Pakistan’s the Place…To Pull the Pin on the China Collapse Grenade
India-Pakistan relations look to be interesting in the next few years, especially if by “interesting” one means “potential for regional conflagration with toasty global elements”.
If the PRC continues its rise at its current trajectory and under its current management, chances are that by 2050 the United States will be facing a China that is 1) militarily and economically predominant in Asia and 2) explicitly hostile to US global and regional leadership and 3) in a position to do something about it.
Maybe the PRC will fall on its behind before that happens. After all, the CCP’s empire is rife with internal political, social, ethnic, and economic contradictions and Xi Jinping seems to be trapped in the endless “frantically pumping up the economy with colossal amounts of debt while he struggles to make a single-party dictatorship pretend to be an efficient pluralistic polity” phase.
However, “standing idly by” is not the job description of the people who run America’s half-trillion-dollar military/security/intelligence effort, so I expect passively waiting for 2050 while praying that Gordon Chang is right for once is not the only item on the agenda.
Maybe a helping push will be necessary. In other words, maybe the US will transition from a “containment while hoping China collapses from its internal contradictions” policy to a more forthright “China collapse” strategy.
In IR speak, this would involve a sea change from the US nominally promoting a stable world system to acting as a de facto disrupter and destabilizer.
The US pays inordinate lip service to its role as custodian of the liberal global order and up til now has done an OK job of tarring China as an “aggressive, assertive” disrupter in Asia.
But when deterrence/containment breaks down, the US has shown itself pretty willing to bend the rules of the “international liberal order” to advance its interests.
Look at Syria as an example of what we do when our power projection capabilities are limited but we want to degrade and distract a regional adversary, Iran, by bleeding it in an interminable local conflict, cost, collateral damage, and blowback be damned.
Nice harbinger for China.
And if one considers Syria as a U.S. foreign policy Mission Accomplished and not, as the IR crowd might, as a ECFOML—Egregious Clusterf*ck on Multiple Levels—the anti-China battlespace looks a little different.
There are plenty of external anvils to toss the PRC to exacerbate/provoke internal contradictions: Taiwan independence, Hong Kong autonomy, agitation in Tibet, the South China Sea…
…South China Sea? Hmmm.
Are we going to confront Chinese power directly with our naval squadrons in the South China Sea, risking US assets and prestige in a hugely expensive mano-a-mano cage match over some worthless islands, the prospect of which quite frankly horrifies our prosperity-friendly and conflict-averse regional allies?
Or, as an option, why not look down South Asia way, fortuitously the home of a powerful and aggressive US ally, India, who is already eager to slug it out with a vital PRC ally, Pakistan?
Maybe start something there the sooner the better, before the Pakistan-PRC axis entrenches itself and China breaks out of the US-led containment system toward its west via OBOR?
Something really nasty that in addition to balking a PRC move toward South Asia, offers the promise of a nice murderous stew of aggrieved Islamist militants unleashing havoc in Xinjiang?
Something that involves a regional asset bearing most of the risks, and not the United States?
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC is in my opinion the key tell as to whether the US-led global system is willing to accommodate China’s rise or simply wants to f*ck with it.
Current indications are: Let’s F*ck With It.
The PRC has reached out to India to a certain extent to try to reconcile India to the CPEC—and the fatal fact that it cuts through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is tangled up in the Kashmir dispute.
But indications are that India ain’t buying the win-win OBOR fable unless the PRC performs the impossible task of throwing Pakistan under the bus: neutering the ISI and its barely deniable terror network, neutralizing Pakistan’s army, zeroing out Pakistan’s independent regional influence, and thereby giving India a free geopolitical run to its west through Afghanistan and out to Iran.
The murderous Uri raid, in which Pakistan-backed militants apparently killed 17 Indian soldiers in India-occupied-Kashmir, looks like a disturbing indicator there is no way for China to square the circle between Indian assertiveness and Pakistani aggression.
I write about the entanglement of US and PRC priorities in the murderous mix of the Uri outrage in my latest piece at Asia Times, South Asia on a Knife Edge After Uri Raid. Indian media and hawkish opinion have unsurprisingly adopted a simple narrative of “Savages murder innocent Indian soldiers because Pakistan’s only export is terrorism”, but it appears to me the raid is part of a nasty geopolitical snarl including Kashmir, Balochistan, CPEC, China, and United States threads.
India’s hawks are openly calling for the liquidation of Pakistan as Plan B, by supporting the independence of Balochistan, which would pretty much put an end to Pakistan and, in a geopolitical twofer, kill the CPEC, which runs through Balochistan for about a third of its length, and effectively end the PRC presence in South Asia.
Plan C—letting a hostile Pakistan stabilize itself and enhance its regional clout by serving as a useful economic and strategic ally and asset of the PRC on India’s doorstep—doesn’t seem to top too many lists, at least in government.
So Pakistan-collapse is emerging as the proactive option for India, just as China-collapse is for US planners.
The US, in a signal to India whose significance should not be understated, reaffirmed its opposition to Balochistan independence thereby indicating it wasn’t quite ready to see India promote the dissolution of Pakistan just yet.
But that’s an undertaking that could be a) withdrawn b) honored “in the breach” i.e. the U.S. could condone Indian subversion of Pakistan sovereignty over Balochistan sub rosa c) blithely ignored by India, which is anything but a tractable U.S. client and understands the Pentagon will swallow almost any defiance as long as India plays an active anti-China role.
The unsettling conclusion is that, if you want to pull the pin on the China-collapse grenade, Pakistan is the place to do it—and India might be happy to perform the honors.
By Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.