Integrated Deterrence amidst the U.S.-China Competition and Shifting Balance of Power in South Asia

China, an emergent economic, military, and technological giant, has started challenging the U.S. hegemony and liberal international order. The U.S. views itself a legitimate and natural superpower candidate, refused to accept the emerging dynamics in the global power shift. China’s economic rise and subsequent military modernization have increased the vulnerability to the declining power of the U.S. Beijing has introduced the parallel global order by establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, developing the Belt and Road Initiative, and mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China has also expanded its influence in the global and regional multilateral institutions carrying forwarding the agenda of global peace and stability. It is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a leading multilateral institution to advance peace, security, regional connectivity, and economic interdependence. Initially, the low-profile Chinese development and expansionism were under-reported in the U.S. policy circles; however, the Obama administration realized the China challenge and introduced the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy.’ The policy was based on containment and engagement. Yet, the China policy under President Trump underwent a tremendous transformation, designating China as a threat to the U.S. hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region. He adopted the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy to contain China’s rise and initiated a trade war and economic sanctions. The incumbent President Biden introduced the ‘integrated deterrence’ to face China in the Indo-Pacific. 

Due to the increasingly competitive and complex security environment, the 2018 ‘National Defense Strategy’ recognized China as a strategic competitor and articulated the strategy to compete, deter, and win the race against China. Integrated deterrence is a new tool in the U.S. strategy to counter China based on integrated efforts across warfighting domains and the spectrum of conflict to ensure that the U.S., alongside its allies and partners, can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form or domain. The U.S. announced to reinforce deterrence and counter coercion through opposing efforts to alter territorial boundaries or undermine the rights of sovereign nations at sea. The integrated deterrence is expected to have far-reaching consequences for China and the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, this short brief aims to uncover the implications of U.S.-China geopolitical competition for South Asia’s regional balance of power which is experiencing tremendous transformation due to enhanced Indo-U.S. defense partnership.

Indo-U.S. Strategic Cooperation

The converged interests of India and the U.S. brought the two democracies together and paved the way for a new strategic partnership in 2001. The U.S. views India as a significant asset in its China containment strategy, so it has increased its defense and strategic partnership. The Defense Trade and Technology (DTTI) is a premium feature of Indo-U.S. defense cooperation. The defense trade enables both countries to defense technology, joint military exercises, and collaboration in defense research and development. The two countries have signed numerous defense agreements to cement defense cooperation further. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) enables the militaries to access each other’s facilities for refueling, replenishment, and other logistical support. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) facilitate bother partners to secure communications and information sharing. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) enhances geospatial information sharing between the two countries. 

Besides formal defense agreements, India and the United States regularly conduct joint military exercises, which include land, air, and naval components. Notable exercises include Yudh Abhyas (Army), Malabar (Naval), Cope India (Air Force), and Vajra Prahar (Special Forces). These exercises strengthen interoperability, promote mutual understanding, and enhance joint operational capabilities. The Indo-U.S. defense cooperation reached new heights through defense industry collaboration. The U.S. defense firms are actively involved in the co-production and co-development of defense equipment in India. The India-U.S. defense cooperation has been institutionalized through 2+2 ministerial dialogue involving each side’s defense and foreign affairs ministers. This ministerial dialogue has shifted cooperation to new heights and opened new vistas for collaboration and cooperation. The fourth 2+2 ministerial dialogue was arranged in April 2022.

India in the Indo-Pacific

The new-found U.S. strategy has made India a natural part of the Asia Pacific region. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 named New Delhi a net-security provider boosting its role in the regional defense arrangement. Once the U.S. realized the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific, it accelerated its containment efforts. One is QUAD, a regional grouping involving the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia. The purpose of QUAD is to limit Chinese influence and coercion in the region through integrated deterrence. The U.S. vowed to help member states to enhance defense preparation and build a strong and resilient alliance. U.S. President Joe Biden convened the first virtual meeting of QUAD members in March 2021, strongly condemning Chinese expansionism and urging the open and free Indo-Pacific, where the conduct of states will be governed through rules-based regional order. The QUAD grouping was implemented in November 2020 after convening the first ever joint naval exercise. The naval drills remained largely China-centric, employing warships, submarines, and naval fleets for rapid counterattacks and defense.

Shifting Balance of Power in South Asia

The Indo-U.S. strategic cooperation and recently integrated deterrence strategy have largely destabilized South Asia’s regional balance of power. The geopolitics of major powers have increased the vulnerability of Pakistan. The U.S. tries to persuade Pakistan to join the rules-based liberal international order and limit cooperation with China. In contrast, Beijing views Islamabad as a natural partner in its South Asia strategy primarily based on countering India’s rise.

Conversely, India has been reaping the fruits of both major powers. It has established strong defense cooperation with the U.S. accessing the military weapons, hardware, and equipment. The U.S. signed a civil nuclear deal with India in 2006, committing to transfer nuclear fuel and technology for civilian purposes and freeing Indian indigenous nuclear sources for weapons development. 

Pakistan, on the other hand, is losing the opportunity. It is facing difficulty in getting access to U.S. weaponry and American anger due to its failure in the Afghan war. The U.S. also expressed its displeasure with the Chinese economic endeavor in Pakistan. It bitterly criticized the CPEC and accused Pakistan of falling into the Chinese debt trap and violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Therefore, the emerging geopolitics of major powers in South Asia is empowering New Delhi in every domain while disempowering Pakistan in defense, economics, politics, and diplomacy.

[Photo by Sgt. Mikki Sprenkle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Mehmood Hussain is an Assistant Professor and HoD of the Department of International Relations, the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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