanistan, West Asia, and the Indian Ocean. This makes it especially hard for Pakistan to remain indifferent to growing polarities, shifts in alliances, and resulting disruption in the balance of power, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The resulting geopolitical stress is costing Pakistan its foreign policy, security, and economic goals in the shadows of great power competition. Pakistan’s National Security Policy mentions a renewed focus and commitment towards regional economic connectivity, human security, and development-based alliances.
The intensifying strategic competition has distracted the great powers of attention from some of the destabilizing challenges faced by the South Asian region.
US’s Indo-Pacific focus makes India its inevitable defense ally to counter China in the Indian Ocean. Some of the developments of this alliance, like the possibility of India obtaining nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS and QUAD gaining momentum since 2020 Malabar military exercises are of particular concern to both Pakistan and China. In case Washington actually designates India as its “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean, the regional geo-strategic calculus may get seriously destabilized. U.S.-India defense ties have drastically developed in the past decade. U.S. defense corporations are engaging directly with the Indian government to build its domestic arms production and defense technology capacity, which can further accelerate the arms race prevalent between both Pakistan-India and, now, China and India. The joint strategic vision statements and agreements between India and the US to bring India to park with NATO allies seems to indicate quite clearly that Pacific states and India are deliberately building polarity in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the intensifying strategic competition has distracted the great powers of attention from some of the destabilizing challenges faced by the South Asian region. What concerns Pakistan the most is the lack of US and international community engagement in Afghanistan’s worsening humanitarian crisis, and leaving the byproducts of the Afghan conflict to be managed by Pakistan and neighboring states alone. In this regard, the Indo-Pacific region is home to some of the world’s thriving economies that are now also integrating India through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. No doubt, India’s economic growth can rescue millions of people in its territory from poverty, but the dangers of Hindutva-led Indian policies and narrative, unfortunately, are being used to target minorities, focusing on religious-identity-based populism.
CPEC and Gwadar can be instrumental in reviving a staggering economy, and make it a transit hub for inter-regional trade.
As India invests heavily in its border infrastructure to facilitate trade links with smaller South Asian states, its bilateral trade with the U.S. hit a record $157 billion in two-way goods and services trade in 2021. In fact, the US is now the top destination for India’s merchandise exports. And yet is it China’s BRI and CPEC that are being securitized by the Indo-Pacific states, and India in particular considers this grand initiative of regional connectivity as an instrument of Chinese supremacy? India, therefore, remains reluctant to be a part of BRI and CPEC, resisting South Asian and Southeast Asian connectivity or related projects like the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI). For Pakistan, CPEC and Gwadar can be instrumental in reviving a staggering economy and making it a transit hub for inter-regional trade.
The US’ focus on the Indo-Pacific to balance power with China should not be at the expense of South-Asian development, and Pakistan’s history of alliance with the US.
The connectivity links and trade agreements coming under BRI can revive the domestic economies of Central Asia, and South Asia and integrate West Asian and Middle Eastern Markets to rescue the people from staggering poverty, economic stagnation, and resulting under-development. The US focus on the Indo-Pacific to balance power with China should not be at the expense of South-Asian development, and Pakistan’s history of alliance with the US. The alienation of South Asia and investment in defense alliances in the Indo-Pacific by the US might push both regions into zero-sum-based great power competition, making it especially hard for developing states, not to become a casualty of great power rivalry. Therefore, a renewed U.S.-Pakistan engagement, refocused on development, clean energy, and security cooperation beyond Afghanistan, is needed. This can also address the US’ apprehensions about the growing Chinese influence in the region and retain Washington’s strategic relevance in South Asian geopolitics.
Noorulain Naseem is an academic and a researcher on Afghan refugees, border security, and ethno-nationalism. She has been a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington DC and writes frequently for South Asian Voices Forum of Stimson. Before this, she was a lecturer in the department of International Relations at NUML University, Islamabad, and holds an MPhil in Peace and Conflict Studies from NDU Islamabad.