US-China rivalry has become a dominant theme of international relations for the past two years now.

COVID-19 has given it a lot of tailwind. Initially, the verdict was in favour of China. However, many think US is back in the game.

The rivalry shapes both strategic debates and real political, military, and economic dynamics.

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 up of relations between Washington and Beijing. He was speaking to the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum on Global Issues.

He further adds on to say that it carries more risks than the cold war with the Soviet Union, where the two rival superpowers used every possible means to pursue the conflict.

The unipolar world, post the cold war, created a power vacuum which gave birth to the strategic competition between US and China.

There came a clear shift in economic wealth distribution worldwide that has stimulated terms like the ‘Asian Century,’ and significantly enhanced the role of regional organisations like ASEAN, BRICS and SCO.

COVID-19 has further fuelled the rivalry and US global leadership stands questioned.

Any unwise move might increase the risk of the two countries falling into the ‘Thucydides trap.

Most importantly, it may result in Asia becoming a battleground for US–China enmity.

The growing tension between an existing and an emerging superpower has further complicated the already stressful South Asian security environment.

South Asia is important to both US and Chinese objectives in Asia due to its inter-regional connectivity.

The rise of China has increased India’s importance for US to advance its defence cooperation.

Its obvious leanings towards India to counterbalance China in the region has direct ramifications for Pakistan, thus disturbing the strategic stability in South Asia.

On the other hand, China has become an influential international player and has made economic investments from Asia to Africa.

China has also provided consistent, unconditional support to Pakistan on its nuclear program, asymmetrical rival India, and the Kashmir issue.

Whereas US, on several occasions, has put Pakistan in defensive position on the same and has unashamedly sided with India.

The million-dollar question is that is Pakistan being cultivated yet again by the US, not for just cooperation to exit from Afghanistan, but perhaps for a role beyond the exit, and post the exit.

Historically, Pakistan has maintained good relations with both. In fact, China has been extremely tolerant of Pakistan’s more than needed tilts towards Washington during times of tactical convergence between the two.

Now with rising China and it, choosing Pakistan to be its frontline state in an economic initiative, may result in Pakistan having to make a choice.

China has become Pakistan’s largest export market for Pakistani goods and a destination of choice for both education and tourism for Pakistani elite.

Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that under the Biden Administration, the Sino-American relationship is moving gradually from sharp confrontation to deep competition.

Does that shift also include a recalibration of relations with both India and Pakistan, and new understanding that pitching one against the other and supporting camp politics in South Asia may be counterproductive.

The renewed focus on values and human rights by Biden Administration cannot be selectively applied to China and gain global reception. The situation in India and Kashmir will have to be factored in.

The making of it was seen when sparks flew at the first high-level meeting between Washington and Beijing.

China’s Foreign Policy master minds Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi responded with a tirade on America’s own crisis of democracy and human rights record, pointing to the Black Lives Matters movements in the US, when confronted with human rights violation accusations by Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor to Biden.

Many are of the view that even a modest improvement in US-China relations may be problematic for India, especially post latest low in their relations, where it has taken an increasingly hard line on China through reducing its commercial ties and scaling down other co-operations. Last but not the least, is the Russia’s return to South Asia.

Its new influence in the region includes its mediation in border talks between India and China, and its increased role in the Afghan peace process, alongside China and Pakistan. Bilateral relations between India and Russia date back to the 1950s.

The gradual distancing between the two saw each party strengthening relations with the rival camp; India strengthened its relations with US and Russia with China.

The recent visits by Russian foreign minister to both India and Pakistan is indicative of Moscow’s rising influence in the region.

Its warm relations with China and Pakistan, should put Moscow in a strong position to shape the region’s politics.

The global strategic realignment may give Pakistan the proverbial golden chair in the region. It is upon Pakistan to now use it to its advantage.

Maintaining a balanced relationship with both US and China, should be the mantra of its foreign policy. Improving relations with India will only strengthen Pakistan’s position further.

India also seems more willing than before to improve relations with Pakistan. Recent developments are indicative of it.

Let not the baggage of history hold back the two protagonists of the region to make sane choices to truly become a part of the Asian Economic miracle.

The twenty-first century geopolitics cannot ignore the thrust of geo-economics dictates. The new cold war is not about ideology, it is unfolding around the paradigms of efficiency.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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