Emerging Multiplex World Order: South Asia to Witness Greater Hostilities

Drawing upon Amitav Acharya’s concept of ‘Multiplex Order’, South Asia will experience a tumultuous future ahead due to the growing intensity of great power politics. Although not part of the liberal order as claimed by Joseph Nye, China and India benefitted greatly from it. However, China’s assertiveness and Indian expression of strategic autonomy in contemporary history underline the fact that both countries will least likely salvage liberal order if needed. With competing strategic interests, the troika of competing global aspirations, i.e., the U.S., China and India will further exacerbate the short and long-term conflict cleavages in South Asia. In short term, the debt restructuring issue concerning Pakistan, while India’s bid for NSG and a permanent seat at the UNSC despite the declining rate of democracy, and the competing strategic alliances of Pakistan-China and U.S.-India in the long-term are bones of contention to look out for.

The competing strategic interests and crosscutting strategic objectives of the U.S. and China vis-à-vis Pakistan and India will further magnify the disruptive forces within the region. 

As the strategic competition between China and the U.S. intensifies, according to experts China’s foreign policy has shown greater hawkishness under Xi. Especially, the spat between the U.S. and China over debt restructuring has gained greater currency in recent times. The heat of the crisis is felt more brutishly in South Asia, where Pakistan faces an impending default due to its $100 billion debt. While the U.S. pushes China for debt restructuring of Pakistani loans, China calls out the U.S. for its “radical fiscal policy” for the crisis facing Pakistan. In such a geopolitical setting, it is Pakistan that will face the brunt of increased tensions between the two great powers, resulting in greater immobility to balance out between the two.

As the adage goes “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests”, the U.S.-India strategic partnership can also be defined by the same praxis. Despite continued abstentions from UN resolutions against Russian aggression in Ukraine and the purchase of Russian oil, U.S.-India have convergence on the Chinese threat. The strategic convergence pierces through a foundational pillar of the U.S.-led liberal order, i.e., democracy. Irrespective of the reports calling India a ‘flawed democracy’ and ranking it as 108th on the list of electoral democracies, the U.S. support for India’s bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group and a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council shows its willingness to accommodate India for strategic purposes.

Pakistan has been vocal about its genuine apprehensions regarding India’s bid to join NSG, however, China’s stance for similar consideration for Pakistan is often seen as a counterpoise against India. In a study conducted by Kings College London, both Pakistan and India’s cases for NSG membership were considered as having a common basis. But, geopolitics and history have made the issue more complex. Hence, the continued geopolitical undercurrents over nuclear energy will further push not only the U.S. and China to the edge but also Pakistan and India to the fringes of a nuclear conflict.

While economic turmoil and nuclear energy are singular issues, the long-term competitive strategic partnership between the U.S.-India and Pakistan-China carries the potential for exacerbating geopolitical contestation within South Asia. The first and foremost repercussion of geopolitical leanings of the U.S. and China with their South Asian partners is to spiral into an arms race. With the escalation ladder between the two South Asian neighbors ascending time and again, such strategic competition can result in nuclear arms race and a destabilized balance of power. 

Furthermore, to gain strategic advantage, hedging is being used by the U.S. and China using their South Asian partners. Being termed as a “frontline” state for the U.S. against China, India has gained certain technological equipment that creates a security paradox for Pakistan and China. Resultantly, in countering the U.S. hedging, China continues to arm Pakistan with new technology and modern warfare equipment. The strategy used by China is to ensure a two-front war for India, making it difficult for them to effectively counter Chinese advances within the region.

However, the emergence of AUKUS and denial of nuclear submarines to India by the U.S. citing its domestic laws highlights its strategic limits in engaging the South Asian partner. Keeping in view India’s non-aligned history, the abstentions from UN resolutions against Russia and the continued defense ties highlight India’s trajectory of its global ambitions.

China can effectively exploit the cleavages between the U.S. and India of the recent past. On the matter of border clashes between India and China, China had warned the U.S. not to interfere in the matters. Despite the deadly border clashes, the trade volume between the two Asian giants has surged. The inability of geopolitics in affecting trade relations between the two underscores the economic interdependence. Hence, it will be least likely that India will ever blindly serve the U.S. interest within the region, which the Indian response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows.

However, it is not only China that can exploit the geopolitical limitations of India, the recent thaw between the U.S. and Pakistan over counterterrorism and defense talks signal a similar strategic move. Last year, the U.S. approved a $450 million sustenance package for Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets, which by many was considered a message to India and China. 

In such crosscutting and competing strategic environments, South Asia will face greater push and pull forces by the two great power rivals. However, the onus for strategic stability within the region lies with India and Pakistan. They should ensure that they do not engulf in an arms race and serve their strategic partners having a greater cost for regional stability.

[Photo by Glenn Fawcett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common]

Shiraz Shaikh is an Assistant Research Associate at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Pakistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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