US-China Rivalry: Impact on South Asia

The US-China strategic rivalry has huge repercussions and implications for Pakistan. The US has both propped up India and invested in it to counterbalance China. Security and diplomatic cooperation in coordination between India and the US have been rising in recent years, particularly since Donald Trump became president.

Huma | Daily Narratives, Featured from Narratives Magazine
Huma Baqai
The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

The US administration has called rivalry with China the biggest geopolitical test of the century. US-China relations characterized by a pattern of ups and downs over the past quarter-century took an irreversible turn for the worse in 2019. President Barack Obama was the first US president to publicly acknowledge China’s economic might as a threat to US financial global status with its potential to surpass it in the future. He opted for the cooperation approach by convincing China to work as its junior partner in the region and the world. China declined it because it wanted to be treated equally, reflecting its transformed status and power potential. Under President Trump, the differences became more potent, who fired the first shot by initiating trade wars with China. The bilateral ties of decades were transforming and entered a phase many called the beginning of a ‘New Cold War’.

Trump had called Obama’s cooperation strategy a sign of weakness and worked towards a more aggressive stance. Interestingly, Biden has taken Trump’s policy to the next level, where he has engineered a dramatic shift in American foreign policy since Richard Nixon went to China. The tensions threaten to engulf the entire world and could lead to an Armageddon-like clash between the two military and technology giants, said Henry Kissinger, the architect of the 1971 warming of relations between the two countries. He added that it carries more risk than the Cold War with the Soviet Union, where the two rival superpowers used every possible means to pursue the conflict. Post-Cold War, the unipolar world created a power vacuum that gave birth to this strategic competition between the two countries.

The so-called ‘Biden Doctrine’ is “less interested in co-existence and more interested in dominance”. The openly stated task of American foreign policy is now not to counter-terrorism alone but largely to blunt Chinese ambitions. America may work with China in areas of common interest but will counter it elsewhere. Biden’s decision to confront Beijing and make that confrontation central to his foreign policy makes good political sense.

China has emerged as the only peer competitor to the US in the last thirty years. The most aggressive moves made by Biden against China are on the economic front. He has carried on with former President Donald Trump’s trade sanctions against Beijing and worked with the Senate to pass a massive quarter trillion-dollar industrial policy bill to boost US competitiveness. He launched a ‘Buy American Campaign’ that cuts foreign firms out of the highly lucrative US government procurement market; he has also worked to block Chinese acquisitions and investments inside the United States and keep Chinese students and researchers out of the country. In June 2021, President Biden signed an executive order banning Americans from investing in Chinese companies linked to the military or surveillance technology. 60% of Americans now have an unfavourable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005.

US’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the humiliating collapse of the US propped up Ghani Government and the Afghan National Army, and the subsequent spectacular capture of power by the Taliban has further strengthened China’s position in the region. 

The US-China strategic rivalry has huge repercussions and implications for Pakistan. The US has both propped up India and invested in it to counterbalance China. Security and diplomatic cooperation in coordination between India and the US have been rising in recent years, particularly since Donald Trump became president. Consistent with American activism, India has been gradually shedding its long-held hesitation about being a proactive participant in militarizing its alliance with the US, Japan and Australia against China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. Both Washington and New Delhi characterized the BRI as a debt trap, much to China’s annoyance

India’s developmental and diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan that worked against Pakistan has been possible due to America’s military presence in Afghanistan. The conventional wisdom usually dished out to Pakistan of not placing all its eggs in the China basket and to resist pressures to side with China in the latest strategic rivalry with the United States is becoming difficult by the day to operationalize. US-China tensions can complicate the delicate balance Pakistan has maintained between Washington and Beijing so far. Pakistan and India, the two protagonists in South Asia, will fall into opposite camps if the new cold war unfolds risks to regional security are high. Chinese stakes in South Asia are also substantially high; Beijing’s efforts to go global since 2012 meant the subsequent expansion of Chinese activities beyond its borders and acceleration of building links with South Asia in new and more ambitious ways.

US’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the humiliating collapse of the US propped up Ghani Government and the Afghan National Army, and the subsequent spectacular capture of power by the Taliban has further strengthened China’s position in the region. China lost no time offering the Taliban what they are seeking in return for safeguarding Chinese interest in Afghanistan and giving them the requisite economic foothold in Afghanistan, including access to mineral deposits worth three trillion dollars. China emerged as one of the first nations to develop diplomatic channels with the Taliban. The Taliban have also reassured China that post-war Afghanistan will welcome infrastructure and investment projects. They mentioned. “China is a friendly country, and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.” China, in some ways, have already given de facto recognition to the Taliban. Criticism by the West that China is not concerned about the protection of human rights or the democratic process in Afghanistan sounds quite hollow in the wake of the US cut and run calendar and not condition-based withdrawal.

China’s strategic Belt and Road initiative could get more reach if it can extend it from Pakistan to Afghanistan with Peshawar to Kabul motorway, a shorter land route for faster and convenient access to markets in the Middle East Chinese goods. The path through Kabul also makes India’s reluctance to join the BRI less consequential. Many see the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan as yet another American retreat from Asia. The quick-moving in of China into the vacuum and their subsequent welcome by the Taliban by calling them ‘ leading partner’ and that they will make an economic come back with the help of China has a lot of significance. In more than one way, China has already given de-facto recognition to the Taliban capture of power. Add to this the Russian’s take on the situation; they have effortlessly transitioned into working with the Taliban. They have spoken positively of them so far and have praised them for maintaining order in the capital. Russia is willing to engage with them as long as they provide security guarantees for Central Asia and pledge to prevent terrorist attacks from Afghan territory, which they already have. A veteran Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov went as far as comparing the Taliban favourably to the former government. He said, “if you compare the capacity to make agreements with colleagues and partners, then the Taliban have long seemed to be far more capable than the Kabul puppet government”. Russian President Putin has told his Chinese counterpart Xi that he shares China’s positions and interests in Afghanistan and is willing to work with the Taliban to prevent the security risks from “spilling out” of Afghanistan. Completely changing the security matrix of the region and propel the US to once again engage with Pakistan. Leaked documents show ‘Biden administration is quietly pressing Pakistan to cooperate on fighting the terrorist group. Losing a nuclear-armed country to China and having no influence over the Taliban prevents the Biden administration from distancing from Pakistan.

Pakistan is very open to being both US and China’s face of foreign policy in Afghanistan, provided its sensitivities and sensibilities are accommodated. The United States has made the mistake of engaging with the wrong side in Afghanistan, which resulted in a debacle it will have a hard time recovering. Is the US making the same mistake once again by engaging with India to balance the power equation in South Asia at the expense of Pakistan? Rethinking would help.

US-China Rivalry: Impact on South Asia