The India–US–China–Pakistan strategic quadrilateral

Author: Louise Merrington, ANU

Although the disputed border between China and India is often highlighted as the major sticking point in Sino–Indian relations, in reality it has remained relatively peaceful since the end of the 1962 war, and the potential for overt military conflict in the region remains minimal.

Of much greater concern is the strategic quadrilateral relationship in South Asia involving China, India, the United States and Pakistan. It has both regional and wider implications. At the heart of this matter is the India–Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, and continuing US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The relationships between these four actors are extremely complex. China’s support for Pakistan in its conflict with India is a serious and ongoing source of tension in the Sino–Indian relationship, while the US relationship with Pakistan is looking increasingly fraught even as its relationship with India improves in the wake of the 2008 civilian nuclear deal. Growing closeness between India and the US has caused some concern in China about the possibility that the US may be establishing a policy of containment or encirclement, and this concern in turn affects China’s relationship with both the US and India. Understanding this complex web of relationships is key to understanding the issues which are at the heart of China–India relations and which affect markedly how these two countries interact in the region.

China still sees its South Asian interests as firmly linked with Pakistan, a stance which is problematic not only for the Sino–Indian relationship — due to the ongoing India–Pakistan conflict — but also for the China–US relationship because of  significant US investment in Pakistan. So although US relationships with India and Pakistan are more likely the result of America pursuing its national interests than an overt attempt to contain China, the region’s volatility and its location in China’s traditional strategic backyard mean that any US attempt to befriend India or other South and Southeast Asian countries is often viewed with suspicion by the Chinese.

Both the Indian and Chinese bilateral relationships with the US feed into the India–China–Pakistan–US strategic relationship in South Asia, and consequently affect the China–India relationship. For example, it has been argued that good relations between India and the US, and also between India and China, may have a positive impact on the Pakistan issue, because the US and China are really the only countries which can exert influence over Pakistan. But all this depends on US and Chinese aims in Pakistan and the wider region. For instance, the US has turned a blind eye to Pakistani assistance being channelled to terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks) because of Washington’s agenda in Afghanistan, while China has long held its close relationship with Pakistan as integral to its interactions in South Asia, and worries that US interests there typify a greater encirclement strategy. In addition, such a volatile region can often give rise to unexpected variables. The most recent of these was the assassination of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011, which, although it provided a decisive boost for theUS, may yet have longer-term problematic consequences. The deteriorating US–Pakistan relationship could have implications for the entire region, including the possibility that Pakistan could move even closer toChina.

Pakistan is the issue which appears time and again at the heart of strategic politics in South Asia, and it is arguablyPakistan — even more than Afghanistan — which holds the key to stability in the region. The US and India have specific bilateral issues to resolve, but while Pakistan and Afghanistan remain unstable, at risk of collapse and provide a haven for terrorist groups (particularly as these pose a real and immediate threat to India), it will be difficult for the Indo–US relationship to take any great leaps forward. Matters are also complicated by the complex relationship China has with both the US and India. This issue  not only makes the Indo–US relationship more difficult by potentially leading the US to consider strategies of encirclement — to which India will never be party, despite some American beliefs to the contrary — but also directly plays a major role in the issue of instability in Pakistan and the India–Pakistan relationship through the Sino–Pakistani partnership.

Pakistan is increasingly becoming the problem child of South Asia. In some ways China’s relationship with Pakistan is similar to its relationship with North Korea, though the former is more solid. And although China will not step away from its relationship with Pakistan, it is increasingly reluctant to get trapped in the quagmire of South Asian politics, and Kashmir in particular, as its focus is increasingly on global issues, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and its own domestic problems.

What is becoming increasingly clear is just how closely the Sino–Indian relationship is linked to India–Pakistan tensions, and how, even if the Sino–Indian border dispute were to be resolved, the full normalisation of relations would be unlikely to occur while Kashmir remains an issue. The Kashmir dispute is arguably at the heart of South Asia’s problems, and until it is resolved India’s relations with its regional neighbours, including China, will suffer. It will also hinder India’s development, insofar as Delhi focuses on Kashmir and other security issues in the immediate region, rather than infrastructure, alleviating poverty and other domestic problems, or its trade and diplomatic linkages with the rest of the world. But India often seems to view the India–Pakistan and India–China relationships as separate issues, connected only by China’s support for India’s enemy, rather than as a strategic triangle, while the interdependence of the relationships is gradually being better recognised in China. Until the interconnectedness of the wider US–India–China–Pakistan relationship is fully acknowledged and acted upon, tensions in the region are likely to remain high.

Louise Merrington recently completed her PhD on India–China relations at the Department of Political and Social Change, the Australia National University

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, Ideas from India’.

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  • The real reason for tensions in the Subcontinent is the Military Industrial complex of USA, Russia and China.These three feed on the suspicion between the two South Asian neighbours and also the pathetic view of Pakistan establishment that it is equal to India in power and prestige and also in GDP. Now with USA arms lobby entering India the tensions are artificially upped in the form of water wars, paid western following media in both countries.

  • John

    The encirclement strategy is an extremely easy one for the US to pursue. China has tense relations with many Asian countries(mainly from border/territorial waters disputes)that form a circle around China. Also most of these countries are historical US allies including Japan, S. Korea, the Phillipeans, and Taiwan. All the US has to do is shore up already solid relationships and move closer to India, and there’s the circle.

  • Dileep

    The visit of PM Manmohan Singh to the US is in the middle of many serious bilateral issues such as the recent snooping incident on Indian Embassy, reported by The Hindu and the diverging policies of both countries regarding Iran, Afghan and Syria.

    Manmohan Singh will be insecure regardless to all the black cats surrounding him through out the US visit as the Mansion he is going to stay and the embassy that connects him personal calls are all under the surveillance of NIA. The 2013 US visit of Manmohan won’t be as smooth as his US visit some four years back because the situation in both countries have just flipped. Four years back India easily tackled the Economic slowdown where as America was reeling under but now Indian currency and business survive on the policies of the US and the performance of their currency. This is a wake-up call for diplomats who got lured by the US proclamation that they would support US to get permanent Membership in the Security council. Now with such heavy turbulance in both political and economic front this dream is at a far distance.